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Netnography made SIMPLE | What, how and why

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Netnography is a contemporary and extremely useful research method. As more and more of us are turning to the Internet to share our experiences, views and opinions, researchers are provided with an easily accessible way of collecting data.

Whether you are investigating consumer holiday preferences, teenage fashion or depression in postpartum women, there is a wealth of data available to us online. From online forums to social media to blogs, netnography provides us with many exciting opportunities for research.

But what exactly is netnography? And how do you undertake netnography as a research method? In this article, I will explain all….

What is netnography?

To put it simply, netnography is a form of ethnography, whereby the data is located on the Internet.

We live our lives (or very much of) online these days. I have more friends online than I do in ‘physical’ life. I discuss work opportunities almost entirely online now. Since COVID and the resounding growth of the shut-in economy, I interact with my family online, teach my students online and attend conferences online.

So, it surely makes sense that we use the Internet to undertake our research too?

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Of course, we have used the Internet for many aspects of our research for a long time. Data analysis techniques and literature reviews are often undertaken using Internet programmes and software, for example. But collecting our data online? Well this isn’t quite so common…

To be honest, I don’t understand why netnography isn’t more common. To me, it seems absolutely logical that we use valuable data that is there to be used on the Internet. It’s (usually) free and it’s readily accessible. I analysed blogs in my PhD research on TEFL tourism and it was soooo much easier than interviewing people or sending out surveys!

OK, so netnography isn’t perfect, but what research method is? What I am trying to say is that there is a wealth of valuable data online that is just waiting to be exploited….

Netnography was coined by Robert Kozinet back in the 1990s, when the Internet was far inferior to what it is now. And it wasn’t until we reached the 2000s that it really started to gain any gravitas.

According to Kozinets (2002, p62), netnography was first defined as;

 ‘A new research methodology that adapts ethnographic research techniques to study the cultures and communities that are emerging through computer-mediated communications’ 

Since his preliminary writings however, Kozinets has moved towards a more detailed, justificatory approach, most recently (re)defining netnography as;

A specific set of related data collection, analysis, ethical and representational research practices, where a significant amount of the data collected and participant-observational research conducted originates in and manifests through the data shared freely on the Internet, including mobile applications.’ (Kozinets, 2015 p80)

From ethnography to netnography…

OK, so in order to understand the term netnography, we must first comprehend what ethnography is….

Ethnography is a form of anthropological research. It is research about people.

Ethnographers study people’s everyday lives and cultures. Ethnography allows us to study beliefs, values and behaviours. A form of qualitative research, it helps us to understand.

Ethnographic research can be undertaken in different ways, such as:

  • Interviews
  • Participant observation
  • Surveys

Netnography is essentially an extension of ethnography. It is the examination of people online.

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One of the major limitations of traditional ethnography is that it is subject to geographical boundaries (i.e. we can’t adequately observe someone who on the other side of the world).

Modern day technologies however, have provided ethnographic researchers with an entirely new research realm! When examining people online, geography is no longer a problem. This opens the researcher up to many, many exciting opportunities!

Research that is undertaken online essentially extends the traditional notions of ethnographic study. It moves ethnography from the observation of co-located, face-to-face interactions, to technologically mediated interactions in online networks and communities (Kozinets, 2010). 

Examples of netnographic research methods

Netnography can be undertaken in a number of different ways.

OK, so we now understand that netnography is the examination of people on the Internet. But exactly how do we do this?

Well, there are many ways that netnography can be conducted. And this is likely to increase as we utilise the Internet more and more in our day-to-day lives. Some examples of research methods that use netnography are:

  • Blog analysis
  • Tweet analysis
  • Facebook analysis
  • Pinterest analysis
  • Snapchat analysis
  • WeChat analysis
  • Instagram analysis
  • YouTube analysis
  • Examination of behaviour in online forums e.g. Trip Advisor or the Professional Pilot Rumour Network
  • Analysis of online teaching and student responses
  • Analysis of online conferences/webinars etc
  • Analysis of group interactions using video call software e.g. a choir singing via Zoom or a counselling session conducted via Microsoft Teams

There are many contexts in which netnography can be particularly useful.

Lets take airline recruitment as an example. There are many aspiring Cabin Crew who use the online forum as a valuable source of information. Here people discuss interviews, industry developments and ask a wide range of questions about working in the aviation industry and becoming Cabin Crew. If an airline wanted to to know more about the people who aspire to work for them, this would be a great place to look!

Another example could be a tourist resort that wants to appeal to families. There are many groups on social media platforms, such as Facebook, where people discuss this topic. For example, the group Club Bebe Voyage is filled with parents discussing the best travels cots or tips for travelling whilst bottle feeding etc. If the tourist resort wants to understand how to better please their tourists, assessing the content of this group may prove to be extremely beneficial.

Netnography can be ‘pure’ if the research is conducted entirely online. Or it can be blended with traditional ethnographic, by combining face-to-face interaction with online analysis.

There are different types of netnography, ranging from blended to pure.

The growth of netnographic research

Whilst the term netnography remains unknown by many, it has gained significant gravitas in recent years. This is because the Internet and online social networking have become an integral part of society.

As a result of the importance and reliance placed on online presence, researchers have begun to turn to Internet sources, such as blogs or social media networks, as a valuable materials of data collection. This has been recognised in the research methods literature too (e.g. Carson and Schmallegger, 2008; Hookway, 2008; Punch, 2014).

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Netnography can be undertaken through analysis of a number of online means including Facebook updates, tweets, recommendations on Trip Advisor, discussions on specialised online forums and blogs.

These online means fall within the realms of what is collectively known as Web 2.0. This is seen as the second stage of Internet development, whereby generators have stepped away from traditional statically designed web pages, towards user generated content (UGC) and peer to peer applications.

In parallel with the progressive societal movement away from traditional face-to-face interaction and towards a virtual communicative era, netnography has grown substantially in recent years. This growth is predicted to continue into the near future.

The value of netnography in research

Netnography is one of the most important research tools we have today.

Whilst many researchers may not yet feel entirely comfortable with this form of online data collection, Generation Y have grown up in a technologically mediated world. Therefore, it makes sense that the next generation of Internet-savvy researchers will capitalise on this valuable type of research and take it to new levels. I expect to see a lot more netnographic research conducted in the next ten or twenty years than has ever been done before.

Understanding online behaviour and the online environment is useful to many people. Whether it is used as an insight into consumer preferences, behaviour or motivations, there is a wealth of data that can be used to enrich businesses and public services around the world.

Netnography provides rich and valuable data in an infinite range of contexts and situations the world over.

Advantages of using netnography as a research method

There are lots of advantages of using netnography as a research method. These include:

  • There is a high scope of potential valuable data
  • It can overcome geographical limitations
  • Data is naturally-occurring
  • There is the opportunity to discover unexpected findings
  • Data may be available online that wouldn’t be unearthed in a face-to-face context
  • It is contemporary

According to Kozinet (2015), netnography faithfully exports anthropology’s set of ontological, epistemological and axiological commitments to the study of social experiences within an Internet context. In other words, you get all of the benefits of using qualitative ethnographic research, but in an online environment.

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Blichfeldt and Marabese (2014) note that netnographic research is unique in that it is neither observational of a life lived, nor told in a research situation, but is instead posted online. Therefore, it can provide research scope that traditional ethnography cannot. For example, many people feel confident to express their feelings more openly when they are behind a screen than they would in a face-to-face context.

Netnography also allows us to overcome geographical boundaries.

Do you live in the UK but want to research people in Indonesia? No problem. Want to study people in Australia from Argentina? Easy.

Whereas traditional ethnography may limit the researcher to a small number of locations, netnography allows for these boundaries to be overcome.

Disadvantages of using netnography as a research method

There are also some disadvantages of using netnography as a research method. Disadvantages include:

  • It may not be entirely ‘holistic’
  • Researchers may not be familiar with online platforms
  • Data collection and analysis may be time-consuming
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Some scholars have however questioned the innate nature of netnography by definition, specifically its correlations with ethnographic fieldwork.

It is suggested that rather than being an extension of ethnography, netnographic research undermines the central tenets of ‘good’ ethnography. Netnography can be argued to lack ‘holism’, reflexivity and contextual sensitivity. Hine (2000) believes that netnography is ‘wholeheartedly partial’ because it lacks context.

In fact, Blichfeldt and Marabese (2014) argue that netnography should not be aligned with ethnography. Instead it is more in line with traditional content or discourse analysis. They emphasise that there are two fundamental acts in play here; ‘being’ and ‘communicating’. They suggest that rather than netnography facilitating the examination of ‘tourist-being’, researchers are instead exposed to the act of communicating about ‘being’.

Despite these arguments posing some valid questions regarding the ethnographic identity within Internet research, it can be argued that a de facto perfect ethnography does not exist, neither within nor outside of the Internet sphere.

In fact, one can question whether arguments such as this are progressing at a pace fast enough to keep up with the constantly and rapidly evolving technological and social developments! The technological world is changing so quickly that there is a real risk that theorists and tests may not keep up the pace…

Further reading

Netnography is a fascinating subject. I am pretty confident that we will be seeing this research approach a lot more in the coming years as more people realise its value. If netnography is something that you are researching or using for your own research, then I strongly recommend the following texts:

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