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New Media Research Methods

Online Ethnography

Also known as: webnography, netnography, cyberethnography

What is it?

Online ethnography is a method which adapts principles of traditional ethnography to the study of online cultures and communities formed through computer-mediated communications (CMC). A researcher joins a virtual community he/she wants to analyze, and systematically observes their online activities and dialogues. It is an example of a qualitative research, since it’s based on interpretation of data and, often, on discourse analysis (analyzing what is being said from a linguistic and cultural perspective, trying to reveal motive, mood, irony, humor, meaning, power structures and other social nuances). The main advantage of online enthographjy over traditional ehtnography is that traditional interactions are ephemeral, while online social interactions are often automatically saved and archived, creating permanent records.

Where to look and what to look for?

Examples of virtual communities are forums, blogs, fan pages, newsgroups, professional groups, support groups and any other websites on which social interaction takes place. A researcher observes and records conversations, posts, comments, community norms, in-jokes, commonly used or community-developed acronyms and jargon. Webnography is appropriate only where almost all interactions between group members occur online. If communities conduct some or most of their interaction offline, webnography is less appropriate as a stand-alone research method.

How to gather information?

The material is usually collected through interviews, surveys, online observations, web documents, online discussions, and e-mail questions. Some of the methods involve direct contact with Internet users, and some of them are based on participatory observation.

Participatory vs. non-participatory observation

There is an important ethical questions regarding online ethnography. Because ethnography is rooted in cultural anthropology, some scholars strongly believe that a researcher should reveal him/herself to the community and conduct the study openly. They also stress the importance of being immersed in the studied surrounding. However, if you decide to become part of the (virtual) community, then publishing of your study might be seen as a breach of trust. Always consider whether your research could impact or upset members of the virtual community. And remember that revealing yourself as a researcher would always impact or change the social surrounding and interactions in a group. There is also a question whether the social nature of the new medium is a private or public space, or a hybrid- take that into account before you “invade” it with your research.


Miriamz blog, Online ethnography for social media research and reporting. Retrieved 14.09.2012 from

Prior, D.D., Miller, L.M. (2012). Webethnography: Towards a typology for quality in research design. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF MARKET RESEARCH, volume: 54, issue: 4, pp. 503-520

Sade-Beck, L. (2004). Internet ethnography: Online and offline. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 3(2). Article 4. Retrieved 14.09.2012 from pdf/sadebeck.pdf

Skageby, J. (2012). The irony of serendipity: disruptions in social information behavior. LIBRARY HI TECH, volume: 30, issue: 2, pp.: 321- 334

Digital analytics

Also known as web analytics

What is it?

Digital Analytics is the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of Internet data for the purposes of understanding and optimizing Web usage (official definition given by Digital Analytics Association). In other words, this method is ultimately concentrated on a single aim: undestanding the online experience such that it can be approved. Data for analysis can include Web traffic, Web-based transactions, Web server performance, usability studies, user submitted information and related sources.

How does it work?

Many various vendors provide digital analytics tools ( Google Analytics, Piwik, comScore etc.). There are two main technical ways of collecting the data. The first and older method, server log file analysis, reads the logfiles in which the web server records file requests by browsers. The second method, page tagging, uses JavaScript embedded in the site page code to make image requests to a third-party analytics-dedicated server, whenever a page is rendered by a web browser or, if desired, when a mouse click occurs. Both collect data that can be processed to produce web traffic reports.

Inaccuracy risks

There are certain inaccuracy risks caused by problems with cookies which provide data for digital analytics:

• Cookie blocking happens when visitors instruct their Web browsers or instruct rewall applications to not allow cookies to be set. Usually only third-party cookies are blocked. Third-party cookies are those cookies being set by a domain other than your own. Third-party cookies are commonly used by hosted analytics vendors. Cookie blocking introduces inaccuracy in short-term metrics like visit and visitor counts because some applications simply drop visitor sessions that do not allow cookies to be set.

• Cookie deletion happens when visitors instruct their anti-spyware applications to remove third-party “tracking cookies” or when they manually delete all cookies from their Web browser for whatever reason. While some antispyware programs do not treat third-party cookies as spyware, JupiterResearch estimates that some 48 million Internet users in the United States are using anti-spyware applications that delete at least some tracking cookies and nearly 38 million people are using aggressive anti-spyware applications likely to remove the majority of these cookies. Cookie deletion introduces inaccuracy in long-term metrics like visitor status and visitor retention simply because, once the tracking cookie is deleted, in most instances the visitor is simply forgotten.

Digital analytics in marketing research

This method is widely used by businesses for conducting marketing researches. In 2009 digital analytics experts community noticed the start of revolution in the sphere: using third-generation digital analytics tools to effectively blur the lines between online and offline data—tools that bridge the gap between historical direct marketing and market research techniques and Internet generated data, affording their users unprecedented visibility into insights and opportunities.


Peterson Eric T. (2009) The Coming Revolution in Web Analytics. Retrieved 15.09.2012 from

Peterson Eric T. (2004) Web Analytics Demystified: A Marketer's Guide to Understanding How Your Web Site Affects Your Business. Celilo Group Media. Free e-book

Peterson Eric T. (2006) Web Site Analytics: Key Performance Indicators. NEWSPAPER ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA. volume: 5, number: 5. Retrieved 15.09.2012 from

Web Analytics Association Web Analytics Definitions – Draft for Public Comment 9/22/2008 Download (.pdf)

External links:

Free Content from Web Analytics Demystified (books, presentations, white papers)

Web Analytics Forum

Big Data

Also known as large data, informational management practices

What is it?

In information technology, big data is a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using current database management tools. The challenges include capture, storage, search, sharing, analysis and visualization. The trend to larger data sets is directly linked to the additional information derivable from a single large set of related data, as compared to separate smaller sets with same total amount of data, allowing correlations to be found in order to determine quality of research, spot business trends, prevent outbreaks of disease, combat crime and more.

Growing Industry

As a growing industry the practice of making sense of massive amounts of user data is growing almost as fast as the data itself. In recent years, Oracle, IBM, Microsoft and SAP have spent roughly $15 billion on buying software firms specializing in Big Data management and analysis. Some benefits of Big Data are its implicit uses as a tool to analyze digital information and allow for a lightning speed analysis of trends all across the world. Seen as the future of business, companies such as Walmart have taken to Big Data to organize and analyze details such as timing of price markdowns, product selections, weather reports, etc of each of their stores tailor-fit to a geographically specific location.

How to gather information?

The data is normally mined from social networks, online purchases, browsing history and involuntary digital details unknowingly transferred via daily real-life activities i.e. credit card payments, healthcare, etc.

Privacy Issues

Though some view Big Data as a potentially accurate tool for predicting important changes in trends in new media some privacy advocates are concerned that with the more data that is gathered about people and their daily online activities. Profiling, as dangerous to private information can be also carries with it implicit problems that have not been tackled by promoters of Big Data. As of now, the software currently available to sort and analyze the large amounts of data are not succinctly organized and could prove inaccurate in its' conclusions about a person or peoples. Big Data and its uses have not been introduced to mainstream new media politics and does not have a firm understanding from social media users.


Anderson, J. (2012). The Future of the Internet. Pew Research Center & American Life Project. Retrieved 12.07.2012 from

The Economist, (2010) Data, data, everywhere. Retrieved 10.02,2010 from

Lohr, S, (2012) Big Data's Impact in the World. Retrieved 11.02,2012 from The New York Times,

Digital methods

What is it?

Digital methods are seeking to learn from the methods built into the dominant devices online and repurpose them for social and cultural research. Digital methods offer new ways to record, communicate and preserve documents, artifacts and knowledge of the past. The challenges are to determine where the authority and authenticity of digital content is; both on the info-web as well as the social web with the tools that organize them.

How to gather information?

One must ask the following question in order to gather information about digital methods. Can the device techniques be repurposed, for example by remixing the digital objects they take as inputs? A dominant device online is Facebook. A digital method can be to use Facebook Insight in order find out why certain groups of people like/visit a certain page. This video tries to explain some of the ways in which you can employ digital methods to reach potential customers. It speaks of devices for people that are ready to use and ready to customize at any time. This way the purpose of device techniques can easily be changed for every (individual) user.


Ayers, Edward L. "The Pasts and Futures of Digital History," University of Virginia (1999)

Frow, John, 2006. The Archive under Threat. Memory, Monuments, Museums. M. Lake. Melbourne (ed.): Melbourne University Press / The Australian Academy of the Humanities, 137

Sack, Warren. 2004. What Does a Very Large-Scale Conversation Look Like? First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, eds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 239.

FastForward, uploaded 21 june 2010. What are some ways you are employing digital methods to reach your customers?

Participant Observation


Participant observation is the quintessential tool of all ethnographic research and one which is often claimed to be unique to the disciplinary practice of anthropology. It involves the ethnographer completely immersing themselves within the chosen environment of study and is considered to be the only ethnographic method that ensures holistic research results. The particular methodology involved with ethnography has adapted and changed over time, but the key tenants have essentially remained the same. However the entire practice was thrown into question when researchers began to conduct studies within a primarily online context. Both elements (participation and observation) were thrown into doubt – since we are not physically present can we actually participate in the strictest sense, and equally, since we cannot see any of the subjects can true observation take place? Therefore, as Liav Sade-Beck has argued, the “traditional definition of the participant observer cannot be applied to the description of the online researcher” (Sade-Beck 2004: 7)

Early examples of participant observation within an online context can be found in Howard Rheingold’s work on the "Virtual Community" and Sherry Turkle’s seminal book "Life on the Screen". Both Rheingold and Turkle were instrumental in laying the groundwork for a new generation of online ethnographers, both from the anthropological discipline and the wider field of New Media studies and recent years have seen a surge in such subject matter.

'Second Life'

Garcia et al (2009) suggest perhaps the best advice for any ethnographer studying a particular online community – they “should attempt to experience the online site the same way that actual participants routinely experience it” (Garcia et al., 2009: 60). A more recent example of such an attempt comes from Tom Boellstorff’s work on the online gaming community of Second Life. Whilst many online ethnographers hold back from full immersion into the group being examined Boellstorff spent nearly 3 full years in the world of Second Life. Far from remaining as an outsider, as many ethnographers do, Boellstorff became part of the world which he was studying and at times seemed to go beyond what is normally considered necessary in terms of the participating aspect of participant observation, as demonstrated by the following quote,

"Not only did I create the avatar Tom Bukowski; I shopped for clothes for my avatar in the same stores as any Second Life resident. I bought land with the help of a real estate agent and learned how to use Second Life’s building tools. I then created a home and office for my research named ‘Ethnographia’ purchasing items like textures, furnitures, and artwork"(Boellstorff, 2008 p.69)

The reflexivity involved in applying participant observation to an online context is further explored by Boellstorff who admits that it is often a method based “on vulnerability, even failure, on learning from mistakes” (Boellstorff, 2008: 72) – he references the forefather of all modern anthropological thought Bronislaw Malinowski (1922) who he suggests was equally open about his initial failings at conducting participant observation in a new and alien environment (in Malinowskis case the exotic enclaves of the Trobriand islands, whilst in Boellstorff’s the new and largely unexplored world that is Second Life).

Potential Pitfalls

• Ethics

The American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) guidelines, due to their production in 1998, do not make any specific reference to issues of conducting ethnography online. However, this problem is discipline-wide and applies to a number of new anthropological fields due to the speed at which the subject is changing. Thus the guidelines can still have use for potential Internet ethnographers. They state that any anthropologist, as an individual “must be willing to make carefully considered ethical choices and be prepared to make clear the assumptions, facts and issues on which those choices are based” (AAA Code of Ethics, 1998). Such a guideline is open to interpretation, yet its basic premise ensures that it is applicable to the issue of ‘lurking’ that has been encountered by a large number of online researchers.

• Validity

In traditional ethnographic practice, mediated through face-to-face contact “the validity” of any observations made “relies upon the breadth of observations and participations” that have taken place during the research period (Hine 2000: 22). Due to the length of stay and the continued “involved presence, it seems unlikely that informants could keep up a false sense of fabricated identity” (Hine 2000: 22). Yet in an online setting the ethnographer’s advantage is removed. The “validity of the data” (Wittel 2000: 6) can always be questioned. Thus many critics of both partial and entirely online ethnography have claimed that the academic authority of such work is reduced – a controversial claim that has been strongly refuted by many of online ethnography’s proponents.

• The field

In classic ethnography, such as that carried out by Malinowski, it is relatively straightforward to distinguish between when you are in the field and when you are not. Yet this entrance can be more difficult to define in the digital world. Hine offers a potential alternative formulation of what it means to ‘arrive’ at one’s digital field site. As physical travel is obviously lacking Hine says that authors instead choose to focus on “the ways in which they negotiated access, observed interactions and communicated with participants” (Hine 2000, p.46) upon their first arrival to their location of study. Through such a method the problem of entering and leaving the field is essentially removed in her view.
Rene Lysloff, as part of her ethnography of an online music community (2003) raises some concerns that she had whilst carrying out her research and makes comparisons between her experiences of the online world, and previous ethnographic experiences on the island of Java. She contrasts her spending “long periods of solitary work in front of a computer monitor” with the “visceral emotions and vivid imagery” she recalled from Java (Lysloff, 2003: 2). As she never actually left her position in front of the screen at any point during her work, choosing to avoid making any real world contact, Lysloff began to question “whether what I was doing really was fieldwork because I never had to go anywhere physically, never had to make demands on my body or endure the tangible hazards that field researchers routinely face” (Lysloff, 2003 p.2).


American Anthropological Association (1998) Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Retrieved from:

Boellstorff T. (2008), Coming of Age in Second Life; An anthropologists explores the Virtually Human, Princeton University Press

Garcia A., Standlee A., Bechkoff J., & Cui Y., (2009), Ethnographic Approaches to the Internet and Computer-Mediated Communication, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 38:52

Hine C. (2000), Virtual Ethnography, London: Sage Publications

Lysloff R. (2003), Musical Community on the Internet: An On-line Ethnography, Cultural Anthropology 18:2

Rheingold H. (1992) A Slice of Life in my Virtual Community, Retrieved from:

Rheingold H. (1994), The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, MIT Press

Sade-Beck L. (2004), Internet Ethnography: Online and Offline, International Journal of Qualitative Methods 3:2

Turkle S. (1995), Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, New York: Simon & Schuster
Topic revision: r1 - 14 Sep 2013, CarolinGerlitz
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