Is ethnography like the evil side of Facebook?

While I am a Facebook user, I agree with those people who gets a bit unnerved by what Facebook monitors. Instead of just asking for feedback, they collect the raw data, therefore being able to get past how we would like to represent our internet use and finding out what we really do.

In some ways, types of social research are like this. I am bothering to spend time doing things because it allows me to get a sense of parts of practice and social relationships that people may not put into words if I asked them about the social side of their suburb.

Ethnography is more than just participant observation. There are various types of texts to be consulted and questions to be asked as a thick understanding is pulled together and put forward. Similarly, Facebook asks for feedback through those little crosses you can click to make something go away. It not only tries to work out what you think, but it then tries to check if it is getting it right, and presents you with a type of text in the form of your newsfeed.

There are some interesting differences though. While I tend to assume that Facebook cares so much about developing an understanding of what I do online for the purposes of selling targeted advertising opportunities, social research is generally not so concerned about individuals. While people comment on how ‘creepy’ it is that Facebook collects this information on us as individuals, I do not think I have ever heard anybody describe an internet search engine which works out which webpages are most likely to be of use based on what else links to them. I think we accept that looking at actual practice is useful for developing an accurate picture, but are not so sure that we want any understanding people develop to be used for convincing us to do something else.

The question I am left pondering is whether trying to predict the future plays any role in what is disturbing. Facebook, along with some of Google’s technology, tries to use the understanding of you it develops to predict what you will want to see and do in the future. Through trying to predict the future, it does shape what information you are presented with in your newsfeed and advertising. Applied research is also about predicting the future, but I have a hunch that one of the things humans are pretty terrible at is predicting the future when it comes to the social world.


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