Rob Comber

Negotiating access with known and unknown others

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Traditionally online research has been interested in the processes of communicating with relative strangers. However, recent trends in interpersonal communication on the Internet suggest that we are now more likely to interact with people we already know, particularly through Social Network Sites This shift in online social interaction has serious consequences for the processes and ethical considerations of participant observation in Ethnography, particularly what it means to gain access to online groups. This paper draws on two ethnographic case studies, one where the primary interaction is with strangers and the other with known others and friends. The analysis highlights a process through which users, and therefore the researcher as participant observer, negotiate "friendship" as a means of access to strangers. Connecting with others has, at different stages of participation, experiential qualities of foundness, suddenness and builtness. The analysis suggests that Social Networks and Social Network sites provide a useful way for ethnographers to gain access to online groups. However, such access must be successfully and meaningfully negotiated in order to achieve a valid and ethical representation of the culture. The experiences of connecting with others suggest that researchers must be willing to provide rich contextualising information to participants and to deliberately express their identity as participant and observer. Such deliberate self-expression and the unfolding of relationships allow the ethnographer to position themselves within the online group and to better understand the interpersonal and structural facets of community life.


  • Social network site
  • access
  • friendship


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