Bell spends a lot of verbiage in his piece on explicating what ethnography could or should mean in the context of cyberspace (whatever that could or should mean). While he manages to address quite a few reasonable approaches, and extend those approaches into issues of practice and ethics, I think he misses something that should be of central interest to us.
If the methodology of ethnography gives us fits when applied to cyberspace as a broad, theoretical concept, the first thing we should do is begin to focus on particular applications, rather than demand that "cyberspace" be a singular entity. Cyberspace is large; it contains multitudes. To expect a unified theory of cyberethnography that looks like a retrofitted version of traditional ethnography is a little silly. So how might this be applied situationally? If we're going to attempt to translate the methodology of ethnography out of the physical field and into the virtual, it makes sense to examine the ways in which our online subjects resemble those studied offline. Christine Hine asks, "Do you have to be logged on 24 hours a day, or can you visit the setting at periodic intervals?" The answer, I believe, lies in the offline study of similar subjects. What level of participation would you expect for a physically located study of the same people or ideas? I'm being a little facetious here, because this sort of methodological development presents obvious problems -- primarily, that an ethnographic study being conducted on the Internet will not necessarily have any analogue in the offline world.
My high school French teacher used to tell us that French was not English in disguise whenever we wanted to simply replace English words with French ones, without adjusting word order or context. The primary concern I have with the ideas presented by Bell and the conservative researchers he cites is that they seem to be approaching the Internet as if it were the offline world in disguise. I find it very difficult to accept research and analysis written in the 1990's as especially relevant to questions about how to use and examine the Internet in 2005; indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if I felt the same way about today's publications by the end of the decade. I don't see Bell and the others doing much beyond trying to fit the square peg of ethnography into the round hole of online community. The way I see it, it makes more sense to start from scratch and figure out an entire process that works for the Internet, than to start from the premise that the offline world and its accepted methods ought to be the baseline. (That said, I'm not sure I would agree with the claim that the Internet constitutes its own uniquely existent and identifiable "world," either.)
As with most contrarian blog posts, however, I don't have any solid suggestions for what I'm proposing. Ideas?