In June we are focusing on a range of qualitative and quantitative methods for collecting data online. Find the unfolding series through this link. This month you will see posts about netnography and related online research guidance from our Mentor in Residence, Dr. Robert Kozinets. See Part 1, The One Netnography Tool You Should Never Be Without: The Immersion Journal, Part 2, Post-field and Post-participation: The Post-confusing way to do Social Media Ethnography, and Part 3, Time, Data, Humanity, and the Doing of Netnography. Also see this video interview: Netnography Explained.
This is the final post in my SAGE MethodSpace series about the most essential technique innovation in contemporary netnography you may not have never heard about: the immersion journal. If you take away one essential idea about netnography and embed it in your research practice (although I hope that you will take a lot more ideas than one!), I think it should be the immersion journal.
The first two posts in the series set up the idea of the immersion journal as the worthy successor to the ethnographer’s fieldnote journal. As I stated in the last post, the immersion journal also offers a clear answer regarding the research challenge of finding the middle ground between not engaging culturally and only downloading content and engaging so much so that the researcher collected so much data that they were overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by data researcher might, paradoxically, end up producing weaker interpretive work than those who are less overwhelmed because they might end up resorting to mechanical coding methods which produce more superficial analyses.
The immersion journal, therefore, is a medium for recognizing that not all the data encountered in the researchers’ immersion experiences online should be captured in the act of doing the netnography. The researcher will scan (or, as it is called in netnography, “scout”) the different sites and pages, locations, threads, messages, and content (which can include video, podcasts, text, graphical images, artworks, and so on).
Geertz terms ethnographic work “deep hanging out”—a term that caught on. In that same sense, we might think about the ethnographically purposes search term entry and scouting work done on search engines and social media platforms as “deep surfing”.
During and performing this scouting or deep surfing, the researcher writes notes in the journal. The netnographer will write an overview of what was encountered at a particular time on a particular date. They overview in their own words what they read and on a particular platform—without saving the data in any way. This act frees the researcher from having to save and download everything that they see. However, the researcher should include clear directions and locations of the data that was encountered and reflect upon what was saved and what was not saved, and why it was either collected or not collected. Again this opens up the act of researching to focus on the experiential elements of being-in-the-network (or perhaps, more appropriately, being-in-the-network-of desire), rather than simply being focused on trying to collect massive amounts of data that later potentially overwhelm or end up directing the researcher to some more superficial and less human-centered techniques such as big data analytics or the trite use of tools like word clouds or verbal bar graphs.
The immersion journal frees up the qualitative social media researcher from becoming a human web crawler. The notion of the ethnographer as a data miner is rather a silly one. It is important today to emphasize the importance of having the human-researcher-as-instrument because we have a lot of other options. Automated surveys, AIs, algorithms in programs, and chatbots can, in some very real senses, become the researchers, leaving us with the technology-as-cultural-research-instrument, a bit of an impossibility since the point of ethnography and netnography is not to objectify but to humanize.
On a pragmatic level, here are some key points to note about immersion journals.
- My students tend to use a PowerPoint file as their immersion journal. They date each entry and provide a timestamp to record how long they were immersed in the process of doing research.
- In netnography, immersion in the process of social media research replaces the idea of emplaced immersion. The journal record this.
- Each entry offers an overview of what you did during the time that they were researching.
- These entries also include personal reflections.
- Entries also might be places where you work through some of the theories that you are considering fitting to what you observe, or that occur to you as explanations for what you observe.
- Include in the research journal only the most significant data that you find. Not everything. Screenshot it. Annotate it. Explain it. Interpret and decode it in the immersion journal.
- If you find larger sets of data you want to collect, save them in a separate file. Write about them in the immersion journal. Include where you found them, why you saved them, and how you plan to use them.
In the end, if your study did not include an immersion journal and it did not have ethnographic immersion, then it is not a netnography. It is something else, perhaps content analysis. Which is fine, but call it content analysis, don’t call it netnography.
The core of all netnographies, especially the auto-netnographies of researchers who are studying their own experience in game worlds or other virtual worlds, is going to be immersion capture in an immersion journal. Most other netnographies would go on to collect other so-called “investigative” data (archival content) and add that extra data collection onto the immersive element to create a netnography. And still others would take the next step of interacting with people in various ways such as through interviews or using techniques like a mobile netnography or a research webpage. All of these works would be considered netnography.
But at the core of all of them would be this notion of the immersed human researcher as the investigative center of the network. This immersion is what makes a netnography a netnography.
And so, in closing, I hope that this series of short posts will have illustrated for you why the immersion journal is the single most important instrument of the contemporary netnographer’s toolkit.