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online/offline, virtual/digital, solicited/unsolicited: doing research online

by on August 29, 2016

This summer, things have really been heating up on the project as we get stuck into data collection. All of our data collection relies on the internet to some extent, whether extending traditional ‘offline’ social science instruments to be used in online environments (e.g. online diaries) or ‘natively digital’ (Rogers 2013) approaches (more on this later). Whilst doing research online was initially attractive because it offered some apparent novelty, what Katherine and I understand ‘the digital’ to be has evolved quite considerably.

Like many other social scientists, the ubiquity of the internet and devices which allow people to use and contribute to it, have encouraged both Katherine and myself to explore how we can harness the internet in our research. This interest was sparked after a presentation by Sarah Royston at Behave 2014, where she undertook an online ethnography to understand domestic energy practices. Like Sarah, we see this area as potentially fruitful for domestic energy research, particularly since the number of people (and therefore potential research participants) who are active online is enormous, and because of the ways in which future domestic life will be determined by and determining the internet. Yet, how we might go about undertaking such research is not quite as clear cut as we first imagined…

What we understand ‘the digital’ to be, how it relates to everyday life, our role as researchers, and how we might engage with it, are difficult questions to address. Naively, I wrote a funding bid in which I said I would undertake a ‘netnography’ without fully understanding the wider social science methods debates within which netnography exists. As I have since discovered, a wide variety of approaches exist which are quite distinctive in the way that they deal with, for example: online/offline; structure/agency; human/nonhuman; animate/inanimate (although we must desist from using binaries!). Others have provided helpful histories of how social science has researched the internet, so I won’t bore you all by repeating them here. However, it is useful to highlight the most recent debates, those which concern the distinction between virtual and digital methods, since this is relevant to our current work.

As far as we can tell, virtual methods (we use this term loosely), largely informed by sociology and anthropology, are essentially an extension of traditional social science methods (e.g. questionnaires, surveys, ethnography) used to undertake research on the internet (e.g. online questionnaires, online/virtual ethnography). The approach predates that of digital methods and, using critical thinking, has highlighted that there is no real difference between online and offline worlds. Netnography, articulated most fully for market research, may therefore be regarded as a form of virtual method since it is concerned with extending existing ‘offline’ approaches to online environments. Arguably, what makes netnography distinctive is that it is fairly prescriptive in terms of the specific steps which are undertaken, so if we understand virtual methods as an epistemology, netnography is one of its techniques.

By contrast, digital methods is a more recent development, led primarily by social scientists interested in new media and computational social science. The main difference between virtual and digital approaches as far as I can see, is that digital methods use methods and data which are ‘born’ in the internet. Digital methods use techniques such as crawling, scraping, crowd sourcing, folksonomy, and recommendation systems to gather and analyse data, using objects and content that originates online. So, one might undertake analysis of searches undertaken using search engines to explore how society responds to particular events (cf. research on flu epidemics), or might use hyperlinks to explore social networks. The idea is that this type of research would not be possible ‘offline’ because these techniques and the data they rely on are not available. Digital methods then is research with the internet, not research on/using the internet, as is the case in virtual methods (or any other predecessor).

Grappling with these different debates has been a steep learning curve for us, not least because the field is developing quickly. For now we are thinking about what these developments mean for our research and for domestic energy demand research more generally, as well as how we might add to these debates. Indeed, it seems we are straddling the virtual/digital divide in our research, which is something we will need to get to grips with. Likewise, we are interested in the distinction between solicited and unsolicited data (something not really explored in digital methods as far as I can see) since some of our data are solicited and some unsolicited. Moreover, in our solicited work, we are asking participants to use an app on their smartphones. This also means we should be mindful of the way in which different devices influence the data which are generated, and more broadly how devices are implicit in new knowledge generation across social science. So, just from this brief blog, you can see how what started as a rather naive project which sought to take advantage of the internet, has opened up (for us at least) a new set of debates we were completely ignorant of. At the very least, I have learnt much more about designing appropriate ‘queries’ (e.g. the form and format of keywords I should use when undertaking an online search), and how search engines influence the nature of research to an extent that I had not realised.

Thankfully, in our forthcoming seminar, we hope to hear from a range of other academics working with online/virtual/digital methods so that we can collectively get to grips with the complexities and messiness of research with the internet.

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