Time, Data, Humanity, and the Doing of Netnography—Part 3 of 4 posts

Categories: Contemporary Issues, Data Collection, Online Research, Research, Research Design, Research Skills

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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, and Part 2, Post-field and Post-participation: The Post-confusing way to do Social Media Ethnography

In the prior two posts for this SAGE MethodSpace series, I have been developing the idea that an immersion journal is an essential technical innovation in netnography that allows you to address some of the challenges of ethnographic engagement while staying attuned to the realities of conducting qualitative research using contemporary computers and mobile phones, the archives of social media data and information and the technological affordances of contemporary communication platforms and devices. Prior researchers practicing digital and virtual ethnography offer answers to the immersion problem ranging from imagining people at home on their computers or phones to maintaining a more distanced observational stance.

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In netnography, the answer to the question of immersion is directly related to the anthropological tradition of keeping careful fieldnotes. But, in netnography, the notion of the immersion journal is freed of the notion of the field. There is no field behind the screen, not any more, in netnography.

And, without a research field, the fieldnotes become a journaling and chronicling of the ongoing immersion of the digital researcher in particular communications, information, content, and data. What this means in a practical sense is that netnography is conducted in fits and starts. The netnographic researcher will, during the practice of netnography, dip in and out of the connective media in the same way that they dip in and out of their own social media communications in the rest of their lives. These research engagements are purposeful (just as their personal uses of connective media are). But the purpose is research.

These online searches, these downloading and communicating activities are directed and they are disciplined by methods, theories, and research areas and interests. In this, they are different in many ways from the types of engagement that people engage in with social media in the day-to-day events of their lives. But they are also similar in that the researcher should be engaged in the. The netnographer should be engaged intellectually in the content. They should be engaged emotionally and socially in the people and events that they are learning about, whether through TikTok and YouTube videos, Pinterest pins, LinkedIn posts, or Tumblr blogs. They should be engaged temporally in the ongoing reading and exploration of topics, personalities, people, news, and content as it flows through the sociocultural system of the social media platforms that are being used. Netnography is not about downloading and coding content. It unfolds in human time as a process of reading and reflecting on communications, their cultural connections and connotations.

There is a lot of confusion about how much data to collect in online research. The answer in netnography is not so much. Not so much that you—and, by you, I mean your research team, which can be as big or as small as you like—can not read it. Not so much that you can’t handle it in the same human way that you engage with social media in your personal and professional life.

The immersion journal is intended to capture the ongoing process of the researcher engaging purposefully with social media which can be both archival (a cultural artefact) as well as a living modality of connection and communication (a context in which culture occurs and through which it is borne).

This kind of search and find surfing or reach out and contact activity can take place every day. It might take place a few times a week, or only once a week. However, the more that the researcher engages in the social media research activity, obviously, the better. Prolonged engagement in ethnography involved a rather different time span, a different commitment to embodied social presence. And yet, immersion in netnography by engaging with social media data sites and communication for two or three hours three or four times a week may add up over a few months to a related feeling of cultural familiarity and involvement.

Key in this process is a very human way of experiencing time. Netnography, like ethnography, takes place over a particular span of time . Temporal authenticity requires engaging in real-time with the messages and flow of content and information as it is experienced by the other people who are using it to help direct and inform their everyday lives and decisions.

However, because of data overload, it is always tempting for the researcher to try to collect more data than is actually needed, or even than can be handled while still maintaining a human touch with the cultural reality. Data overload in netnography leads to superficial cultural analysis. But the goal, instead, is depth.

And so the immersion journal became an answer to the problem of how to find the middle ground between, on the one hand, not engaging culturally and only downloading content and, on the other, engaging to the extent that the researcher collects so much data that they are overwhelmed.

For the final details, and specific guidelines about the immersion journal, what it is, and how to use it, please read the next blog post in this series on SAGE MethodSpace.

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