If you’ve been on the research or client side of interactive, innovation, design and/or usability over the past few years chances are you’ve run into something like the above photo. This is just one of many that you can find on Flickr’s What’s In My Laptop Bag loop.

I’m throwing it up here because there’s been talk and surrounding photos like these as a type of “ethnography on the cheap.” In that context (and I’ll get back to context in a minute), I guess the value of such photos might be that, for designers of laptop bags, they offer a certain survey value of what people actually carry. But is the “actually” really actual?

Many of these photos seem to be hyper-staged. The one above reeks of Mac style sensibility: wood floors, everything lined up neatly, an Ikea (?) table and a copy of Fast Company just to let you know that the user takes his innovative business thinking seriously. Chances are, the owner is closer to the dude designing laptop bags than the man-on-the-street user that proponents of this type of visual research suggest they are representing.

But representation isn’t research, at least not ethnography. Case in point: personas. If you’ve read Post Number One on this blog, you’ll know that I, like many of my more erudite colleagues, think personas are a hop, skip and a jump away from being total bullshit. I know they keep some people who work in a social void on track when it comes to design etc., but they are not a valid ethnographic representation of anything more than fictionalized amalgamations of “research subjects,” “users” “consumers,” and other human “targets.”

Instead of ethnography on the cheap, I’d suggest that photos like these, when promoted as a research tool that exist solely on Flickr, actually cheapen ethnography. Given the number of non-anthropologists and firms hiring them that are currently running about the industry waving the I/We Do Ethnography flag right now, that’s the last thing we need.

Methodologies come and go, or at least get new values ascribed to them. But as a methodology, I don’t buy into the Flickr approach to user-gatherer culture. Maybe seeing what a vast number people I can’t talk with have somewhere (in closets, purses, drawers etc.) helps me get a sense of what I might ask/investigate when I actually (the real ‘actual’) meet them. But unless there’s a situated, context in which I ask and investigate, I don’t consider this ethnographic at all.

That’s not to say I don’t think the method can provide insights. Flickr’s great and all, but if you want to learn about what’s inside somebody’s something, how it might be used, what the relationships are between those things and – most important of all – the narratives of experience that can be told about and through those things, you need to meet the people.

So continue posting your baby photos, your pet photos and your foodie photos – but if you’re looking to truly, madly, deeply understand what makes a laptop bag tick from the inside, I suggest trucking the donuts, pop and crisp bills of the focus group to the street and teaming them up with couple of chairs, a little table and your field gear. Good research isn’t cheap.