Offline and online research

This week's readings made me think about how useful ethnography can be in studying online activity, as we talk more and more about 'online communities' and 'social networks'. However, they have raised one question for me, and that is, how do you set the limits to an online community? Physical communities, such as the one described by Shaffir, have perhaps more delineated borders. Often, in fact, researchers travel to a community and physically imbed themselves within it.

Online communities are a little different. I was recently studying the Etsy social e-commerce site; examining how buyers and sellers interacted with the companies and what kind of social dynamics were present on the site, if one dug a little. I soon realized, however, that the network had tentacles, which extended into many other social media, and through them, into face-to-face meetings. In this sense, an ethnography of the network might include observing how its members interacted on and offline. This tendency is made even more visible by websites such as Meetup, which allows users to network online before meeting in person.

Perhaps what is so daunting about studying online communities is that often, each member of that community is part of one or several physical communities, distributed around the world. A solution might be to examine how distributed communities are studied, such as international communities of practice. I may simply be pointing out the obvious - that in our current highly networked societies, framing the subject for an ethnography is a challenging endeavour.

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