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How can you approach the field digitally?

Reflections on using social media profiles in ethnographic research

by Simone Pfeifer

As contact restrictions tightened last year with the developing pandemic, ever more colleagues began asking me for advice on ‘how to do digital ethnography’, knowing that I had been doing it since long before the virus transformed life as we knew it. Their immediate concern was ‘how to enter their field digitally’ to transform their ‘conventional’ ethnographies into digital ones. Unable to continue their ethnographic research as planned, they started looking for alternative ways to (re)enter their fields from a distance, for example, by interacting via social media platforms or messaging services. How to engage with people digitally, participate in, and immerse oneself in digital settings, has been at the center of recent debates, but the significance of these questions extends far beyond the current pandemic situation, as I aim to demonstrate with the following reflections on my own practices of using ethnographic research profiles in three different research contexts.

Remote, digital, or hybrid ethnography?

In conversations with my colleagues, ‘the digital’ was usually used synonymously with ‘remote’ (Walton, 2018) or exclusively ‘online’ ethnography, overlooking understandings of digital ethnography that also encompass ‘offline’ engagement with people and their media practices (Pink et al., 2016), which have also been termed ‘hybrid ethnography’ (Przybylski, 2020). These approaches vary in degree and nuance in how they transfer the ethnographic tradition of long-term fieldwork and participant observation to online settings, and in the extent to which ‘offline’ everyday life is part of the research. In a recent talk on digital ethnography, Annette Markham (2021) reflects on her research and asks, among other things, what we can gain from participation online that we would not otherwise be able to access. Her distinction of different degrees of participation in social media networks is what I want to focus on in this blog post – set in relation to platform dynamics and research profiles.

Various approaches to observation and participation may be taken in digital contexts: from ‘lurking’ to observe everyday routines to more active and collaborative participation that seeks to better understand media practices and the social relevance of skills in everyday digital encounters. Often, reports only briefly mention how ethnographers initially entered their digital fields, what kinds of self-identifying profiles they used when they started conducting their research, and how those profiles may have evolved and gained access to different kinds of practices over time. The most upfront discussion on configuring social media accounts for research that I have encountered to date is Liz Przybylski’s (2020: 59) guide to hybrid ethnography in which she reflects on building a network, posting, and interacting with social media profiles. It is exactly these kinds of reflections on participation and positionality that I see as closely related to and a prerequisite for the methodological framework of collaborative ethnography that Monika Palmberger and Philipp Budka outline in their opening post of this blog series. As we transfer our methods of participant observation to digital contexts, we need to reflect intensively on our own digital positionality and how we use profiles to engage with people and invite them to critically respond to us.

Case 1
Personal research profiles on Facebook

Between 2011 and 2014, I conducted a multi-sited ethnographic study in Berlin, Dakar, and online for my PhD research on the media practices and transnational social relationships of Senegalese (Pfeifer, 2019). I used my personal Facebook account that I had created in 2007. Initially, I only accepted Facebook friendship requests from people from my research field who I knew personally, with whom I had already discussed my research. As I began feeling uncomfortable denying friendship requests, I started accepting them from ‘friends of friends’. Over the course of my fieldwork, the ways I presented myself and my practices of engaging on Facebook evolved in multiple ways. The respective stage of my research and the locations and positionalities from which I was accessing Facebook at any particular time shaped the kinds of profile and background images, fieldwork-related photographic albums, and comments, tags, and likes I chose to post and upload. I carefully created subgroups for research-related friends and more private contacts so that I could address them separately. I made some of my posts and profile content accessible only to my research contacts, but left all my posts relating to other parts of my life visible for everyone. The settings offered by Facebook, as well as discussions on privacy in German-speaking public discourse, influenced my decision to be selective in what I was posting from personal or professional parts of my life.

Particularly when posts included photographs of myself that I sometimes felt obliged to present as a form of participation or were posted by Facebook friends, I feared they could be seen as clichéd assertions that I, the White German academic, ‘was there’, immersing myself and participating. As my fieldwork progressed, I became familiar with the practices of my interlocutors in their various contexts on Facebook; analogous to what John Postill and Sarah Pink (2012: 129) describe as adapting to particular communication strategies and conventions to maintain relations via Twitter. For me, this meant learning how to appropriately tag persons, like or comment on images, and when and how to respond to private messages. My practices were not only informed by participant observation online but also by my conversations and observations during ‘offline’ fieldwork. I often discussed images and comments and their incorporation into Facebook timelines in more in-depth interviews (Pfeifer, 2017). Since completing that research project, my Facebook profile has remained a crucial way for me to stay in touch with some of my interlocutors from the various fields, but has also evolved further to meet current research and professional networking purposes.

Case 2
Research-only profiles on Telegram

Together with my colleague Larissa-Diana Fuhrmann, I developed a very different approach to entering digital fields for our tandem research project investigating the online appropriation and circulation of audio-visual material produced by the so-called Islamic State (IS) and related groups as part of their religio-political agenda (see Fuhrmann & Pfeifer, 2020 for a discussion on ethical challenges). Due to the politicized and securitized nature of the field in the German context, especially given the institutional positioning of our research within a civil security funding framework, we decided to set up individual research-only profiles on Telegram and various social media platforms that groups like IS were using to circulate material at the time. These profiles were intended to protect our own safety as researchers, and also to enable us to separate our private and other professional networks from this particular field. We used dedicated smartphones for the same reason. Striving to be as transparent as possible, we consistently included our real names, occupations, and affiliation with the University of Mainz in our research profiles and when approaching persons online. Following some awkward conversations, I later removed my full last name from my personal research profile, and also changed my profile image from my portrait to a generic image. This served to protect my own privacy and security, and is common practice on Telegram, where users often adopt aliases to avoid identification by security institutions.

During the initial phase of our fieldwork, we generally engaged with interlocutors online, mainly on Telegram, through our research profiles. We began by introducing our research interests and conversing about particular posts or political incidents. Many were reluctant to chat with us, as discourses about spies were widespread among such groups, and we often encountered suspicions that we could be spies. This suspicion was not unjustified in a field that journalists and many other researchers (sometimes from security agencies) often tried to infiltrate by using undercover identities.

Most of the channels and groups that we joined as members were publicly advertised and could easily be accessed by simply clicking ‘join group’. During the course of our research, however, many Telegram channels changed their privacy and access settings as securitization and politicized discourses became increasingly charged in the German-speaking context. This meant that we could only access such groups and channels if we had previously been part of them or if they continued to accept our research profiles. In contrast to my active participation described above on Facebook, our approach was more observational, not least because certain forms of participation, like sharing certain images or videos, contravened platform standards, were illegal, or even unconstitutional. It was challenging and sometimes simply not possible to ask all group members whether they were willing to take part in our research and allow us to archive their contributions. Private conversations in German, English, and occasionally Arabic via messenger services were sometimes the only way we could obtain consent, and were often difficult to manage.

Case 3
Topic-centered and group-based research profiles on Instagram

The topic-centered research profile ‘Hashtag Islam’ on Instagram is part of an ongoing team ethnography of Muslim everyday life and social media practices in Germany. Unlike the two aforementioned cases, which concern the use of individual personal and researcher profiles, the shared account is managed by the four researchers Muna Ahmad, Larissa-Diana Fuhrmann, Maike Wiechert, and myself. In our weekly meetings we discuss and collaboratively write posts, and make decisions on all concerns related to the Instagram profile, through which we also each conduct our own related individual ethnographic research projects. Beneito-Montagut et al. (2017: 676) advocate using personal research profiles when doing digital ethnography in teams in order to maximize symmetry and reciprocity in exchanges. In our group, however, we chose to adopt collaborative writing and posting routines as they not only allow for more flexible pooling of resources but also open up cooperative ways to produce ethnographic knowledge.

In an initial phase, we identified and followed key actors in our field: individual and group profiles, hashtags, and topics on Instagram related to Muslim everyday life. By mentioning other public accounts in our weekly themed posts, we built a growing network of ‘followers’. Additionally, we made use of the platform’s visual architecture and its different ways of using hashtags. In an iterative process, we established our own visual style of posts, which aligned with the conventions of the field we entered. As Instagram is optimized for sharing one’s own audio-visual material rather than that of other accounts, and we were aware that many users are concerned about consent, we often addressed key actors via direct messages to ask if we could use their visual material. Furthermore, we introduced a regular series of posts recommending books and podcasts, and another series of anthropological statements that critically engage with terms that are central to our work or that we have encountered in our research.

Besides posts, Instagram’s ‘story’ function has proved very useful. Stories, which are visible for 24 hours, enable us to share content posted by other profiles. We usually use stories to publicize our new posts or to highlight thematically-related posts by other accounts. By curating other profiles’ content in themed stories, we create short narratives and also use stickers, gifs, short questions, and polls to encourage engagement with the stories. Additionally, ‘story highlights’ make selected stories permanently visible. Information about the project and our work is accessible in the profile’s biographical information. In response to questions received in private messages concerning our background as researchers, we inserted an ‘about’ section in the story highlights, which introduces the four team members with their individual research foci. With each of us speaking from very different positions, e. g. in terms of research, it is sometimes difficult to find the right tone or a common voice while at the same time making our different standpoints clear as we post on Instagram.

In addition to our collaborative work, the Instagram profile serves as a platform from which to conduct our individual research projects, for example, Maike Wiechert’s MA dissertation on commemoration practices in remembrance of the nine people murdered in a racist attack in Hanau on February 19, 2020, or my own research on gender-specific and affective dimensions of the appropriation of Islamic videos and images on social media, which also includes ‘offline’ fieldwork in female spaces in German mosques. These individual projects not only used the collective profile to connect with private accounts in direct messages; we also invited persons that we had met in different ‘offline’ spaces to follow the profile in order to discuss certain themes in more depth. The comments – some critical ­— that we receive in relation to our profile on Instagram encourage us to reflect further on our digital engagements, how we present ourselves, and how we curate the themes and styles of our profile.

To conclude: Multifaceted research profiles

Based upon my experiences, I propose utilizing research profiles as processual and flexible devices that can inspire us to reflect upon the multifaceted identities and positionalities that shape the relationships we forge in ethnographic research. In the three cases briefly discussed above, different strategies were adopted in order to explore the respective platforms and develop context-specific skills – to engage, participate, and immerse oneself into specific settings, just as is required when navigating ‘offline’ fields. Each research case brought its own personal, professional, methodological, and ethical challenges.

With careful reflection when setting up digital profiles and shaping how they evolve over time, researchers can make themselves visible (to an appropriate degree) and accountable as participant observers, rather than ‘lurking’ or standing by. This is essential if we are to participate, relate to, and collaborate in sensitive ways with the people we encounter in different online research settings. Carefully considering the implications of research profiles when configuring them not only enables research processes to be made more transparent and accountable, but is a prerequisite if we are to participate in digital contexts in ethical ways.

References

  • Beneito-Montagut, R., Begueria A., & Cassiá, N. (2017). Doing digital team ethnography: Being there together and digital social data. Qualitative Research 17 (6), 664–682. DOI: 10.1177/1468794117724500.
  • Fuhrmann, L.-D., & Pfeifer, S. (2020). Challenges in digital ethnography: Research ethics relating to the securitisation of Islam. Journal of Muslims in Europe, 9(2), 175–195. DOI: 10.1163/22117954-BJA10002.
  • Markham, A. (2021, January 28). Digital ethnography: More a mindset than a tool. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-EQ6begTms.
  • Pfeifer, S. (2017). Medienpraktiken der Nähe und Distanz: Soziale Beziehungen und Facebook-Praktiken zwischen Berlin und Dakar. Navigationen: Zeitschrift für Medien- und Kulturwissenschaften, 17(1), 55–75.
  • Pfeifer, S. (2019). Social Media im transnationalen Alltag: Zur medialen Ausgestaltung sozialer Beziehungen zwischen Deutschland und Senegal. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.
  • Pink, S., Horst, H., Postill, J., Hjorth, L., Lewis, T., & Tacchi, J. (2016). Digital ethnography: Principles and practice. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
  • Postill, J., & Pink, S. (2012). Social media ethnography: The digital researcher in a messy web. Media International Australia, 145, 123–134. DOI: 10.1177%2F1329878X1214500114.
  • Przybylski, L. (2020). Hybrid ethnography: Online, offline, and in between. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
  • Walton, S. (2018). Remote ethnography, virtual presence: Exploring digital-visual methods for anthropological research on the web. In C. Costa & J. Condie (Eds.), Doing research in and on the digital (pp. 116–133). New York: Routledge. DOI: 10.4324/9781315561622-8.

Acknowledgements

I am infinitely grateful to my colleagues Larissa-Diana Fuhrmann, Muna Ahmad, and Maike Wiechert for our ongoing collaborations. Together with the members of our research group, they provided insightful comments to earlier drafts of this blog post. Once again, I thank Pip Hare for her careful language editing. Furthermore, I thank all the participants of the panel ‘Digital Ethnography’ at the VANDA online conference 2020 for the lively discussions, and the organizers and editors Philipp Budka, Suzana Jovicic, and Monika Palmberger for facilitating the workshop and this blog, and for their helpful comments.


This post originally appeared on the Digital Ethnography Initiative (DEI) blog, University of Vienna, and builds on questions raised by Monika Palmberger and Philipp Budka in their first blog post for the series DEI Dialogues.


Simone Pfeifer currently works as a postdoctoral researcher in the research project ‘Jihadism on the Internet: Images and Videos, their Appropriation and Dissemination’ at the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. She holds MAs in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Cologne and in Visual Anthropology from the University of Manchester. She completed her PhD at the University of Cologne with a dissertation on the social media practices and transnational everyday lives of Senegalese in Berlin and Dakar. In her postdoctoral research, she focuses on the everyday experiences of Muslims in Germany, and on gender-specific and affective dimensions of the appropriation of Islamic videos and images in social media. Her recent publications include a monograph on social media in transnational everyday life (2020, in German, transcript Verlag), the co-edited volume Jihadi Audiovisuality and its Entanglements (2020, Edinburgh University Press), and the co-curated digital web application reCLAIM (2021). Contact: pfeifer@uni-mainz.de or blogs.uni-mainz.de.

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