Blog for Socy 676

Evaluating Digital Ethnography

Uncovering longitudinal life narratives: scrolling back on Facebook

By: Brady Robards and Sian Lincoln

The authors in this study look to see how the “scrolling back” method of analyzing data on Facebook can add to qualitative longitudinal research (QLR). They argue that ‘scrolling back’ through Facebook with participants as ‘co-analysts’ of their own digital traces can add to the QLR tradition. They also discuss how QLR and the scroll back method attend to a similar set of concerns around change over time, the depth of inquiry and uncovering rigorous, rich life narratives and explore limitations and ethical challenges, while also arguing for the inclusion of these digital texts. They also consider how the scroll back method could apply to other digital media. This research project focused on 34 young people in their twenties who have been using Facebook for more than five years. The Timeline serves as a prompt to elicit story-telling about young people’s experiences of growing up as documented on FacebookThey found that researchers must approach social media in an informed, ethically reflexive way. Whereas in quantitative approaches, large data sets from social media are being ‘mined’ and ‘harvested’, a qualitative approach has much to offer when it comes to discussions of consent, intentionality, recruiting participants as co-analysts, and treating this ‘data’ as an often personal record of lived experience. They also found that the participants in the study became more aware of the length and depth of their digital traces.

They used digital ethnography on Facebook data to see how it captured ‘growing up’ narratives and experiences throughout the teenage years and early twenties.

They define digital ethnography as a digital tool to uncover previous moments in the lives of the participants and as searchable data that they can get direct quotes from their participants. They suggest that it should be approached ethically and by not using direct quotes in their research to protect their participants from being able to be searched and quoted.

The strengths of the ‘scrolling back’ technique that the researchers explored is that the data is cheap and easy to find. But, as they mentioned, weaknesses include how the context and participants do change over time.

Ethnographic Research in a Cyber Era

By: Ronald E. Hallett and Kristen Barber

The researchers in this article argue that as the Internet increasingly frames lived experiences, researchers need to consider how to integrate data from online spaces into “traditional” ethnographic research and that studying a group of people in their “natural habitat” now includes their “online habitat.” The article explains how online spaces are needed to more fully understand physical environments and issues studied. Michael Burawoy defines ethnography as “the study of people in their own time and space, in their own everyday lives.” The researchers in the study argue that it is no longer imaginable to conduct ethnography without considering online spaces and compare emails, blogs and Facebook posts to handwritten letters arguing that ethnographers studying contemporary social life should consider online spaces as another “level” or site where their participants live. They define cyber-ethnographers as ones who design studies that often look solely at online life by examining blogs, chat rooms, and other online interactions but they argue that ethnographers need to include online spaces into traditional ethnographic research because digital spaces permeate all aspects of personal life, redefining people’s relationships not only with other individuals but also with institutions. They argue that the internet is changing the way people work and consume.

They define digital ethnography as an essential component of understanding social life in the cyber era.

The strengths of their argument is that they are right. As the cyber era continues to grow, more and more people are spending more time online in a digital space, connecting with friends and conducting business and ethnographers need to utilize the data available to fully understand how conduct themselves. This paper are that it was written in 2013, when smart phones were just becoming a thing that everybody had. People have been gradually shifting towards spending a lot of their time in digital spaces. I think they did a good job of predicting how many people will be shifting their lives to digital spaces. Also, I think it would be important to note how the Covid-19 pandemic has made their arguments even more prevalent as quarantine life has emerged many new ways to interact with people and conduct business in a digital space.

A weakness of this paper is that in 2013 people weren’t as privy to how their online interactions can be used in the future and how things they say and do online can come back to them. I think that a lot of people now are more conscious of that and are more private online due to the fact so some aspects of using digital ethnography can get skewed based on that.

The two articles are very different but I think they have the same view on digital ethnography. One was an actual study and one was pretty much just a long way to say we need to look at people’s lives online as part of ethnography today. So, I think the article about scrolling back on Facebook was more relevant as it actually uncovered information about using online data, the other one just argued that we should use online data.


  1. janniep

    Hi Eric,
    Great job with summarizing the main findings of each article. I like how you mention how one of the articles is basically a long reason to conduct a digital ethnography! I agree, having that Facebook article to show us exactly what a digital ethnography is adds in a concrete layer of what digital ethnographies are about.

  2. meyersbcc

    Another great post- great summary and I agree with many of the statements you make. You mentioned specifically how data can be cheap and easy to find- I agree, and one of the valuable characteristics of using digital data from Facebook or other social media sources. You also mentioned as a disadvantage how participants can change over time- one of the drawbacks of relying on digital data is that people can change their minds over time but also that people’s attitudes and how they portray themselves can vary differently between their digital and non-digital selves. You also mentioned from the second study an important point to consider- that people are not always aware of the use of the data they create once they make a digital footprint- no matter how big or small. There is definitely a lot more information about how a person’s data may be used year after year and there seems to be now be a greater awareness, which is important. Great summary points at the end, the two articles argue for the value of using online data but also considerations for why and how.

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