Internet Ethnography: The Past, the Present and the Future
At the beginning of the 20th century, an anthropologist travelled to a distant location in a foreign country to observe, study and analyse different cultural behaviours. This was a fairly new type of fieldwork, since previously anthropologists had not travelled themselves, but had read accounts and stories written by missionaries and other travellers from the comfort of their armchairs. Now, however, anthropologists observed in situ and learned a new language or used a translator during the course of their ethnographic fieldwork. They transcribed field notes and interviews by hand, maybe taking some photographs or doing sketches of their surroundings and the people they observed. They used their bodies, eyes and minds to understand why people do what they do. They spent several months, often even years, in a foreign country, only to return home to publish an ethnography about that location and the people living there. Today, the story is a little bit different.
Today, an ethnographer can open her or his portable computer anywhere that a (wireless) internet connection exists and enter a realm known as the internet — even from the comfort of an armchair. Such ethnographers engage in several social networks, observing behaviour, interactions and even various cultures within those digital surroundings. They collect and analyse digitalised data with the aid of different technologies, programs and applications. They can also use devices other than a computer, such as a smartphone — which is also usually connected to the internet — to take pictures, make notes and record audio and video material both online and offline. They use technology to study the use of technology in a world of networked relationships mediated by the internet.