Netnography?

I was just reading a mailing list discussion about the potential for Netnography--qualitative inquiry conducted over an internet channel--to become the future of design research. I've always been a bit troubled by method-centric discussions of this sort that profess to have identified one tool as the solution to all situations. But there is one critical point to consider here:

One poster simply wrote that netnography is "cheap," and another refuted that assertion by stating that that the expense of qualitative research lies primarily in the ethnographer's time and not the rest of the process. It seems, too, in many of our projects that the expenses of actually relocating ourselves to the participant's context end up being fairly little in the scheme of the entire project. And when I consider how all the extra time that would be spent using the crude asynchronous "discussion" tools in a discussion forum to get at an "observation" balances the time spent observing directly, I'm not sold on how this sort of approach can realistically be considered a wholesale replacement for fieldwork.

Of course, asynchronous internet-based data gathering methods can work well for certain situations:

  • Large sample-size discussions across varied geography
  • Observing dynamics in an organically-developing community (with the researcher only lightly facilitating, if at all)--which, incidentally, is actually observation
  • International discussions in which a participant might be more comfortable typing in the researcher's language than engaging in real-time dialogue in that language
  • Inquiry into behaviors in asynchronous social situations on the internet (e.g. when the researcher is studying actual internet-based community components for the project)

We have also used synchronous interview methods (e.g. conference calls) augmented by internet-based presentation tools to facilitate discussions:

  • where travel expenses might actually become an issue 
  • in a small group where participants are located far from each other 

This is all to say that one should consider all tools available to address a certain challenge, not be shy about combining known tools in new ways, and to consider the true cost difference between doing things in the known way and replacing them with potentially lower-touch methods.

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OK, so I just read more on what "netnography" (as opposed to other data-gathering methods) is, and it seems like it might be an interesting addition to any sort of product exploration, benchmarking, or evaluation exercise. To me it seems like we can use what are essentially observations from already-created product reviews, discussions, and journal/blog entries as inputs aside customer service call logs and the like. We already do this sort of "secondary research" today to a certain extent, and it might be worth formalizing this sort of activity...