Hine—Virtual Ethnography: Modes, Varieties, Affordances

Virtual Ethnography: Modes, Varieties, Affordances

by Christine Hine

[Hine, Christine. 2008. “Virtual Ethnography: Modes, Varieties, Affordances.” The SAGE Handbook of Online Research Methods, 257–70.]


  • Great overview of the field of digital/virtual ethnography from nascence to 2008:
    • Gibson 84, Rheingold 93, Baym 94, Correll 95, Reid 94, Markham 98, Silver 00, Kendall 02, Boellstorff 06, boyd & Heer 06, etc
  • outlines three overlapping best practices
    1. participant observation
      • Much like traditional ethnography a digital ethnographer must actively participate in online activities, which implies a particular type of reflexivity in the case of the digital study:
      • “The use of the same medium to interact with subjects as forms the topic of the research places a particular emphasis on reflexivity: as Hine (2000: 65) argues, virtual ethnography is ‘ethnography in, of and through the virtual'” (262).
    2. presence
      • Lurking is easy online, and can generate positive results, but can not be taken as ethnography itself. The experience of the medium itself is a part of the participant aspect of the study:
      • “Even an asynchronous message board has its own version of ‘real time’ … an ethnographer who simply lurked without ever participating would miss the experiential knowledge that comes from feeling what it is like to post a message and wait to see if it will ever receive a reply” (262-63).
    3. skill
      • A certain amount of skill navigating the medium is necessary to interact with interlocutors adequately, not unlike learning the local language. This is especially true when researching in game worlds:
      • “Some naivety with the technology in question can be an asset in terms of questioning the taken-for-granted, but this can be an epistemological luxury when simply interacting with people and keeping up with the pace of game play requires an almost instinctive familiarity with game controls” (263).
  • issues of authenticity, trust, and ethics
    1. there is no real way of proving who anyone is when interacting online, however, is this really that different offline?
    2. Sometimes the onus is on the researcher to prove their legitimacy
      •  university email addresses and personal websites always help here
    3. ethical guidelines should be followed to IRB standards just like an offline study, with added levels of protection
      • Since online content (including text-based social interaction) is mostly searchable, anonymity becomes even more important


This chapter begins with a review of the development of virtual ethnography as applied to online settings. The idea of the online community is explored, focusing on the involvement of virtual ethnography in establishing the existence of rich and complex online social formations. The next section then focuses on some of the lessons learnt from these experiences, looking at some emergent practices of online ethnography and the dilemmas that online ethnographers have faced. Specific issues include ethnographic presence in online settings, questions of authenticity and trust, the ethics of online ethnography, and the definition of field sites in relation to the online/offline boundary. A concluding section notes the relationship of virtual ethnography with other ethnographic traditions, questioning the extent to which there is any radical methodological innovation in the emerging modes of virtual ethnography

Annotation Summary for: Hine – virtual ethnographies

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Virtual Ethnography: Modes, Varieties, Affordances Christine Hine”

Page 1, Typewriter (Red): Comment: 2008

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Early applications ofethnography to online settings focused on demonstrating just how rich and sociallypatterned Internet-based interactions could be. This form of ethnography was influential in establishing the idea of online community, anew kind of social formation enabled through Internet interactions and existing independent of physical space. ”

Page 1, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “online community,”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “INTRODUCTION Virtual ethnography transfers the ethno-graphic tradition of the researcher as an e1nbodied research instru1nenl to the social spaces of the Inte1nel.”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Ethnographersin online settings have also found that the 1nodel of the online con11nunity fails to do justice to the full spectrun1 of Internet social interactions. ”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “More recently virtual ethnography has continued to c1nphnsisc the”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “social reality of the Internet, bul has begunto explore the complex connections bet \Veenonline and offiine social spaces.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” RhL·ingold ( 1993: J) offered one of the first descriptions of \.Vhat it \vould take for on line interactions to L’OUnt as con11nuni fie:..: ”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “People 1n virtual communities use words on screeris to exchange pleasantries and argue, engage 1111r1tei-lectual discourse. conduct commerce, exchar1qe knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstonn, gossip, feud, fall 1n love. find f11ends and lose them, play games, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk. People 1n virtual comrnunities do just about everything people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind You can’t kiss anybody and nobody can punch you in the nose, but a lot can happen within those boundaries. ”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “ETHNOGRAPHY OF ONLINE COMMUNITIES”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The idea that Internetinteractions could give rise to novel social spaces owed tnuch to science fiction writers such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. These authors articulated a notion of con1pucer networks as a forn1 of social space, and ccnnputer-n1ediatcd cornn1unication as a way of being as 1nuch as a n1ediun1 for inter-action. ”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The first studies to describe the111scl vcs as cthnographies of online co1n1nunities began to appear in the mid- l 990s.”

Page 2, Underline (Red): Content: “Nancy Bayn1”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Nancy Bayn1 describing her studies of a discussion group used by soap opera fans (Baym, 1995). The group \Vas facilitated by lJsenct,”

Page 2, Underline (Red): Content: “Gibson’s Neurotnnncer Stephenson, Snol\.-‘ Crash”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” Althoughthe technologies that they described were not yet in existence, these fictional visions helped to fuel both a generation of computerscientists aiming to realise then1 and a swathe of comtnentators ain1ing to exploretheir social i1nplications. ”

Page 2, Underline (Red): Content: “Rheingold”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “She collected n1cssages and subjected the1n to atextual analysis and

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “pioneeringstudies, such as Correll’s ( 1995) ethnography of an 9nl_ine lesbian cafe on a bulletin board and Reid’s (1994) study in a form oftext-based virtual reality environment known as a MUD. ”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Markham (1998) added to the developmentof online ethnography a particular focus on reflexivity, by examining more closely what the experience of going online actually entailed.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Jn virtual ethnography the travel to a field site is itself virtual, consisting of ·experientialrather than physical displacement’ (Hine,2000: 45). ”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Baym’s study has been cited many timesas an exemplar of the ethnographic approachto studying the Internet ”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” There have been debates about whether the tenn ‘con1munity’ can fairly be applied to social fonnations that exist wholly online, and about adjustments to our understanding ofthe term that this new usage 1night entail (Jones, l 995b ). ”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The ‘reduced social cues’ model of Sproulland Kiesler (1986) had been particularlyinfluential in suggesting that visual anonymity would have disinhibiting effects, tending to equalise social hierarchies but also niakingaggressive behaviour 1nore likely. ”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The SIDE tnodel (social identity, de-individuation”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “effects) of Lea and Spears ( 199 I) 111oved froin co111paring co1npute1 Hlediate

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “‘I’hc c1nergencc of social networking sitessuch as Facebook, 1\1yspace and Bebo has also provided the occasion for adaptationsof ethnographic enquiry tu suit, and to 1nake evident, the crnergent social forma-tions that they occasion (boyd and Heer, 2006). ”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This focus on the social reality of onlinecxrericnces tended to have the side effect of e1nphasising the significance of the onlinc as a social sphere in its own right. This \VCJ)’ of thinking is in line with the early \\’ave of cyberculture studies (Silver, 2000), \Vhich celebrated the possibility of cyberspace as a new social do1nain.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” the focus of 1nany of the initial online ethnographies was, however, very 1nuch on the integrity of the onlinesocial fonnation, and this ethos has often infonned more recent studies. ”


Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Participant observation, presence and skill”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” In some settings the conditionsof entry will be so strictly defined that as a newcomer and outsider an ethnographer has little chance of joining as an etTective participant, and they will have lo confine themselves to being, at best, a tolerated and accepted observer. ”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Beaulieu (2004) documents key concerns from some commentators that lurking should not be taken as ethnography in itself, since to lurk implies a lack of engagement and ability to develop the in-depth understanding from the inside that ethnography requires.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Nonetheless, it is clear from a survey of the literature that the term ‘ethnography’ is sometimes being used in senses which stretch the notion of immersive learning to the limits and which rely, rather, on collecting a corpus of messages, or on observing interactions without making any attempt to interact with members.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Lurking is, however, a useful part of the virtual ethnographer’s repertoire when it mirrors the practices ofordinary members of a group, and where it allows for a period of cultural familiarisation in order to facilitate a relatively s1nooth entry into active participation. ”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The use of the same medium to interact with subjects as forms the topic of the research places a particular emphasis on reflexivity: as Hine (2000: 65) argues, virtual ethnography is ‘ethnography in, of and through the virtual’.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Even an asynchronous 111cs- sage board has its own version of ‘real tin1e ·. as the rhythm of changing activity levelsacross days, weeks and months, and the spee

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Here I will focus on the epistemological challenge which lurking as an ethnographic strategy poses.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “an ethnographerwho simply lurked without ever participating would miss the experiential knowledge that”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “comes from feeling what it is like to post a message and wait to see-if it will ever receive a reply.”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Authenticity and trust”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Eachnew environment will require a certain amount of learning from the ethnographerin order to be meaningfully present. Online gaming as an ethnographic field site can, in particular, require that the ethnographerdevelop an appropriate game character with sufficient in-game skills to enable interaction with research subjects. ”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Some naivety with the technology in question can be an asset in terms of questioning the taken-for-granted, but this can be an epistemological luxury when simply interacting with people and keeping up with the pace of game play requires an almost instinctive familiarity with game controls.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “accounts of cUiture. ·The data·’ upon which we build an ethnography is, according to Rabinow ( 1977), doubly mediated through both the ethnographer’s presence – which fonns the occasion for the production ofaccounts – and the efforts of infonnants to produce the kind of accounts we ask ofthem.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Jn an ethnography there is always potential for deceit, and yet a variety of occasions for building trust in what interviewees say occur in different situations and through different media.”

Page 8, Underline (Red): Content: “Rabinow ( 1977),”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “researchingon line is an opportunity to examine and mayberethink what it is that we mean by ‘real’and ‘authentic’ in relation to ethnography. She argues that we need to reconsiderthe automatic link that is sometimes made between embodiment and authenticity.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The counter-side to the question of the authenticity of online interactions as research material is thus the need for the ethnographer to be trusted by informants.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” Rutter andSmith (2005) foun\I that their presence in the online setting was challenged by someparticipants. Here trust was re-establishedthrough guarantees from some online group members who had met Rutter and Smithofftine, and felt able to vouch for them. ”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The idea of ethnography as a textual construction of reality (Cliffordand Marcus, 1986) has already brought intoquestion aspirations to produce authentic ”

Page 8, Underline (Red): Content: “(Clifford and Marcus, 1986)”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “It can be importarlt ·for on1ine researchers to have informative web pages and to offeralternative means for informants to check out their identities and affiliations.”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Ethics in online ethnography”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” There have been some chal-lenges to the applicability of the human sub-jects model to all online research (for exampleBassett and O’Riordan, 2002; White, 2002), particularly where research entails discourse analysis (Herring, 1996). These objections tend, however, to focus on research which is essentially passive, involving collection by the researcher of a pre-existing corpus of data. ”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Active participation by a researcher tends to be taken as requiring openness about the research and the opportunity for potential informants to choose to be excluded.”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Israeli, 1999). Even where participants havealready chosen pseudonyms by which they are known online, these are often changedagain by ethnographers sensitive to the need to protect confidentiality between inforn111nts and other online interlocutors ”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The very puhlic andsearchable nature of the Internet breaksdown the compartmentalisations upon whichmany of our ethical practices habitually rely. ”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Ruhleder (2000) argues that virtual and real are not separate environ- 1nents, but that the two overlap and interact with one another,”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Wittel t2000) argues that ethnographic understanding of the Internet often requires a 1noven1ent between 1nultiple field sites. 111any of \Vhich n1ay be offline.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Novel networked field spaces”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “relevant sitesfor understanding onlinc interactions are not necessarily to be found online. In particular, Miller and Slater (2000) argued that an ethnographic approach to the Internet need not begin with an assumption that there was such a thing as the virtual. In their ethnography of the Internet in Trinidad they explored how Trinidadians made the Internet their o\vn. ”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “A networked or connective approach to virtual ethnography can allow researchers to explore the ways in which sites are createdand made meaningful, and the practices which sustain networking as a meaningful thing to do in particular settings”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” Constable’s (2003) ethnography of the phenomenon known as ‘mail orderbrides’ travelled between various online and offtine sites exploring the ways in which relationships were created and sustained, and looking for the diverse contexts which helped to make these relationships meaningful for those participating in them. ”


Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “By and large. virtual ethnography has re1nainc

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “it has beco1ne clear to anthropologists that fields are as much the construct of the ethnographer as they are pre-existing entities (Gupta and Ferguson, 1997;”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Thecreative approach to field sites that has resulted from some attempts to engage withthe virtual could be more widely deployed. Virtual ethnographers also have the potential to stimulate broader discussion of the nuances of effective presence and the epistemological pay-off of various forms of engagement.”

Page 12, Underline (Red): Content: “Boellstorff, T. (2006) ‘A ludicrous discipline’ Ethnogra- phy and game studies’, Games and Culture, 1 (1): 29-35.”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “It remains to be seen whether virtualethnography will endure as a marked categoryof ethnographic methodology, or will be sub-sumed into the broader project of maintaining ethnography as an appropriate methodology for documenting the complexities of contem-porary culture.”

Page 12, Underline (Red): Content: “boyd, d. and Heer, J. (2006) ‘Profiles as conversation: networked identity performance on f-riendster’ Hawai’i International Conference on Systern Science; (HICSS-39), Persistent Conversation Track. January 4-7, 2006., Kauai, HI: IEEE Computer Society. ”

Page 12, Underline (Red): Content: “Clifford, J. and Marcus, G.E. (eds) (1986) WritingCulture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. ”

Page 12, Underline (Red): Content: “Constable, N. (2003) Romance on a Global Stage: Pen Pals, Virtual Ethnography and ‘Mail Order’ Mamages. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.”

Page 12, Underline (Red): Content: “Correll, S. (1995) ‘An ethnography of an electronic bar: the lesbian cafe’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 24 (3): 270-98.”

Page 12, Underline (Red): Content: “Baym, N. (1995) ‘The emergence of community in computer-mediated communication’. In 5. Jones (ed.) Cybersociety. pp. 138-63. ”

Page 12, Underline (Red): Content: “Beaulieu, A. (2004) ‘Mediating ethnography: objectivity and the making of ethnographies of the Internet’, Soctal Epistemology, 18 (2-3): 139-63. ”

Page 12, Underline (Red): Content: “Gibson, W. {1984) Neuromancer. New l’l,.k: ( ·tv i Books.”

Page 13, Underline (Red): Content: “Gupta, A. and Ferguson, J. (eds) (1997) Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.”

Page 13, Underline (Red): Content: “Markham, A. (1998) Life Online: Research1i1g Real Experience 1i1 Virtual Space. Walnut Creek, CA: ”

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Page 13, Underline (Red): Content: “Miller, D. and Slater, D. (2000) The Internet. An Ethnographic Approach. Oxford: Berg. ”

Page 13, Underline (Red): Content: “Jones, S.G. (1995b) ‘Understanding community in the information age’. In S.G. Jones (ed.) Cybersociety. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. pp. 10-35. Jones, S.G. (ed.) (1995a) Mediated Communication and Community. Thousand Qa ks, CA: Sage. Kendall, L. (2002) Hanging Out 1n the Virtual Pub. Masculinities and Relationships Online. Berkeley: University of California Press.”

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Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Ruhleder, K. (2000) ‘The virtual ethnographer: field· work in distributed electronic environments’, field Methods, 12 (1): 3-17.”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “Rutter, J. and Smith, G.W.H. (2005) ‘Ethnographic presence in a nebulous setting’. In C. Hine {ed.) Virtual Methods: Issues in Social Research on •he Internet. Oxford: Berg. pp. 81-92. ”

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