“Online Social Research”

This book draws together a collection of essays on online social research brought under three main themes: Methods, Issues and Ethics.

flickr photo by ianguest http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/21892449751 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Published in 2004, the areas researched are very contemporary to the era and include MUDs, MOOs Usenet, Forums. Whilst these still exist, it would be fair to say that things have moved on in the intervening decade. Social networking sites, mobile technologies and the ‘app’ infrastructure offer up an additional and rather different set of ecosystems to explore. These new spaces are environments to which people migrated, but perhaps more importantly have offered easier and more mainstream entry points for an increasing proportion of the population. Which all leaves me wondering about the majority of the literature I’ve encountered so far and how it can inform current research.

There are some universals the book covers which still apply; the differences and similarities between online and face-to-face ethnography; the extent to which the offline and online are blurring (a topic becoming increasingly significant); the importance of the approach the researcher uses when entering an online ‘field.’ The methods the authors employed during their studies at the turn of the century are still applicable now: online surveys/questionnaires, interviews, network analysis, discourse, text and language analysis. What we now have is a greater diversity of spaces where they might be applied, and arguably, a richer toolset to deploy.

Another area quite rightly discussed at length and still of importance, is that of ethics. I must confess to failing to appreciate how diverse and complex an area this is. Whilst the usual considerations of ethical behaviour have to be borne in mind, undertaking research online brings a multitude of additional concerns. It is possible to ‘lurk’ online in a way an offline ethnographer could never manage. How should a researcher disclose their intent? How can a researcher gain informed consent of the subjects under study if the study is in an environment with hundreds or thousands of participants? How much more difficult it is to anonymise data drawn from the online world … or even whether it is fair to do so. The legal issues of copyright and ownership of text (and multimedia) created online, which you might then wish to reproduce in your report. I have much work to do in this area.

As I move on from this book, I feel I need to seek out more recent research involving current online spaces. Are the methods currently being used the same as the ones we used ten years ago, or are newer, more effective options available?


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