Postill & Pink—Social Media Ethnography

Social Media Ethnography: The Digital Researcher in a Messy Web

by John Postill and Sarah Pink

[Postill, John, and Sarah Pink. 2012. “Social Media Ethnography: The Digital Researcher in a Messy Web.” Media International Australia, Incorporating Culture and Policy, no. 145 (November).]

Points

  • great model for Internet ethnography
  • based on fieldwork both on and offline among political activists in Barcelona
  • Advances a new approach to Internet ethnography, moving away from a concept of online community, and toward concepts of routine, movement, and sociality.
    • routine (based on Postill’s fieldwork) five overlapping sub-practices
      1. catching-up— withresearch-related developments through Twitter, Facebook and face-to-face encounters and, to a lesser extent, via email, mailing lists, Google alerts, news feeds and mobile phone exchanges” (128).
      2. sharing—”The technical ease with which users habitually share news and other information conceals the fact that digital sharing is a skilled, embodied activity that the researcher must learn to perfect over time” (128).
      3. exploring—”often by following links provided in tweets. These explorations can end in a quick glance at a web page or in longer, more meandering explorations of a potential research site” (129).
      4. interacting—”a range of different forms and intensities, from an occasional ‘Like’ on Facebook to a long series of face-to-face, mobile and online encounters” (129).
      5. archiving— [tagging, bogs, public/private] raises questions about the changing nature of fieldnotes in the digital era. One intriguing question is how extensive tagging may shape the fieldwork process” (129).
    • movement—online social activity is not relegated to a single platform. Groups will interact on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Tumblr simultaneously, so following the movement of the group from one platform to the next through hashtags and hyperlinks is an important aspect in studying how social systems really work on the Internet.
    • sociality—Internet activity can not be thought of as occurring within a bounded area. This need for open edges is why Postill and Pink reject the use of “community” as a descriptor: it brings with it implications of spatial boundedness and the creation of a single social unit. Instead, they look at the “sociality” of individual actors aggregated across boundaries (platform to platform; online to IRL) to form a picture of the movement discussed above. Unlike a community, the group has no clear edges and is in constant motion.
  • BIG take away quote: “In existing literatures, a messy web has been ordered through concepts such as community, culture and network. However, in the context of doing social media ethnography, a different approach is needed. A plural concept of sociality that allows us to focus on the qualities of relatedness in online and offline relationships offers a better way of understanding how social media practices are implicated in the constitution of social groups, and the practices in which they engage together. Understanding the work of the social media ethnographer as mobile is important for gaining a sense of the shifting intensities of the social media landscape as it emerges online, but also as it is interwoven with offline activities. It is important to be able to see how the researcher’s online movement is both routine and subject to her or him being ‘carried’ through social media environments (e.g. through Twitter hashtags or Facebook threads), and becoming part of both digital and offline crowds in real, experiential ways” (132).

ethnographic place—”drawing on the work of Massey (2005) and Ingold (2008), are constituted through the emergent relations between things and processes. They are not bounded territories or groups/communities. Rather, they are clusters or intensities of things of which both localities and socialities are elements” (124).

Abstract

Social media practices and technologies are often part of how ethnographic research participants navigate their wider social, material and technological worlds, and are equally part of ethnographic practice. This creates the need to consider how emergent forms of social media-driven ethnographic practice might be understood theoretically and methodologically. In this article, we respond critically to existing literatures concerning the nature of the internet as an ethnographic site by suggesting how concepts of routine, movement and sociality enable us to understand the making of social media ethnography knowledge and places.

Annotation Summary for: Postill & Pink – Social Media Ethnography

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “we advance a new approach to understanding the practice of social media ethnography. Arguing for a critical departure from the dominant paradigms of network and community in internet research, we instead propose engaging concepts of routine, movement and sociality to enable us to understand the practices and places of social media ethnography. ”

red star stamp

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Hine has suggested that undertaking internet ethnography need not involve the ethnographer travelling physically to a field site (Hine, 2000: 43) when internet ethnography is focused around a certain media event – which Hine (2000: 50) calls an ‘Internet Event’.”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “However, parallel to Kozinets’ suggestion that ‘to study … mobile online community use, or video blogging, it might make sense to go to the countries and the people within the countries who are in some senses demonstrating the most advanced or sophisticated uses of technology’ (2010: 17),”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “‘ethnographic place’”

Page 2, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “‘ethnographic place’ ”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Such places, as we explain below, drawing on the work of Massey (2005) and Ingold (2008), are constituted through the emergent relations between things and processes. They are not bounded territories or groups/communities. Rather, they are clusters or intensities of things of which both localities and socialities are elements. ”

Page 2, Underline (Red): Content: “Massey Ingold”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “anthropological studies of social media sites, platforms and practices (e.g. Marwick and Boyd, 2011; Miller, 2011; Postill, forthcoming; Wesch, 2009; Juris, 2012).”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Social media as a research site”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The two main methods used to date are web content analysis of large data sets drawn from microblogging and other social media sites (Agichtein et al., 2008; Honeycutt and Herring, 2009; Kwak et al., 2010; Oulasvirta et al., 2010) and social network analysis (Gilbert and Karahalios, 2009; Java et al., 2007; Prieur et al., 2009).”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Such approaches constitute social media as a particular type of research site filled with texts and/or with connections between entities.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Using large data”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “sets can provide statistical overviews that offer useful backgrounds for ethnographic work. However, they are less suited to responding to research questions such as ours, which seek to understand how, why and with what consequences activists use social media.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “when methods associated with conventional ethnographic practice, such as interviews or participant observation, are engaged (Cox et al., 2008; Humphreys, 2007; Komito, 2011; Miller, 2011), they allow us to refigure social media as a fieldwork environment that is social, experiential and mobile. ”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Doing research about social media and activism entails going beyond interviewing activists about what they do to include bringing together relevant online materials and either following or actively participating in blogs, social media platforms (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), online news sites (both professional and amateur) and face-to-face events.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “‘media-related practices’), This we define as ethnography that engages with internet practices and content directly, butnot exclusively, and in our case includes social media ethnography.”

Page 3, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “‘media-related practices’),”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “defining ethnography, online and offline”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This approach neither replaces long-term immersion in a society or culture, nor aims to produce ‘classic’ ethnographic knowledge; rather, it creates deep, contextual and contingent understandings produced through intensive andcollaborative sensory, embodied engagements, often involving digital technologies in co-producing knowledge (Pink, 2009). It has elements in common with the ‘adaptive ethnography’ Hine (2000, 2009) associated with internet methods, and its emphasis on flexibility suits the need that exists when undertaking social media ethnography to work across web platforms and face-to-face situations.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “As Baym and Markham propose: ‘The Internet changes the way we understand and conduct qualitative inquiry.’ (2009: viii)”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “When Hine wrote her landmark Virtual Ethnography, she said: ‘Talking about “the Internet” encompasses electronic mail (email), the World Wide Web (WWW, Usenet newsgroups, bulletin boards, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Multi-User Domains (MUDS) and many other applications.’ (2000: 2) Hine was writing about a Web 1.0 context, different from the social media platforms on which we focus here, yet some points remain applicable.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Hine also proposed that we might understand the internet analytically (although not as an experienced reality) as having two dimensions: on the one hand, as ‘a discursively performed culture’ and on the other as ‘a cultural artefact, the technology text’ (2000: 39).”

Page 4, Underline (Magenta): Content: “s having two dimensions: on the one hand, as ‘a discursively performed culture’ and on the other as ‘a cultural artefact, the technology text’ (2000: 39). the internet”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Seeing the researcher as a ‘constructor of reality’ (2009: 5), Hine rejected the idea that an internet researcher might be able to study bounded units: ‘Ethnography of the Internet can, then, usually be about mobility between contexts of production and use, and between online and offline, and it can creatively deploy forms of engagement to look at how these sites are socially constructed and, at the same time, are social conduits’, identifying ‘online traces’ such as hyperlinks as a way to move around a field site (Hine, 2009: 11).”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Following this line of thought, we can understand the internet as a messy fieldwork environment that crosses online and offline worlds, and is connected and constituted through the ethnographer’s narrative. Below, we advance this proposal by building on Hine’s ideas in correspondence emphasis on movement in the constitution of ‘ethnographic places’.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Our second point of departure is Kozinets’ ‘netnography’ approach (2010). Kozinets underpins the method of netnography with two concepts: community and culture.”

Page 4, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “‘netnography’”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “He stresses that online communities are not simply ‘virtual’, but in many cases those who participate in them meet face to face too (2010: 15). Kozinets argues that ‘the term community appears appropriate if it is used in its most fundamental sense to refer to a group of people who share social interaction, social ties, ”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “and a common interactional format, location or “space” – albeit, in this case, a computer-mediated or virtual “cyberspace”’ (2010: 15). ”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “He suggests that: a continuum of participation exists in determining what can and cannot be considered ‘community membership’. Its boundaries are somewhat indistinct, but must be understood in terms of self-identification as a member, repeat contact, reciprocal familiarity, shared knowledge of some rituals and customs, some sense of obligation, and participation. (Kozinets, 2010: 10)”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In Pink’s version of ethnographic placemaking, the ethnographer brings together diverse things through the research process. Drawing on the spatial theory of Ingold (2007, 2008) and Massey (2005), Pink argues that ethnographic places are not bounded localities (although physical localities might be part of or associated with them), but collections of things that become intertwined (Pink, 2009). ”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “the everyday routines of digital ethnography practice”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The everyday life of the social media ethnographer involves living part of one’s life on the internet, keeping up to date with and participating and collaborating in social media discussions.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “John’s practice as a social media researcher consisted of five overlapping sub-practices or routines: catching up, sharing, exploring, interacting and archiving.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “John kept up with research-related developments through Twitter, Facebook and face-to-face encounters and, to a lesser extent, via email, mailing lists, Google alerts, news feeds and mobile phone exchanges.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The technical ease with which users habitually share news and other information conceals the fact that digital sharing is a skilled, embodied activity that the researcher must learn to perfect over time.”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “third routine activity: exploring – often by following links provided in tweets. These explorations can end in a quick glance at a web page or in longer, more meandering explorations of a potential research site – participant or initiative. Often they are brief excursions from online haunts that are followed by a return to base.”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Another key routine involves interacting with research participants.”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This can take ona range of different forms and intensities, from an occasional ‘Like’ on Facebook to a long series of face-to-face, mobile and online encounters. ”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “While strong ties and regular exchanges with key research participants are crucial, it is equally important to develop an extended set of ‘weak ties’ with other participants. These are sustained via social media platforms that facilitate ‘phatic communion’ (V. Miller, 2008)”

Page 7, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “‘phatic communion’”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Finally, there is archiving. Thesocial media ethnographer’s ‘archival hubris’ can be compared to that of free software programmers (Kelty, 2008). ”

Page 7, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “‘archival hubris’”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The rise of tagging (de Kerckhove, 2010) raises questions about the changing nature of fieldnotes in the digital era. One intriguing question is how extensive tagging may shapethe fieldwork process”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “the ease and speed with whichresearchers can nowadays store information for future use can create its own unintended problems, not least a tendency towards data accumulation at the expense of diary writing and reflection. Social media fieldworkers must find a balance between tagging and diary keeping. ”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “the routine practices of the social media ethnographer work towards the making of an ethnographic place – characterised by an intensity of links to digital materials and routine routes online. This place is both defined, as it ‘clusters’ and interweaves digital elements, and ‘open’ in that it is constituted not only through practices of gathering and accumulating, but also by sharing, linking, following, tagging and more.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “digital socialities in motion”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “As Solis (2011) puts it:”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “With over 140 million Tweets flying across Twitter every day, hashtags surfaced as a method to the madness – the ability to group conversations into an organized timeline. But what started out as a way to index conversations in Twitter has now substantially altered how people convey, relay and discover information in and out hashtag has also a form of #self-expression. Hashtags are not only part of online culture, they are defining a new era of communication on the Web and IRL (in real life). With over 140 million Tweets flying across Twitter every day, hashtags surfaced as a method to the madness – the ability to group conversations into an organized timeline. But what started out as a way to index conversations in Twitter has now substantially altered how people convey, relay and discover information in and out of the popular nichework. The ”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Social media ethnography therefore does not mean doing fieldwork in or about one particular social media platform – such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. While the latter is possible, it is complicated by the fact that most internet users constantly criss-cross a range of platforms through aggregators, search engines, hyperlinks and other devices.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “conclusion”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In existing literatures, a messy web has been ordered through concepts such as community, culture and network. However, in the context of doing social media ethnography, a differentapproach is needed. A plural concept of sociality that allows us to focus on the qualities of relatedness in online and offline relationships offers a better way of understanding how social media practices are implicated in the constitution of social groups, and the practices in which they engage together”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Understandingthe work of the social media ethnographer as mobile is important for gaining a sense of the shifting intensities of the social media landscape as it emerges online, but also as it is interwoven with offline activities. ”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “It is important to be able to see how the researcher’s online movement is both routine and subject to her or him being ‘carried’ through social media environments (e.g. through Twitter hashtags or Facebook threads), and becoming part of both digital and offline crowds in real, experiential ways.”

red star stamp

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “a new research design for social media/internet ethnography, away from community and towards sociality and movement.”

Page 11, Underline (Red): Content: “Baym, N. and Markham, A. 2009, ‘Introduction: Making Smart Choices on Shifting Ground’, in A. Markham and N. Baym (eds), Internet Inquiry, Sage, London.”

Page 11, Underline (Red): Content: “Boellstorff, T. 2008, Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.”

Page 11, Underline (Red): Content: “Hine, C. 2000, Virtual Ethnography, Sage, London.”

Page 11, Underline (Red): Content: “Hine, C. 2008, ‘Overview, Virtual Ethnography: Modes, Varieties, Affordances’, in N.G. Fielding, R.M. Lee and G. Blank (eds), Handbook of Online Research Methods, Sage, London. —— 2009, ‘Question One: How Can Internet Researchers Define the Boundaries of Their Project?’, in N. Baym and A. Markham (eds), Internet Inquiry, Sage, London.”

Page 11, Underline (Red): Content: “Hobart, M. 2010, ‘What Do We Mean by “Media Practices”?’, in B. Bräuchler and J. Postill (eds), Theorising Media and Practice, Berghahn Books, Oxford.”

Page 11, Underline (Red): Content: “Kelty, C. 2008, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software, Duke University Press, Durham, NC. Ingold, T. 2008, ‘Bindings Against Boundaries: Entanglements of Life in an Open World’, Environment and Planning A, vol. 40, pp. 1796–1810.”

Page 11, Underline (Red): Content: “Kozinets, R. 2010, Netnography, Sage, London.”

Page 12, Underline (Red): Content: “Marwick, A. and Boyd, D. 2011, ‘To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter’, Convergence, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 139–58.

Miller, D. 2000, ‘The Fame of Trinis: Websites as Traps’, Journal of Material Culture, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 5–24. —— 2011, Tales from Facebook, Polity Press, Cambridge. Miller, V. 2008, ‘New Media, Networking, and Phatic Culture’, Convergence, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 387–400”

Page 12, Underline (Red): Content: “—— 2009, Doing Sensory Ethnography, Sage, London.”

Page 12, Underline (Red): Content: “Wesch, M. 2009, ‘YouTube and You: Experiences of Self-awareness in the Context of the Collapse of the Recording Webcam’, Explorations in Media Ecology, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 19–34, http://krex.k-state.edu/dspace/handle/2097/6302.”

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