Working while lurking: A brief look at participant observation in online forums

In offline situations, many social science researchers have employed ethnographic methods as a means of understanding and describing different culture and behaviours. However, ethnographic methods can also be used online for studying various types of excessive behaviour. For instance, I argued in a 2010 paper in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction that by being online, gaming researchers have the capacity to become a part of the phenomenon that is being studied. Recently, I along with a number of my research colleagues at Nottingham Trent University, published a paper in Studia Psychologia that online forums are providing a new and innovative methodology for data collection in the social sciences.


For those who don’t know, ethnography focuses on accounting for the actions and intentions of the studied social agents, and outlining how such behaviour is rationalized and understood by the wider group. Traditionally derived from anthropology, ethnography aims at studying people and their behaviours and cultures within their socio-cultural contexts. Behaviours and communications are engulfed with meaning by being situated within the field site. What is needed on behalf of the researcher is what Dr. Clifford Geertz described as the production of a “thick description” of what takes place in these field sites to discern the latter’s contextualized meaning.

When it comes to virtual (i.e., online) ethnography, it is important to notice that while in-person ethnography is constrained by the laws of the physical world where the researcher needs to interact with the participants, online ethnography or as Dr. Robert Kozinets calls it in his 2010 book about online ethnography – “netnography” – can be done in a more unobtrusive way without the need to interact with the participants. Lurking is a possibility that Dr. Kozinets describes as opening a “window into naturally occurring behaviour” without the interference of the researcher.

Virtual ethnography takes the idea of participant observation a step further by challenging the notion of a geographically bound and relatively stagnant field site by replacing it with the virtual sphere that has no set boundaries. In this respect, virtual ethnography is what Dr. Christine Hine says “ethnography in, of and through the virtual”. The Internet is used as place, topic and means of research. It is an important qualitative online methodology and has been used in a variety of different research endeavours, including the studies of people’s explorations of multi-layered identities on the Internet, different levels of online experience, and playing Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games such as Everquest.

There are a number of principles that underlie virtual ethnography. Ethnographers must immerse themselves in the (virtual) field site in order to gain an in depth insight into why and how interactions take place and what they mean within the context of the respective virtual sphere. However, the relationship of the latter’s agents to their real (embodied) lives cannot be disregarded. The online space is a space ‘in between’ that is connected to the world outside of the Internet. Therefore, virtual ethnography is but a partial study and cannot deliver a full account of what it sets out to study. It can never be a holistic approach. Nevertheless, this is aided by the researchers who must be reflexive about what they experience, and about the method they use. The involvement of the researcher and the researcher’s interpretation of the actions and communications that occur within the virtual field site are integral to this type of research. In addition to this, the technology of the Internet itself is essential because it provides the tools for, the objects and the context of analysis.

Given the wide variety of advantages of and important insights virtual ethnography can offer for the researcher, potential disadvantages also need to be taken into consideration. The researchers’ active participation in the field site offers them the possibility of in-depth insights that would not be possible without their involvement. However, at the same time, they might lose their critical distance towards the object of their study. Sacrificing some critical distance therefore is a trade-off for in the collection of invaluable and profound data. As Dr. Christine Hine notes, these data are necessarily biased by the researchers’ experience and perception of online interactions in the respective realm that, due to their immersion, is knowledgeable and familiar.

Dr. Adrian Parke and I applied online ethnography to the study of poker skill development within online poker forums, and published our findings in a 2011 issue of the International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning. Our study was a virtual ethnographical research design looking at how poker gamblers utilized computer-mediated communication (CMC) to develop their poker skill and profitability, and to examine the factors associated with problem gambling. The study was a six-month participant observational analysis of two independent online poker forums. Dr. Parke participated in poker gambling during the entire study period and used strategies proposed from forum members to develop poker ability. This approach provided an insider’s perspective into how skill development through CMC affects poker gambling behaviour.

We generated forum discussions regarding specific behavioural concepts and cognitive processes based on accumulative analysis of emergent data from the online poker players. Forum interaction was observed, monitored and analyzed through traditional content analytic methods. Membership and participation in such online community forums provided poker players the opportunity to benefit from the consequences of reporting gambling experience and acquiring both poker gambling structural knowledge and skill.

One of the key advantages of data collection via online forums is that it can provide a detailed record of events that can be revisited after the event itself has finished. Furthermore, screen captures can be taken and used as examples or related back to the data collected – something that has been used in the gaming studies field (and outlined in a 2007 paper I published with Dr. Richard Wood in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction). Study findings can be posted on bulletin boards and participants have the opportunity to comment on their accuracy or comment on any other observations that they may have. This also helps to empower the participant and can prevent misrepresentation.

Given the increase in the number of hours we now spend online every day, carrying out research online is going to become an ever more popular (and useful).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. London: Fontana Press. 

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The use of online methodologies in data collection for gambling and gaming addictions. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 8-20.

Griffiths, M.D., Lewis, A., Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Kuss, D.J. (2016). Online forums and blogs: A new and innovative methodology for data collection. Studia Psychologica, in press.

Hine, C. (Ed.). (2005). Virtual methods. Issues in social research on the Internet. Oxford, UK: Berg.

Hine, C. (2000). Virtual ethnography. London: Sage.

Kozinets, R.V. (2010). Netnography. Doing ethnographic Research Online. Sage: London.

Parke, A., & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Poker gambling virtual communities: The use of Computer-Mediated Communication to develop cognitive poker gambling skills. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 31-44.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Online data collection from gamblers: Methodological issues. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 5, 151-163.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Eatough, V. (2004). Online data collection from videogame players: Methodological issues. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 7, 511-518.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on September 6, 2016, in Addiction, Case Studies, Computer games, Cyberpsychology, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Gender differences, I.T., Online addictions, Online gambling, Online gaming, Psychology, Social Networking, Technological addiction, Technology, Video game addiction, Video games and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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