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(Paper presented at Social relations in turbulent times: 10th Conference of the European Sociological Association, Geneva, Switzerland, 7th-10th September 2011) …

(Paper presented at Social relations in turbulent times: 10th Conference of the European Sociological Association, Geneva, Switzerland, 7th-10th September 2011)

Although the history of the internet, and the social web in particular, is comparatively short, numerous publications have strived at establishing an understanding of what it means to undertake qualitative research on the internet. Early accounts of virtual ethnography or "netnography" focused mainly on the possibility to make use of web communities for researching identity performances and consumption patterns among other themes. During the last few years, the emergence of social network sites (SNS) has heavily redefined the social landscape of the internet since it involves a shift from thematically orientated communities to networks that are centred around the activity of the individual actor. Increasingly, these networks form the basis for a new way of interaction by means of user-generated content since people engage in social activities such as sharing, reviewing and commenting upon the information that each and other user generate. Taking these fundamental changes into account, Beer och Burrows (2007) point at the importance of adjusting research strategies to the conditions of the social web while at the same suggesting that users of SNS are to some extent already involved in a sort of vernacular sociology as part of their social practices. Taking these thoughts further, this paper sets forth to understand in what ways recent developments of SNS have provided a shift in the ways in which the social actor can possibly be delineated. Since SNS allow for a self-presentation and social interaction that largely depend upon the social connections to others, the conditions for communication and social interaction have been fundamentally altered and this state of affairs challenges the assumptions that underlie qualitative research in general and ethnography in particular. Theoretically elaborating on these thoughts, the overall objective with this paper is to explore the tensions between ethnographic practices on the internet and the fact that users of SNS are not only preoccupied with a vernacular sociology but are also, and more importantly, to a large extent delineated by their interpersonal actions and social connections.
Beer, D., & Burrows, R. (2007). Sociology And, of and in Web 2.0: Some Initial Considerations. Sociological Research Online, 12(5).

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  • 2. Who’s talking?Martin BergPhD in Sociology 2008, Lund University, SwedenSenior Lecturer in Sociology, Halmstad University,Sweden(Corporate) Senior Researcher at Good Old withfinancial support from the Bank of SwedenTercentenary Foundation (3 year post-doc)
  • 3. Main objectivesInternet and the social web: technological developmentand social appropriation are always one step ahead ofresearch designThis paper highlights core issues, challenges andbenefits involved in doing qualitative research on theinternet and, more specifically, the social webWhat is at stake for future netnographic research?
  • 4. Researching... what?Netnography (Kozinets 1997)Virtual Ethnography (Hine 2001)Digital Ethnography (Murthy 2008)What are nethnographic practices supposed to study?The virtual? The ‘Net’? The digital? Or simply deeplyintertwined social and technological flows? Or perhapsquestions of hegemony?
  • 5. Earlier accounts’The formulation of the online world as a new territoryfor social research also created a perception thatnothing can be taken for granted’ (Hine 2005: 5).The netnographic researcher should ’be both anexplorer and cartographer of this exiting new culturalterrain, and also an anthropologist, an explorer whorespectfully and thoroughly studies the people whorise so quickly to inhabit and colonize these newonline worlds.’ (Kozinets 2010: 179)
  • 6. #timeflies
  • 7. Social Network Sites (SNS)A shift in social organisation: from communities ofinterest to ‘egocentric‘ networks (and, to some extent,back again through FB Pages, hashtags and so forth).SNS: ’web-based services that allow individuals to (1)construct a public or semi-public profile within abounded system, (2) articulate a list of other userswith whom they share a connection, and (3) view andtraverse their list of connections and those made byothers within the system.’ (boyd and Ellison 2007)
  • 8. Entering what field?The social web is often described from the viewpointof the users by illuminating a perceived utility value,core interface features as well as its offline integrationThe status of user-generated content (often claimed tobe the very cultural motor of the social web) needs tobe situated and, indeed, questioned.How are we to understand the properties andboundaries of the field?
  • 9. They’re already researchingWikizens are already engaged in sociological researchof sorts /.../ SNS /.../ reveal a sociological tendency inweb users as they search and browse through profilesof their fellow wikizens /.../ This engagement in avernacular sociology – an ongoing interest in themundane lives of other people – could be read as apotentially positive thing’ (Beer and Burrows 2007: 4.5)But: ’Conversation is King, content is just something totalk about.’ (blogger Cory Doctorow)
  • 10. An institutional accountUsers ’are expected to process digital objects bysharing content, making connections, ranking culturalartifacts, and producing digital content’ (Gehl 2011: 2)’[T]he architecture of participation sometimes turnsinto an architecture of exploitation’ (Petersen 2008)It is increasingly complicated for people to understandthe externalities of the social web and thus attention ispaid to what is visible and graspable: the interface
  • 11. Major changesActor: relational self-presentation bound up withcomplex social networksField: social space, network and technologyContent: is textual content important per se or simplyan object to which social relations are attached?Structure: (commercial) algorithms are increasinglyimportant for the structuration of online activity
  • 12. Future netnographyStructural sensitivity: How do we account for back-endprocesses entering the realm of front-end socialinteraction as well as their (commercial) raison dêtre?Are people generating content because they are toldto? What status should such content be ascribed?In what ways should the tension between forms ofinteraction (relationships) and content of interaction(conversations) be conceptualised and integrated inthe netnographic practice?
  • 13. Thank you! 735 46 50 10