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Netnography and Digital Records: An Interview with Robert Kozinets

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Robert V. Kozinets, professor of marketing at York University in Toronto

The following is a guest post from Julia Fernandez, this year’s NDIIPP Junior Fellow. Julia has a background in American studies and working with folklife institutions and worked on a range of projects leading up to CurateCamp Digital Culture in July. This is part of a series of interviews Julia conducted to better understand the kinds of born-digital primary sources folklorists, and others interested in studying digital culture, are making use of for their scholarship.

Online communities, and their digital records, can be rich source of information, invaluable to academic researchers and to market researchers. In this installment of the Insights Interviews series, I’m delighted to talk with Robert V. Kozinets, professor of marketing at York University in Toronto and the originator of “netnography.

Julia: In your book “Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online,” you define “netnography” as a “qualitative method devised specifically to investigate the consumer behavior of cultures and communities present on the Internet.”  Can you expand a bit on that definition for us? What is it about online communities that warrants minting a new word for doing ethnographic work online? Further, how would you compare and contrast your approach to other terms like “virtual ethnography”?

Robert: It’s a great question, and one that is difficult to do justice to in a short interview. For readers who are aware of the anthropological technique of ethnography, or participant-observation, it may be fairly easy to grasp that ethnographic work can also be performed in online or social media environments. However, doing ethnographic work on the combination of digital archives and semi-real-time conversations, and much more, that is the Internet is a bit different from, say, traveling to Outer Mongolia to learn about how people live there. The online environment is technologically mediated, it is instantly archived, it is widely accessible, and it is corporately controlled and monitored in ways that face-to-face behavior is not. Netnography is simply a way to approach ethnography online, and it could just as easily be called “virtual,” “digital,” “web,” “mobile” or other kinds of ethnography. The difference, I suppose, is that netnography has been associated with particular research practices in a way that these other terms are not.

Julia: You began implementing netnography as a research method in 1995. The web has changed a good bit since you started doing this work nearly twenty years ago. How has the continued development of web applications and software changed or altered the nature of doing netnographic research? In particular, has the increased popularity of social media (Facebook, Twitter) changed work in studying online communities?

Networking, from user jalroagua on Flickr
Networking, from user jalroagua on Flickr

Robert: This is a little like asking an experimental researcher if the experiments they run are different if they are running them on children or old people, or if they are experimenting on prisoners in a prison, or students at a party. It is a tactical and operational issue. The guiding principles of netnography are exactly the same whether it is a bulletin board, a blog or Facebook. Fundamental questions of focus, data collection, immersion and participation, analysis, and research presentation are identical.

Julia: How do you suggest finding communities online outside of the relatively basic search operations offered by Google and Yahoo? What are some signs that a particular online community will be a good source for netnographic research?

Robert: There are many search tools that are available, but there is no particular need to go beyond Google or Yahoo. The two keys to netnography are finding particularly interesting and relevant data amongst the load of existing data, and paying particular attention to one’s own role and consciousness as participant in the research process. Whatever tools one chooses to work with, this is time-consuming, painstaking and rewarding work. One thing I would love search engines to be able to do is to include and tag visual, audio and audiovisual material. It would be wonderful to have a search engine that spat out results to a search and gave me, along with website, blog and forum links, a full list of links to Instagram photos, YouTube videos and iTunes podcasts.

Julia: Throughout the book, you reinforce the point that the key to generating insight in netnography is building trust. Can you unpack that a bit? What are some ethical concerns researchers should keep in mind when conducting ethnographic research?

Robert: A range of ethical concerns have been raised about the use of Internet data, many of which have proven over the years to be non-starters. Notions of informed consent can be difficult online, and ethical imperatives can be difficult in environments where the line between public and private is so unclear. However, disclosure of the researcher or the research is not always necessary–it depends always upon the context. As with any research ethics question, it is generally a question of weighing potential benefits against potential risks.

Julia: From your perspective as an ethnographer and market researcher, what kinds of online content do you think is the most critical for cultural heritage organizations to preserve for researchers of the future to study this moment in history? Collecting and preserving content isn’t your area, but I’d be interested to hear whether you think there are  particular subcultures, movements or content that aren’t getting enough attention.

Robert: I have used the Wayback Machine from time to time to look at snapshots of the Internet of the past. I also recall a recent research project in which we studied bloggers, and in which some interesting blog material was removed shortly after it was posted. It survived only in our fieldnotes, but we had not archived it. Of course, it would be nice to be able to instantly retrieve “the data that got away.” However, in my research, it is the immediate experience of the Internet which matters most.

Given the rapid spread of social media, I believe that the present holds far more information and insight that any other time in the past. There are so many archives of so many particular groups already, and those archives are, in themselves, rather revealing cultural artifacts. The ones I find the most fascinating to study are the archives that groups make of their own activities. So, to answer your last question, I suppose that, to answer a library sciences question, I would be more interested to see the archives that library science people construct about library science and how they represent themselves to themselves and to wider audiences of assumed “others” that I would about how library science people represent any other group.

Julia: Aside from what to collect, I would be curious to learn a bit more about what kinds of access you think researchers studying digital culture are going to want to have to these collections. How much of this do you think will be focused on close reading of what individual pages and sites looked like and how much on bulk analysis of materials as data?

Rob: I think researchers are hungry for everything. If you ask typical researchers what data they want, they will say everything. That is because, without a specific focus or research question, you want to keep all of your options open. Then the problem becomes what they do with all this data, and they end up with all sorts of big data methods that try to fit as much data as possible into models. My approach is a bit different, in that I am searching for individual experiences online that generate insight. This could come from masses of data, or from one page, one site, even one photograph or one video clip. I think the question of access is tied up with questions of categorizing, interpretation and ownership, and these are all interesting and complex matters that lend themselves to a lot more thought and debate. In the short- to medium-term, what is currently available on the Internet is certainly more than enough for me to work with.

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