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Internet ethnography – notes for a presentation

June 6, 2010

Internet studies until the late 1990s

  • A lot of hype about new Internet or virtual era
  • Binaries galore: virtual vs. real, online vs. offline, synchronous vs. asynchronous interactions…
  • Internet thought to be a realm apart – ‘cyberspace’

See Wellman and Haythornthwaite (2002), Miller and Slater(2000)

‘Second age’ of Internet studies, from 2000s

  • Internet no longer extraordinary but rather mundane, ordinary, everyday (in rich countries)
  • But careful not to take it for granted… internet today powerful precisely because so ordinary
  • No longer preserve of white middle-class US males
  • One key question: How do people ‘steal’ time from other activities for Internet uses?

Wellman and Haythornthwaite (2002), Miller and Slater(2000), Bakardjieva (2009)

Miller and Slater (2000) fieldwork in Trinidad

  • Groundbreaking ethnographic study
  • Internet not apart from but rather a part of everyday life in Trinidad, West Indies
  • Starting point not placeless ‘cyberspace’ but everyday contexts: home, workplace, Internet cafes, school…
  • Researchers surprised by reach of Internet, even in poor areas – expected huge ‘digital divide’

My own internet research in Malaysia (Postill in press)

  • In same vein as Miller and Slater – ‘followed’ internet across whole range of contexts (online and offline)
  • Although in my case at local not national level
  • …and in relation to the politics of local governance

Coming of Age in Second Life (Boellstorff 2008)

  • Ethnographic study of 3D virtual environment Second Life
  • Conducted wholly ‘inworld’ to understand SL on its own terms
  • Very different take from Miller and Slater: argues that you can indeed study the internet – or at least some regions within it – entirely online (see also Hine 2000)


  1. Bakardjieva, M. (2009) The Internet in Everyday Life: Exploring the Tenets and Contributions of Diverse Approaches.  In Burnett, R, M. Consalvo and C. Ess (eds) The Handbook of Internet Studies. Wiley-Blackwell.
  2. Boellstorff, T. (2008) Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  3. Hine, Christine (2000), Virtual Ethnography, London: Sage.
  4. Miller, D. and Slater D. (2000) The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. Oxford: Berg.
  5. Postill, J. in press Localizing the Internet: An Anthropological Account. Oxford and New York: Berghahn
  6. Wellman, B. and C. A. Haythornthwaite (2002). The Internet in everyday life. Oxford, UK; Malden, MA, USA, Blackwell Pub.
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