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Facebook for ethnographers: data-­rich, distracting, and awkward

September 17, 2012

Since we’re on the subject of social media ethnography, this coming 12 October 2012 I’ll be presenting at an invited workshop on ethnographic approaches to Facebook at Aarhus University, Denmark.

In my talk I will draw from recent fieldwork into social media, activism and protest in Barcelona (Spain) to discuss the possible costs and benefits of doing ethnographic research on (or via) Facebook. On the one hand, I highlight the huge potential for data gathering, triangulation, collaboration, and debate that Facebook offers ethnographers, including those working on non-digital topics. On the other, I suggest that Facebook can also hinder the researcher’s efforts if used excessively, unthinkingly or at the expense of other platforms and offline sites.

More ambiguously, there is Facebook’s inherent awkwardness as a social space. As several authors have pointed out, Facebook collapses the inner walls of our personal networks, creating a digitally mediated form of ‘open plan’ sociality. In the specific case of ethnographers, Facebook brings into their semi-public personal spaces two sets of significant others, namely the researched and the non-researched, sometimes even blurring the distinction between the two. This is the stuff of scientific insight – and potential trouble.

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