Introducing Digital Ethnographies

It has long been clear that the Internet is home to some rather innovative communities: Daily Diapers (a community of adult babies), Vampire Freaks (the largest online community for dark culture) and My Free Implants (a social fund raising site for women wanting implants), to name just a few. However, what remains a little muddy is how best to study them. Below is an abridged introduction to digital ethnography, one possible method for the study of online communities, followed by some information for further seminal reads.

Digital ethnography, at its most rudimentary, is the study of cultures online. Depending on the specific research question, a digital ethnography may be the product of an investigation, a tool for data collection, or a hybrid of the two. Of course, as the name suggests, digital ethnography is a close relative of ethnography and there are some important ancestral links between the two. For instance, the primary objective of digital ethnography is to capture and analyze culture. Furthermore, this is achieved through immersive methods (personal and prolonged observation) and thick description (context specific and detailed, qualitative data collection). Nonetheless, there are also several important distinctions:

  • Perhaps, most obviously digital ethnography departs from traditional ethnography in that it frequently bases research on co-presence (the mediated inhabiting of a space) as opposed to co-location (the physical inhabiting of the same space). This means that a digital ethnographer is now able to virtually observe a community, which in many cases may only exist online.
  • In addition, the nature of data online is quite specific. It is often meticulously detailed, text-based, easy to access and possible to archive.
  • Finally, the virtual relationship that exists between the researcher and the researched is significantly different from the one in traditional, non-mediated ethnography. There is often an unprecedented air of anonymity associated with digital ethnography and an equal access to data from both ends.

Yet, not all digital ethnographies are alike and they are still an evolving practice. As more content and users gravitate toward mediated forms of interaction and new communication technologies become available, the scholarly understanding of digital ethnography also undergoes some shifts. Today, there are no less than 15 different names for the practice of digital ethnography (or the study of cultures online), which are outlined below:

Nonetheless, more important than noting the various names for digital ethnographies is understanding the symbiotic relationship between new types of communities online and new modes of conducting research. As these practices develop side-by-side, we will continue to push the boundary of what is considered knowledge and how it can best be obtained.

For those wanting to find out more, here are some links, which will provide you with some seminal readings on digital ethnographies:

Beaulieu, A. (2010). From co-location to co-presence: Shifts in the use of ethnography for the study of knowledge. Social Studies of Science, 40(3) 453-470.

Dicks, B., Soyinka, B., & Amanda, C. (2006). Multimodal Ethnography. Qualitative Resarch, 6(1), 77-96.

Hine, C. (2000). Virtual Ethnography. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography: Doing ethnographic research online. London: Sage Publications.

Miller, D., & Slater, D. (2000). The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. Berg.

Katerina Girginova

Katerina holds a BA in Communication Studies from The George Washington University, in Washington D.C. Upon graduation she immersed herself into the world of work at the National Geographic Channel and is a former MA in the CCT program at Georgetown University. Katerina's academic interests include innovation, intercultural communication, rhetoric and media - she enjoys good ideas and great people.