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Cyber-ethnography, also known as virtual ethnography and sometimes online ethnography, refers to a number of related online research methods that adapt ethnographic methods to the study of the communities and cultures created through computer-mediated social interaction. As modifications of the term ethnography, cyber-ethnography, online ethnography and virtual ethnography (as well as many other methodological neologisms) designate online fieldwork that follows from the conception of ethnography as an adaptable method. These methods tend to leave most of the specifics of the adaptation to the individual researcher. It is not to be confused with netnography, a marketing research approach to consumer behavior online.
Cyber-ethnography is also considered to be different from "digital ethnography" a term used to describe ethnographic methods which use digital tools but which is not limited to the online world and which can involve the use of “digitally mediated fieldnotes, online participant observations, blogs/wikis,” and “encompasses virtual ethnography, but is broader in its remit”. Thus, it draws its name from the methods more so than the object of the study or the fieldsite. A digital ethnography is any ethnography which “data-gathering methods are mediated by computer-mediated communication (CMC) or digital technologies.”
All ethnographies of online cultures and communities extend the traditional notions of field and ethnographic study, as well as ethnographic cultural analysis and representation, from the observation of co-located, face-to-face interactions to technologically mediated interactions in online networks and communities, and the culture (or cyberculture) shared between and among them. In doing so, these techniques are founded in the sense that traditional notions of a field site as a localized space are outdated. They suggest that ethnographic fieldwork can be meaningfully applied to computer-mediated interactions, an assertion that some have contested, but which is increasingly becoming accepted.
With the emergence of new technologies, both cyber and digital ethnography have significantly developed over the years. Almost since their inception, purely observational ethnographies of online cultures and communities have been conducted, where the researcher is a specialized type of lurker or non participant observer in an online community. although this approach has been criticized by scholars. Thus, other researchers have emphasized a more participative approach, in which the researcher fully participates as a member of the online community. This latter approach is closer to traditional ethnographic standards of participant observation, prolonged engagement, and deep immersion. In many of its renderings, cyber-ethnography, online ethnography, or virtual ethnography should maintain the values of traditional ethnography through providing a Geertzian sense of "thick description" through the immersion" of the researcher in the life of the online culture or community. This focus on participation and immersion makes these approaches quite distinct from quantitative Internet research methods likeweb usage mining or social network analysis, although ethnographers may use similar techniques to identify or map networks.
The range of methodologies
There is a range of different ways that ethnographers have attempted to study the Internet. The methodological approach of cyber-ethnography has been broadened and reformulated through a variety of other terms. Most of these terms and the techniques they represent seek to maintain their own dialog with the established tradition of ethnography. Each formulates its relation to the established anthropological tradition in different (and sometimes inconsistent) ways. There are those who consider that ethnographies conducted online involves a distinctive methodological approach. There are also those who consider that researching the Internet ethnographically forces us to reflect on fundamental assumptions and concepts of ethnography, but that it doesn't mean a distinctive form of ethnography. And there are also those who choose to triangulate their data by also conducting off-line ethnographic observations and thus provide context to the study (instead of "disembodied environments" ) while others disagree 
At least four aspects of online, computer-mediated, or virtual, interaction and community formation are distinct from their in-person, real life (“RL”), or face-to-face (“F2F”) counterparts. First is the textual, nonphysical, and social-cue-impoverished context of the online environment. Second is an unprecedented new level of access to the heretofore unobservable behaviors of particular interacting peoples. Third, while traditional interactions are ephemeral as they occur, online social interactions are often automatically saved and archived, creating permanent records. Finally, the social nature of the new medium is unclear as to whether it is a private or public space, or some unique hybrid. Ethnography adapts common participant-observation ethnographic procedures—such as making cultural entrée, data collection, analyzing data, and conducting ethical research—to these computer-mediated contingencies and provides sets of specific guidelines (see Kozinets 2002 for a detailed development of the process; see also Kozinets 2006).
The choice of the methods needs to be directly adapted to the kind of questions a researcher seeks to (try to) find answers to. However, the main advantages to cyber-ethnography reside in its ability to gain access to global and large datasets. Other advantages include the possibility for collaboration, direct participant input (for example, by posting raw fieldnotes on a blog and allowing participants to leave comments) and transparency. It also allows for a variety of data collection types and formats (e.g. audiovisual), on various platforms (e.g. websites, social networks, forums). Also, in a study conducted by Miller and Slate (2000), thanks to lower social stakes, it was found that people tend to be more unguarded online.
Besides the complex ethical implications discussed below, one of the main disadvantages of online ethnography is the need for the ethnographer to possess certain technology-based skills. Some studies might only require elementary computer skills, but others will necessitate much more advanced knowledge and expertise of new technologies and tools (e.g. web-based applications, analytical tools, programming). The development of new technologies grows faster than methodology literature thus “there is little consensus on how [to] best collect and analyze new media data”. The temporality of online data is also sometimes called into question. Cyberethnographers might ask, "What is data of the present?" Robinson (2011) states that in cases such as YouTube videos and subsequent comments, “the present cyber-reality may be interpreted as a continual accumulation of all past input by members or participants”. The cyberethnographer also needs to also think of his/her own identify and how “[it] might become part of a feedback loop with those he/she is studying”  and whether or not it eschews the data collected and the integrity of the study. Thus, there is a need for cyberethnographers to be particularly flexible and reflexive in their practice of ethnography.
To the extent that online ethnography is similar to ethnography in a localized space, it will raise similar ethical considerations. However, the nature of the online space does raise new ethical issues, including those related to informed consent of human subjects, protections of privacy or anonymity of research subjects, and whether online ethnography might be a form of “electronic eavesdropping.” In spite of these differences, the American Anthropological Association has yet to include any specific recommendations regarding online ethnography in its Code of Ethics.
Thus, there are significant ethical issues around the use of digital tools but also data collection from the cyberspace. “Cyberethnographer need to respect privacy in cyberspace”. It is not because a website is not password-protected than a researcher should consider it an open space where the right to anonymity and privacy dissolve. Thus Robinson (2011) insists, “if our identities in cyberspace are extensions of our off-line identities, they must be afforded the same ethical consideration as they would be given in the off-line world”.
Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) are faced with problematic situations that they are sometimes not equipped to answer. Researchers need to make their intentions clear and define properly the data that will be collected. As mentioned above, the concept of “lurking” is also problematic - where the researcher covertly observes and gathers data without the study participants’ knowledge and consent. Because of the need for informed consent (for ethnographic studies), where participants have the right to learn about the study at hand and make an informed decision on whether or not to participate, cyberethnographers are faced with the challenge of informing participants by stating their position as researchers without jeopardizing the integrity of the data and of the data collection. Scholars recommend adjoining a note about the researcher status through a signature link  but the practice is limited only to specific online spaces, such as forums.
Another issue is that the technological innovations and possibility for new research outpace the creation of clear and adapted ethical guidelines. Nonetheless, some guidelines do exist and are regularly updated by the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR).
Another ethical constraint and a possible disadvantage to cyberethnography is the intricate anonymization of the data. The fine line between participant anonymity protection and the preservation of the participants’ words. Although, consent might be obtained from participants to collect, use and publish textual data, the simple use of pseudonyms is in most cases not enough to guarantee the anonymity of the data.Indeed, by simply inputting the textual data into a Google search, anyone can potentially have access to search results revealing the author and their identity (online and possibly off-line). Many scholars choose to paraphrase textual data to avoid source identification.
Thus, “ethical concerns must be reexamined in light of new technologies for both subjects and researchers alike”.
- Online Community
- Anthropology of cyberspace
- Online research community
- Networks of practice
- Social networks
- Virtual community of practice
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