Ethnography and Ubiquitous Digital Research

February 4, 2010

Ethnographers are traditionally known for immersing themselves in the everyday lives of people and paying attention to the details and context of their activity. Anthropologists after Malinowski considered extended participant observation in the lives of the people they studied a prerequisite for analyzing culture. However, in the last few decades of the twentieth-century ethnographers began to consider their analysis increasingly as a challenge of interpreting cultural phenomena rather than explaining their variation.

With the increasing availability of the Web, researchers using computer-mediated communication, i.e. digital, devices in their projects label their work under a range of categories. I’ve discussed ethnography several times before, the first taking note of the trend toward virtual anthropology and the next talking about the significance of Tom Boellstorff’s ethnography of Second Life, followed by a couple of posts about ethnography’s relationship to empathy and globalization.

In 2003, Cheskin’s Davis Masten and Tim Plowman characterized digital ethnography as the next wave in understanding the consumer experience in Design Management Journal. To my way of thinking they were correct in asserting that, “Digital Ethno enables participants to convey the real-time richness of their own lives and environments.”

Along with any new wave in understanding people’s experience comes a range of neologisms intended to clarify the multiplicity of research options that emerge. Kozinets recently suggested that the use of ethnography in computer-mediated research activities is best described as Netnography, a neologism he dates from 1996. He argues for the use of the term, netnography, in the following way:

Netgography differs from other qualitative Internet research techniques in that it offers, under the rubric of a single term, a rigorous set of guidelines for the conduct of computer-mediated ethnography and also, importantly, its integration with other forms of cultural research (p. 15)

However, as Kozinets suggests, the 2008 survey of Intenet users done by the Annenburg Digital Futures Project found that 56% of the members of online community members meet other members of their online community face-to-face. And, as Kozinets further notes, the Annenburg research did not include social networking sites, making the figures conservative ones since, as Brian Solis recently noted, social networking combined with geo-location and augmented reality applications is bridging the online and offline interaction. Kozinets insists that this simply means research must blend ethnography and netnography to study the intermix of online and offline activity.

I won’t go into all the reasons I think Kozinets thinking on the relation between netnography and ethnography fails to persuade. Suffice it to say that, to my mind, as Web 2.0 increasingly permeates peoples’ everyday lives, the term netnography fails to sufficiently describe the way ethnography works in a consumer environment where digital devices are  ubiquitous.

As people increasingly access the Web and engage online communities on the go, the notion that this is happening on the net seems quaint. If any term is needed other than ethnography, I’d suggest digital ethnography remains the most fitting. When we consider mobility as part of a ubiquitous computing environment, defining the relationship between space and place increasingly requires analyzing social practices rather than simply distinguishing a time and location for an activity.

As Johanna Brewer and Paul Dourish observe, “space is not simply an ‘inert container’ for the places of everyday experience; rather, space itself is the outcome of particular ways of reasoning about and representing the world.” Brewer and Dourish note, for example, that research on mobile messaging used to coordinate meet-ups or other rendezvous allow for people to show-up using a proxy form of participation before they get to the physical meeting. Additionally, the recent research by Hope Jensen Schau, Albert M. Muniz, Jr., and Eric J. Arnould, How Brand Community Practices Create Value from the Journal of Marketing explicitly approaches brand communities using a range of qualitative techniques, including netnographic, to study participants across several years both online and off.

My inclination regarding ethnographic methods is to endorse the point of view offered in Sunderland and Denny’s Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research. They note,

…ethnography is not a method per se, but rather a collection of methods…In commercial consumer research circles, one sometimes hears various rules, on the order “it is only ethnography if there is observation,” or “video,” or “multiple meetings,” or “sufficient time,”…or…(filled in with any number of favorite and idiosyncratic rules. But what seems most accurate about ethnography as a companion mode of discovery in cultural analysis is that as a methodology it must be viewed through, and seen as permeated with, the sociocultural. (p. 50, my emphasis)

In other words, the specifics of the methodology matter less than its purposive application. Following Geertz, Sunderland and Denny contend, the methodologies employed, whether participant observation, focus groups, in-depth interviews, diaries (online or offline), village censuses, surveys, or maps, “are not ‘ethnographic’ per se, but…are made so by the intellectual framing of the task” (p.52).

The purpose of ethnographic research is as important as the methods used, as long as the sociocultural context remains in focus. For example, whether we use ethnography in marketing  or design research remains irrelevant to the methods employed. What matters is whether we develop the research questions around the assumption that sociocultural practices provide the data source for answers.

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Validating Customer Communities

October 13, 2009
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Courtesy of mtsofan's photostream on flickr.

I’ve known Steve Finikiotis over at Touchpoints for some time, and especially appreciate his concept of the Validation Principle. I’ve seen the Validation Principle at work in my own experience managing online communities, as well as participating in many online communities. The key to any online experience is engagement, and engagement means relating empathically to other people in a way that they appreciate. Steve recently outlined the relevance of the Validation Principle to Twitter use, and other social media, in a succinct way.

If you use Twitter or any of the other social networking tools, you’re bound to notice how much people crave acceptance and appreciation…Its obvious that people like being shown appreciation, but there’s more to being appreciated than meets the eye…When we’re validated by others, we’re inclined to bond with them. I call this the Validation Principle, and it’s one of the keys to building durable customer relationships.

The bond Steve is alluding to is a key part of any successful customer community. It contributes significantly to a community’s duration. Developing such bonds though is not an easy process, requiring time as well as attention. It involves learning from customers, and it involves their learning from your actions in relating to them.  

Rule number one in managing customer communities is don’t fail to listen. Additionally, failing to recognize that customers know you are listening but feel like you just aren’t hearing them is equally damaging. Sometimes it is possible to listen effectively in an online community itself. Other times, you may need to actually do research to directly engage and validate passive members who mostly consume content (sometimes referred to as lurkers) to really understand the dynamics of an issue playing out in an online customer community.

What have you learned from engaging passive content consumers in customer communities?

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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Informal Learning in Health Care 2.0

August 19, 2009

transform-masthead

Update:

The presentations from Transform are now available online. Take some time and listen to these videos if you are in the least interested in how to transform health care. 


Health care is increasingly gaining attention as an area in which innovation involves informal learning, and many of the other topics that go along with using Web 2.0 to engage people. The current debates at the national level about changing health insurance carry with them an underlying focus on innovation in the design and delivery of healthcare services, an area referred to for several years as Health Care 2.0. And the Mayo Clinic is always at the top of the list when innovation is discussed in healthcare. So, it isn’t a surprise that the Mayo Clinic is sponsoring a symposium in September focusing specifically on innovating health care experience and delivery.

The symposium includes a number of segments with intriguing topics. However, the two I find most interesting are the Redefining Roles and the Content, Community, Commerce, Care, & Choices segments. It looks like a promising experience for those fortunate enough to attend.

Redefining Roles
This segment will introduce the emerging roles of disruptive technology and business model innovations in making products and services in health care affordable and accessible. It will touch upon the evolution of health care delivery systems — particularly hospitals — from geographically-centered and costly entities to decentralized and more focused operations. Participants will be introduced to emerging business models in health care, including facilitated networks — online communities of people who help to teach one another about how to live with their diseases. This segment will also explore the notion that health care can be designed to minimize the degree to which it disturbs peoples’ lives.

Content, Community, Commerce, Care, & Choices
Communities of people are sharing health care-related content online. This has come to be called “Health 2.0.” Individuals and organizations have built business ventures around sharing content. But what does it take for these models to evolve into reliable facilitators of wellness? How can these communities link with existing bricks-and-mortar care delivery systems in ways that help people in their journey to wellness? What are “microchoices” and how might they be more powerful than all of health care?

My interest in using communities to enhance the service experience goes back several years. I had not considered their application to health care services until recently when an associate pointed me to several hospitals using social media to connect with patients. It looks like a promising area for innovation and highlights the relevance of informal learning to health care services. 

Thanks to Tim Brown at Design Thinking for the pointer to the Mayo symposium.

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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CMR as a Precursor of VRM

May 28, 2009

Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) is a term used by Doc Searls and other members of ProjectVRM to distinguish market relationships between vendors and consumers where the latter gain increased control over that commercial relationship. Building on the VRM concept, Jeremiah Owyang recently noted that VRM offers a potential future for public relations agencies in which the future of PR is in representing communities rather than brands. As Doc recently declared,

We therefore resolve to avoid all relationships in which the privileges of loyalty are determined entirely by the seller, and to construct new terms and means of engagement that will work in mutually constructive ways for both customers and sellers, for the good of all.

 So, in the spirit of the Declaration of Customer Independence recently outlined by Doc, I offer the following turn of the century anecdote for thinking about Customer Managed Relationships (CMR).

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Is a Social Network on Your Foot?

August 7, 2008

The social networking capabilities of Web 2.0 technologies provide numerous opportunities for product and service providers to engage customers. Two interesting examples of companies reaching out to engage their customers come from the footwear industry, specifically Nike and adidas. Some of you may already know about these two examples. However, the difference in social networking strategy between the two is worth thinking about.
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How Not to Build a Customer Community

May 15, 2008

I’ve discussed the importance of customer communities to innovation, customer experience, and customer dialogue as an antidote to self-orientation by companies. David Weinberger recently posted about the Community 2.0 conference, pointing out the Starbucks suggestion box as a good example of customer community. David also pointed approvingly to the arms-length participation of Tivo in the independent forum, TivoCommunity.com, speaking to the point that communities of customers often form on their own.

Coincidentally, I received an email recently soliciting me to join a community of Best Buy customers. I’m not an especially enthusiastic customer of Best Buy, but since CompUSA closed its doors in St. Louis, most of my electronic purchases are at Best Buy. The first thing I took note of in the invitation was its blatant point that Best Buy is selecting members for its community. The email stated:

If you are selected to join the online community, you will discuss and share opinions on a variety of topics, react to questions posed by Best Buy and provide insight into your lifestyle. In addition, you will build rewarding friendships with other members, and receive periodic rewards in exchange for your participation. This is a unique opportunity for you to share your thoughts and ideas with Best Buy – only about three hundred people will be chosen.

To see if you qualify, please click on the link below to complete a 10-minute questionnaire.

The email solicitation sparked my curiosity and I clicked on the links to check out the survey it requires you to complete before learning whether you qualify. At the end of a lengthy sequence of questions, I learned that I just don’t fit into their community plans. Probably because I didn’t answer all the questions, such as what is your family income and other fairly personal items. It seems obvious to me that Best Buy doesn’t really want a community. Rather, they are selecting people for the equivalent of an online focus group representing one marketing segment. I’d suggest Best Buy rethink its strategy.

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