The approaches detailed in this paper offer a reflexive view of the use of closed Facebook groups in a fully online netnography of breastfeeding mothers in Australia in 2013/14. The aim of this paper is to explore the unique opportunities and limitations of using Facebook as a research site and how this online approach differs from traditional ethnography. The paper begins with a review of the literature then moves through to a review of the research undertaken, introducing the context, study design and ethics. A discussion of the traditional ethnographic terms ‘field site’, ‘participant observation’, and ‘field notes’ are discussed in the context of online methods, including some of the associated issues and ethical considerations. The author goes on to argue that due to the digital nature of contemporary social life, this fully online method of data collection should be considered a mainstream ethnographic technique, due to the mediated nature of communities in the twenty first century.
This article discusses a PhD research project that explores the function provided by closed Facebook groups for breastfeeding mothers who seek support online. It explores the unique opportunities and limitations of using Facebook as a research site and how an online approach differs from traditional ethnography. It also presents a case for the use of this method alongside traditional ethnographic methods due to the mediated nature of communities in the 21st century.
Given the rise in popularity of social media and its integration into contemporary everyday life and scholarship, the aim of this article is to explore the possibilities of social media ethnography. While online ethnographies using Facebook are of course included in the review of literature, research in which Facebook is both the research site and the research tool is clearly under-represented. A notable exception was a 2010 empirical study which explored how first year undergraduate students in the United Kingdom used Facebook in their transition to university (Stirling, 2014). However, beyond the initial online observation of how the students used the Facebook pages, there was no other engagement with Facebook as a tool for data collection. The potential for further research applications of what is a highly sophisticated digital platform was clearly evident.
When considering the topic and participants I was studying, it became apparent that using a fully online approach to data collection would provide a unique vantage point from which to view these online communities. Given the fact that breastfeeding mothers were creating these online communities to fulfil a need for information and support at a time and place convenient and accessible to them, observing these everyday life exchanges in the online space had the potential to add to my understanding of this unique field site. Although some have been critical of this new iteration of the field site in the online space because it may have a negative effect on the researcher’s ability to search for hidden and deep layers of meanings (Wittel, 2000), I felt that full immersion into Facebook and use of all of the tools available to the user would provide me with a deeper layer of understanding than observation alone. Although my observations were routed in one physical location (i.e. at my computer), I experienced different tools within Facebook with which my participants would also typically be engaging with on a regular basis.
The data discussed in this article are taken from a mixed methods study undertaken in 2013/14 looking at how closed Facebook groups administrated by the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) provide support for breastfeeding mothers online. The study used netnographic methods to observe mothers’ Facebook use and then explored how the level of activity affected the level of engagement and support outcomes.
There are multiple understandings of ethnographic knowledge and ways of knowing (Pink, 2009) that can be broadly categorised into two separate approaches. One argument is that ethnographic research has become increasingly fragmented, leading to specific types of data being investigated using specific ethnographic practices (Atkinson, Delamont, Coffey, Lofland, & Lofland, 2007). The other aims to explore new ways to ethnographic knowledge and understandings, flexibly adapting and developing new methods and new technologies to new situations (Pink, 2009).
This is where my fully online approach is positioned – as a new and flexible research method that explores how a traditional community of breastfeeding mothers has adapted to a new technology (Facebook) to create a unique platform for information and support. This approach redefines traditional ethnographic concepts such as field site, participant observation and field notes and adapts them for the fully online space.
Instead of a physical place, my field site was an online Facebook group – a virtual community that enabled me 24/7 access to participants. The nature of this field site meant that the participants had agency over taking part of the study, as they could remove me from the group at any time throughout the data collection period.
Rather than watching people face-to-face in their physical environment, participant observation for me involved reading text and images on my computer screen. This provided me with a more authentic experience as it enabled me to observe the participants’ genuine online behaviour from the perspective of another member of the online community. I was still able to observe the process of interaction, even though I was not in the same room – just as another member of the online community would observe and participate in those interactions. Another substantial advantage was that the data collection could operate in both synchronous and asynchronous modes, just as the online community would usually function.
The synchronous and asynchronous modes of Facebook enabled greater ease in taking field notes as this process did not provide the same level of disruption that would occur in the traditional field site. My field notes could be taken both during and after interactions and took the form of not only written notes, but screenshots and other data collected by Facebook that acted to enrich my view of the field. The hybrid of digital and analogue note taking demonstrate how the digital supplemented and enriched the more traditional ethnographic practices.
Online ethnographic research
For many in the early 21st century, social media practices and technologies now form an integral part of everyday life. With the proliferation of social networking sites (SNSs) such as Facebook, communities now refer not only to people in a shared physical location, but also groups of people who congregate online (Chambliss & Schutt, 2013). Consequently, ethnographers are finding that in order to understand how communities work, they must follow these communities onto the internet and other technologically-mediated communications. Similar to communities of people who interact in the same physical space (i.e. face-to-face), online communities can develop their own culture and become sources of identification and attachment (Kozinets, 2010). Just like physical communities, researchers can study online communities through immersion in the group for a considerable period of time.
In response to this migration to the digital space, ethnographers have invented some clever ways to describe these online ethnographies over time. These include ‘virtual ethnography’ (Hine, 2000, 2005), ‘connective ethnography’ (Hine, 2007; Leander & McKim, 2003), ‘internet ethnography’ (Sade-Beck, 2004), ‘online/offline ethnography’ (A. Markham, 2005), ‘digital ethnography’ (Murthy, 2008), ‘cyberethnography’ (Robinson & Schultz, 2009), and most recently ‘netnography’ (Kozinets, 2010).
Due to the exponential growth of new digital phenomena over the past 20 years, Robinson and Shultz (2009) assert that the continual evolution of the internet requires continual reassessment of fieldwork methods. As there are a multitude of various approaches to online ethnographic research, the focus of this article is on Kozinet’s (2010) concept of ‘netnography’. This will highlight how ethnographic practice has been viewed in relation to online life and how this perspective influenced my Facebook study.
The role of ‘Netnography’
Netnography finds it roots in the area of marketing and consumer research and incorporates insights from a range of research fields, such as anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies. Despite this, anthropologists (the original ‘ethnographers’) have been reluctant to follow communities into the online space (Beaulieu, 2004; Garcia, Standlee, Beckhoff, & Cui, 2009; Hakken, 1999; Miller & Slater, 2000). While the divide between online social life and face-to-face communication was previously thought to be significant (Bargh & McKenna, 2004), many now recognise that the two worlds have blended into one (Hine, 2005; A. N. Markham & Baym, 2009; Pink et al., 2015), and this hybrid world includes the use of technology ‘to communicate, to commune, to socialise, to express, and to understand’ (Kozinets, 2010, p. 2).
Kozinets (2010) advocates an approach that treats the digital and physical field sites differently and argues that a separation between the online and offline is possible. He makes the distinction between researching ‘online communities’ – those that are communities, having elements that cross into the physical space – and ‘communities online’ – those communities that exist solely in the digital space, and argues that different approaches can be used to explore each. Kozinets coined the term ‘netnography’, to describe the use of ethnographic methods to study online communities (James & Busher, 2009). Many of the women in the online communities I was studying only had relationships with each other online, as members of the same online group, while others had crossed over from the digital space and had formed relationships in the physical space as well as the online space. For this reason, I felt Kozinet’s approach was the best fit for my study.
For the ethnographer, the effects of the movement to Web 2.0 and the rapid proliferation of social media platforms, applications, practices and activities are varied. They create new sites for ethnographic fieldwork (such as Facebook), invite new approaches to ethnographic practice, and encourage ethnographers to rethink the theoretical frames that dominate digital ethnographies, therefore providing opportunities to reshape Internet research methodologically (Postill & Pink, 2012).
Online communities and social networking sites (SNSs):
SNSs (such as Facebook) are internet-based services that provide an online community and enable users to share user generated content (USG) (Jin, Phua, & Lee, 2015), post profile information, construct a list of friends and communicate with others using both synchronous and asynchronous messaging tools (Ellison, 2007). Through SNSs such as Facebook, users are able to ‘like’ different organisations, make new contacts, socialise with friends and become members of open or closed discussion groups created by other users (Morales, 2011). There is the potential for users to keep in contact with friends and family that they know in the ‘real’ world and create new ‘virtual’ relationships online, through shared interests. Being a member of an SNS community allows users to develop relationships with people who share similar interests with them while accepting and incorporating social networking into their daily lives (D. M. Boyd & Ellison, 2010).
The extensive popularity and use of SNSs including Facebook suggests that these online technologies are successful because of how well they have been incorporated into the personal, social and professional lives of many individual users (Rauniar, Rawski, Yang, & Johnson, 2014). In the past several years, the use of SNSs emerged as one of the prominent social trends. As of May 2015, 68% of Australian internet users have an SNS profile. Internet use is becoming more prevalent as a majority (70%) are using their smartphones to access different sites mainly through an application or ‘app’. Therefore it is not surprising that the frequency of use is increasing – 24% check in more than five times a day. Facebook continues to be the most popular SNS capturing 93% of SNS users (Sensis, 2015, p. 3).
Employing a netnographic research approach, my study investigates how breastfeeding mothers find support online using closed Facebook groups and the types of useful information and support they discover. Data collection comprised of three steps:
- Observation of 15 ABA closed Facebook groups for a four-week period in mid 2013.
- Online in-depth interviews (using Facebook “Chat” function) with administrators of three of these ABA closed Facebook groups in late 2013 and early 2014.
- Online focus groups (utilising Facebook “Events” function) of groups of six to eight active participants from each of these three groups in late 2014.
A call was put out in early 2013 via ABA email and Facebook channels requesting groups who would like to participate in the project. There were 15 groups chosen as appropriate for the project as they met the criteria of being both closed groups and currently active. Contact was made with the main administrator of each group who then consulted the group members and distributed participant information sheets about the project.
The initial observation of these 15 Facebook groups took place in mid 2013. Following on from this initial observation stage were the online depth interviews and the online focus groups. A total of 23 participants recruited from three of the 15 groups were involved in this component of the study.
Observation of 15 ABA closed Facebook groups took place for a four-week period in mid 2013. All activity for participants of all 15 groups was observed and recorded during this four-week period.
Online in-depth interviews (using Facebook ‘Chat’ function) with administrators of three of these ABA closed Facebook groups occurred in late 2013 and early 2014. Facebook ‘Chat’ is a form of social media or networking that involves an open and synchronous internet platform, also known as computer-mediated communication (CMC). Respondents type messages that are received instantly, and the ‘platform, small box and instant messaging influences style and content, with short, direct and abbreviated messaging the norm’ (VanDoorn & Eklund, 2013, p. 2). It should be noted also that the ‘Chat’ window sits alongside other pages that the participant may be accessing, so users can be participating in other online activities while “chatting".
These three groups were chosen as interesting cases for study based on the volume of their posts. The administrators of these three groups then participated in the online in-depth interviews. Six to eight participants from each of those three groups then participated in online focus groups. In the in-depth interviews, the three group administrators were asked a series of eight open questions about their experiences administering the closed Facebook groups. Additional unique questions were also asked in response to their answers. One of the interviews was performed in a fairly straightforward manner where the researcher asked questions by typing them into the Facebook messenger function and the participant answered each question almost immediately. However the other two participants took longer to complete their interviews due to family commitments and these interviews took around 24-48 hours to complete. Unlike the first interview that was completed in a synchronous mode, the other two interviews would be defined as asynchronous.
The ‘Events’ function in Facebook was used to run the focus groups. The event was created by the researcher after the participants were recruited and the participants were then ‘invited’ via Facebook to attend the focus group ‘event’. To give participants sufficient time to complete the focus group, the event was run for a 48-hour period. The semi-structured focus groups were run in a unique asynchronous manner which meant that participants could come and go as they pleased and answer the questions at a time that was convenient to them.
As the ‘event’ took place on Facebook, participants could participate in any location that was convenient as Facebook can be accessed practically anywhere with a mobile device. This was particularly helpful as all of the participants were mothers with young families. A standard set of questions was prepared for the three focus groups and each question was typed onto the ‘wall’ of the Facebook event page before the event commenced.
Once the event commenced, participants were invited to start answering the questions. Although the questions were numbered, participants were able to answer them in any order. They were able to type their answers to the focus group questions in the ‘comments’ section of each wall post and the researcher was also able to make comments and ask further questions to clarify. Focus group participants were asked a series of questions about their experiences with the ABA and more specifically, the closed ABA Facebook group and how it compared with other online parenting groups.
The initial observation of the 15 closed Facebook groups, over a four-week period formed the quantitative component of the study that acted to inform the remainder of the research. Data was collected and coded in a number of ways.
The analysis of the closed Facebook groups revealed the nature of support that mothers were seeking and the types of information they enjoyed sharing. The total number of posts was recorded in addition to identifying them as either support seeking (queries) or information sharing (shares) in nature. This means that participants were participating in the groups for one of two primary reasons: 1) to find information and/or emotional support or 2) to share information and/or emotional support. Wall posts were also coded by length in words.
For the purposes of analysis, posts and comments were categorised into three main themes: breastfeeding (breastfeeding-related issues), parenting (parenting issues that were not associated with breastfeeding) and the Australian Breastfeeding Association (issues related to the Association and its activities).
The wall posts that were support seeking (queries) were also identified as either informational queries (asking for information in the form of suggestions or personal experiences) or a combination of informational and emotional queries (asking for information and expressing emotions). Likewise for wall posts that were support sharing (shares).
The wall posts were also coded according to the number of comments that were posted in response to the wall posts (queries/shares) in addition to the time it took for participants to respond to the initial query or share. Similarly to the wall posts, comments were categorised into three types (informational, emotional, and informational AND emotional).
The responses to the open-ended questions of both the online interviews and online focus groups were analysed using theoretical thematic analysis (essentialist/realist method), which reports experiences, meanings and the reality of participants (Braun & Clarke, 2006). The analysis was carried out by the study’s author (and an employed research assistant), according to the guidelines described by Braun and Clarke (2006). Thematic analysis is a method for identifying, analysing, and reporting patterns (themes) within data. It minimally organises and describes the data set in (rich) detail (Braun & Clarke, 2006). A theoretical thematic analysis tends to be driven by the researcher’s theoretical or analytic interest in the area, and is analyst-driven. This form of thematic analysis tends to provide less a rich description of the data overall, and more a detailed analysis of some aspect of the data (Braun & Clarke, 2006).
The themes were then identified at the semantic level. With a semantic approach, the themes are identified within the explicit or surface meanings of the data and the analyst is not looking for anything beyond what a participant has said or what has been written (Braun & Clarke, 2006). With this type of essentialist/realist approach, the researcher can theorise motivations, experience, and meaning in a straight-forward way, because a simple, largely one-direction relationship is assumed between meaning and experience and language (language reflects and enables us to articulate meaning and experience) (Potter & Wetherell, 1987; Widdicombe & Wooffitt, 1995).
To increase validity and counteract possible researcher bias, an additional level of thematic analysis was undertaken using Leximancer, a software tool designed for analysing natural language text data. This program synthesises the representation of text within a piece of writing, whether this be a formalised interview or focus group, or more colloquial representations of social media interaction. Validity of the data was increased by ‘cleaning’ the document before the analysis process was undertaken eliminating non-descriptive words and interview or focus group questions that have the potential to change the validity of the data through the analysis process (Weber, 1990). Leximancer enables an exploratory approach, letting the list of concepts emerge automatically from the text (Smith & Humphreys, 2006). However, while this program assists identifies dominant patterns in a corpus of texts, the researcher must interpret the output.
Undertaking netnography: field site, participant observation and field notes
This section moves the discussion from a description of the process of data collection and analysis, and explores some terms used to describe traditional ethnographic research and how these processes translate to netnography. I analyse the concepts of field site, participant observation and field notes in the context of my netnographic study of breastfeeding mothers’ Facebook use.
Field research is ‘the systematic study, primarily through long-term, face-to-face interactions and observation of everyday life’ (Bailey, 2007, p. 2). However it has been argued that these observations of everyday life, in ‘everyday contexts’ (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007, p. 3), are ‘increasingly technologically mediated’ (Murthy, 2008, p. 849). This means that our understanding of the field site can be an issue.
Traditionally the field site was viewed as only involving face-to-face encounters, but over the past 20 years this definition has widened to include relationships that are mediated by technology and digital in nature. Thus the definition of a field site now includes virtual worlds, gaming environments, SNSs and smartphone apps (Stirling, 2014). However, this new definition of field site has been criticised by some who believe that a shift from classical fieldwork to a multi-sited network ethnography will change the relationship between the ethnographer and the observed in such a way that the boundaries between home and the remote ‘field’ become less clear. Further, it may reduce the time spent at one single site, having a negative effect on the search for hidden and deep layers of meanings (Wittel, 2000).
The ways in which social media are accepted as a field site are dependent on the methodologies and practical methods engaged (Postill & Pink, 2012). The two most common methods used are web content analysis of large data sets drawn from social media sites (Agichtein, Castillo, Donato, Gionis, & Mishne, 2008; Honeycutt & Herring, 2009; Kwak, Lee, Park, & Moon, 2010; Oulasvirta, Lehtonen, Kurvinen, & Raento, 2010) and social network analysis (Gilbert & Karahalios, 2009; Java, Song, Finin, & Tseng, 2007; Prieur, Cardon, Beuscart, Pissard, & Pons, 2009). Both approaches accept social media as a particular type of field site with texts and/or with connections between entities (Postill & Pink, 2012).
Using large data sets can provide statistical overviews that can be helpful in providing background information for the ethnographer. However, these are less suited to responding to research questions such as mine that seek to understand the experiences of mothers using closed Facebook groups and how these mothers find and share breastfeeding support and information using this type of social media. However, when conventional ethnographic research methods (such as interviews or participant observations) are adapted to the digital space (Cox, Clough, & Marlow, 2008; Humphreys, 2007; Komito, 2011; Miller, 2011), they allow us to refigure social media as a fieldwork environment that is social, experiential and mobile (Postill & Pink, 2012).
Gaining access to the field site
The field sites in this study were the 15 closed Facebook groups administered by the ABA. The Association has local breastfeeding support groups in suburbs all around Australia, and many of these groups also have a closed Facebook group attached to them. As a Facebook user myself, I wanted to be able to distinguish between my personal Facebook feed and my research Facebook feed, so I set up a separate Facebook account using my university’s student email account. This meant that my research participants’ wall posts would not be visible in my personal News Feed alongside my personal friends’ posts. This made the separation of my personal Facebook interactions and my professional research interactions much easier, so that separation from the field at the time of data analysis was not difficult. As all of the groups I observed were closed Facebook groups (i.e. administration approval required to join). In order to gain access to the field, the admininistration for each of the 15 Facebook groups accepted my request to be added to their groups.
When it came time to narrow the focus of the study and further explore the three groups chosen, I personally conducted all interviews and focus groups. I am a volunteer breastfeeding counsellor with the ABA, and all research participants were made aware of this before they agreed to take part. This was a particularly important ethical feature of the research design and it enhanced the willingness of the women to participate as they were more inclined to believe that my intentions were honourable and that they would not be taken advantage of in any way.
My position as a volunteer and ‘insider’ within the ABA, however, had the potential to influence the way in which the data was collected and analysed. To help mitigate this bias, steps were taken to challenge my thinking about the data. These included additional meetings with PhD supervisors and the use of a research assistant to assist with the initial thematic analysis. The independent decision of the group admins (and the collective closed Facebook group who were all consulted prior to the commencement of the data collection) to add me to the closed Facebook groups meant that the participants had agency over participation in the study. They were not forced to admit me to the group should they have decided not to take part and they could remove me from the group at any time throughout the data collection period. This meant they were ultimately controlling my access to the data.
The boundary of the field site
It is typical to define the parameters of the study when embarking on ethnographic research, while still remaining flexible. The wall posts and comments of the closed Facebook groups of the 15 groups, and the in-depth interviews and online focus groups of the three groups chosen for closer analysis, were the main focus of the study to explore the way this cohort of breastfeeding mothers found support online. The movements of the mothers across these closed Facebook groups were followed as I took screenshots, copied and pasted into Word documents and downloaded information using a tool called ‘NCapture’. NCapture is a web browser extension that quickly and easily captures content like web pages, online PDFs and social media for qualitative analysis from SNSs like Facebook (QSR International, 2015). The type of information that NCapture downloads includes: user names, wall posts, who was tagged, pictures, links, number of likes, comments, and the time and dates of wall posts and comments.
The in-depth interviews were carried out using a tool within Facebook called ‘Messenger’ or ‘Chat which became the field sites for this part of the data collection. The focus groups used the Facebook ‘Events’ tool. Therefore the field sites fell into three distinct Facebook tools: Wall Posts, Messenger and Events.
One of the key methods of ethnography that differentiates it from other qualitative research methods is participant observation (Boelstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012; Chambliss & Schutt, 2013; Delamont, 2004; Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007). The aim is to understand the everyday life cultural practices of the participants by observing and living alongside them in the field site, then discussing with and questioning them about their experiences (Delamont, 2004).
Participant observation requires a special type of involvement by the researcher that changes from one research project to the next (Boelstorff et al., 2012). In the online field site, it involves reading text and images on a computer screen rather than watching people in person. However, the technologically-mediated environment still provides direct contact with the social world the ethnographer is studying as participants in that setting communicate through online behaviour (Garcia et al., 2009).
For this particular netnography, the participant observation had three distinct phases. Phase One involved the initial four week observation of the everyday life of breastfeeding mothers on 15 closed Facebook groups which required me to sit in front of my computer daily while I copied, pasted and took screenshots of all of the activity in my researcher Facebook feed. According to Boelstorff (2012), the researcher must prepare themselves both technologically and physically before entering the field and should have the appropriate equipment to access the field site. A reliable internet connection is essential, and if a researcher does not have this or an understanding of how the website works, participant observation would be challenging. Fortunately I was well versed in the way Facebook operates before commencing my participant observation, so my full attention could be paid to the observing rather than being distracted by technical issues.
Phase Two involved in-depth interviews which are another popular method of participant observation for the ethnographer. Unlike other netnographies that used Facebook as a research tool and ethnographic site, my in-depth interviews were carried out online using another tool within Facebook called ‘Messenger’ or ‘Chat’.
Phase Three of the participant observation involved online focus groups. Focus groups are focused discussions led by a moderator and ideally involving six to twelve participants (Broom & Dozier, 1990). Focus groups are both an interview and an observational technique. Their strength lies in the fact that they allow access to a process that qualitative researchers are extremely interested in: interaction. Similar to in-depth interviews, they also allow access to the attitudes and experiences of participants (Morgan & Spanish, 1984). Although primarily a group interviewing technique, observations of interactions between group members are an integral part of focus group data collection (Teddlie & Tashakkori, 2009). The focus groups for my research project were also carried out using a Facebook tool called ‘Events’.
One of the interesting aspects of using Facebook as a research site is the fact that it operates in both synchronous and asynchronous modes. When using inbuilt functions such as ‘Messenger’ and ‘Events’ to carry out interviews and focus groups, the benefit is ease of access for new mothers that suit their lifestyle. It also enables the same freedoms for the researcher and ensures accuracy in transcribing interviews as these can be copied and pasted directly from Facebook. In comparison, traditional methods can be time consuming and have a small degree of error. Fully online ethnography enables the researcher to access a whole cohort of participants who otherwise may not be available to them. However this model is not without limitations. Answers are less likely to be spontaneous and participants have more opportunity for self-censorship. In addition, there are many details that are unavailable to the researcher given that interviews are not conducted face-to-face such as body language, tone-of-voice, facial expressions, and so on.
In summary, although my participant observation was carried out using Facebook, different phases of the observation required the use of different Facebook tools. This meant that although my observations were routed in one physical location (i.e. at my computer), I experienced different tools within Facebook with which my participants would also typically be regularly engaging.
Field notes are one of the primary methods used for recording participant observations in ethnographic research (Sanjek, 1990). These notes are commonly in a daily diary format and are often described as a thick description (Dykes & Flacking, 2016). In a netnography, these descriptions will comprise of a combination of what is seen on the screen and what is experienced by the researcher. Although much of the online interaction can be captured with data downloads and screenshots, the field notes should capture the researcher’s own impressions as a member of the culture or community – the subjective meaning of interactions and events (Kozinets, 2010).
The synchronous and asynchronous nature of Facebook mean that field notes can be written when observing Facebook, as note taking would not be seen as a distraction to the participants. This is not quite as easy in the face-to-face environment where stopping and writing about the interaction can create a distraction and a disconnect from the activity being observed (Boelstorff et al., 2012). My field notes often took the form of screenshots to record additional information and acted as a supplement for traditional hand written field notes. In addition to the screenshots, the NCapture downloads could also be seen as a type of field note as it captured other supplementary information such as user names, wall posts, who was tagged, pictures, links, number of ‘likes’, comments, and the time and dates of wall posts and comments. The visual nature of the screenshots in particular, provided a richer view of the field than written notes alone, and can be used as a starting point for fuller written notes. They are also key pieces of data that can be used (with consent from participants) as part of a presentation of the study at conferences.
The digital nature of recording my field notes in this way, complemented the traditional note taking. Together with my involvement and experience of participant observation, they culminate to create the ethnographic texts. This hybrid of digital and analogue note taking, demonstrate how the digital supplemented the more traditional ethnographic practices.
The approaches detailed in this article offer a reflexive view of the use of closed Facebook groups in a netnography of breastfeeding mothers in Australia in 2013/14. The aim of this study was to explore the experiences of mothers using Facebook and how these mothers seek and share breastfeeding support and information. As the first Australian study of its type, it offers a ‘wide-angle’ view of a largely new area of investigation.
My research has led me to the belief that the particular cohort being studied, (in this case, breastfeeding mothers), should inform the choice of ethnographic methods employed and to study the practices of the participants should remain the primary focus, whether that be via a digital or face-to-face approach. We are living in a time of increasing use of digital devices which has led to an increase of digital environments, and it naturally follows that the ethnographer’s focus should be responsive to the field, and that studying these environments move to digital methods (Stirling, 2014).
This study explored the cultural practices of mothers in the digital space, making use of Facebook in a unique manner as both the field site and for all methods of data collection. When studying mothers, the traditional field sites might be the home, mothers’ groups, shopping centres, cafés and other meeting places where mothers may gather. The digital field site in this case was Facebook, which now exists alongside those physical, traditional field sites and should be considered mainstream. In fact, to view otherwise would be ignoring the significant role these digital environments play in the lives of these participants.
Some have predicted that the move to the digital field site will change the relationship between the ethnographer and the observed in such a way that the boundaries between home and the remote ‘field’ become less clear. However I propose this should not necessarily be viewed as a negative and that it allows us to reconfigure social media as a fieldwork environment that is social, experiential and mobile (Postill & Pink, 2012).
On one hand, Facebook provided one field site through which to study my participants. On the other hand, the field sites fell into three distinct Facebook tools: Wall Posts, Messenger and Events. In this unique way, digital environments are able to provide a type of multiplicity otherwise not possible in the physical field site.
It has been argued that participant observation in the digital field site may not provide the same level of insight as watching people in person, as there are so many factors the researcher does not have access to (facial expressions, tone of voice, body language etc.) However, the technologically-mediated environment still provides direct contact with the social world the ethnographer is studying, as participants in that setting communicate through online behaviour (Garcia et al., 2009). To suggest that the digital environment is any less important or real than the physical, does not take into account the very nature of these digital environments and the fact that they are not separate entities; they often co-exist in the same space. As Boyd suggests ‘the internet is increasingly entwined in peoples’ lives; it is both an imagined space and architectural place’ (2008, p. 26).
Employing Facebook as both the field site and for all methods of data collection enabled me to experiment with the different tools within Facebook to further explore this digital environment while at the same time giving me access to this unique cohort of mothers who I may not otherwise have been able to access due to lifestyle factors and physical remoteness. I could design my project to seamlessly move through three phases of data collection while designing the data collection methods to take advantage of the unique asynchronous nature of SNSs like Facebook.
This seamlessness flowed through to the ability to transcribe interview and focus group data. The hybrid of digital and analogue note taking demonstrate how the digital supplemented the more traditional ethnographic practices and provided an accuracy and flexibility that would not be possible when recording traditional face-to-face encounters.
Finally, the use of the digital is often intangible and my own personal duality of Facebook use (both personally and as researcher) meant that my own role was blurred. While some may view this as a tension, I saw it as a positive due to the insights gained by an insider position. I have explored the unique opportunities and limitations of using Facebook as a research site and how this online approach differs from traditional ethnography, but also presented a case for this fully digital approach to data collection to be viewed as a viable alternative to traditional ethnography due to the highly digital nature of contemporary social life.
Approval for the study was provided by the Australian Breastfeeding Association and Western Sydney University, Human Research Ethics Committee. All participants were issued with written information about the study and signed a consent form prior to the interviews and focus groups taking place. They were assured of the voluntary nature of participation, that they could withdraw at any time, and that their interview and focus group data would be treated confidentially.
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About the author
Nicole Bridges is a full-time lecturer in public relations and is also a part-time PhD candidate at Western Sydney University, researching online social networking and breastfeeding support. She has over 20 years’ experience in the retail marketing and public relations field. Nicole has been an active volunteer with the Australian Breastfeeding Association for over 15 years and holds a Certificate IV in Breastfeeding Education (Counselling and Community), plus a Certificate IV in Training and Education. Nicole was also recently announced as the winner of the Mary Paton Research Award 2015.