Ethnographies in Online Environments


This entry begins by outlining the evolution of ethnographic approaches to the Internet, reviewing the methodological challenges inherent in transferring ethnography’s focus on participant observation to online interactions. It is argued that ethnography continues to make a significant contribution to the understanding of the Internet through its in-depth focus on lived experience, even in the face of emerging big data approaches that promise larger scale overviews of social activity. Ethnography in online spaces brings with it challenges in achieving effective presence in the field, making judgements about authenticity, and acting ethically in relation to participants. As the Internet has developed, a complex and interconnected array of social media platforms and other online spaces has emerged. Ethnographers have adapted to this complexity, and to the increasing embedding of online activities into everyday life, by developing research designs that move beyond individual online spaces and combine offline and online field sites within a single research design. Mixed-methods designs have also emerged, combining the in-depth immersion of an ethnographic approach with a form of quantitative big data approach to map patterns and situate detailed observations. Autoethnographic approaches have also become popular as a means to reflect on the experience of inhabiting online space and moving between different modes of interaction. The entry concludes with a review of some challenges on the horizon for ethnography applied to a digital environment, including proprietary ownership of online platforms and the emergence of the Internet of Things.

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