The Best of Both (Virtual) Worlds: Using Ethnography and Computational Tools to Study Online Behavior

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In recent years, many ethnographers have conducted participant observation studies in virtual worlds, whether in games like World of Warcraft or user-generated environments like Second Life. However, the acceptance of digital fieldwork as a legitimate form of ethnography does not make it strictly identical to its physical counterpart. In particular, the logistics of virtual ethnography offer both opportunities and pitfalls that practitioners must address. The virtual nature of the space also compounds traditional issues such as generalizability and coverage. In this paper, we will highlight several interesting opportunities and challenges in conducting ethnography in virtual worlds. Moreover, we will then argue that the common problems shared by quantitative and qualitative social scientists in virtual world research serve to bridge the methodological divide, such that virtual ethnography could be greatly enhanced with the use of computational tools usually more associated with quantitative research methods. We will rely on examples from our own research projects to illustrate the value of such a combination and describe how it could be concretely implemented in a “digital ethnography toolkit.”

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