Studying People on the and off the Internet

I found a lot of what Orgad had to say about the blurring of the "online" "offline" line really interesting.
Researchers who study people online feel this weird tension about whether or not they should get to know their subject out in the real world but I wonder if people doing traditional ethnography worry about this at all.
I read a study for Children's Cultural Texts about three little girls who were really interested in Disney princesses. The study was conducted at their school but that means that the researcher has no idea what the kids are like at home. Maybe when they're in their rooms they have no interest in princesses at all, maybe they play Xena or cowboys or dinosaurs with their cousins. Maybe they play princesses at school because their friends do, maybe they are not struggling with the passivity of Disney princesses at all because when they play with their older brothers they are always the most kick-ass pink Power Ranger ever. I mean, it's probably a little unlikely but it could happen and if that's the case, there's probably some overlap between the two places, some overlapping personality traits and interests but still two different behaviors.
Without attacking this study at all, as far as I know, the researcher only studied the kids at school, she didn't even think about what they were doing off of school property. This doesn't really effect the outcome of her study it just means she set some reasonable boundaries for her work.
But here are internet scholars debating about whether or not they should incorporate offline information and I found myself wondering if maybe it wasn't such a big deal after all, if this is just researchers learning to justify their interests in a world that doesn't physically exist.
Shouldn't it just depend on what you are hoping to prove?

Devon

2 comments:

Heather said...

Devon,
As for your question, sometimes looking at both offline and online actions of users can highlight other aspects of an individual’s online world versus their physical reality. Doing so will prove something that may be different when only studying online behaviour. You may recall in INF 1001 when we read Miller and Slater’s “The Internet: An ethnographic approach” (I remember it because I had to present on that chapter!) that looked at Trinidadians and their actions online and offline within their community. Both Hine and Orgad mention this book, and I was thinking of it as well, since it pertains to studying people in cyberspace and ‘real’ space, and how people themselves in those two realities - is it a different representation of their actual self, or just another forum to discuss issues, socialize, and is embedded in one’s everyday life?
For the peer review, I looked at Option 5 (“The changing face of trust in health websites”), which examined people’s trust in health-based websites via primarily by web-based questionnaire. After reading Orgad, I thought how this article could have collected offline data by way of interviews (getting these interviews via snowballing, as Orgad mentions). Doing so may have highlighted a user group that would never even consider turning to the Internet for health information, because they’re the group that don’t trust what is available online. Online users already have some ‘trust’ in what’s online, or else they wouldn’t be turning to it for information in the first place. In her study, Orgad found nonusers’ experience “invaluable”, since nonusers of the Internet cannot be found online (p. 44). You’re correct in stating researchers must work within boundaries they set, and don’t need to go offline all the time to study Internet users (or non-users). But it sure makes for an interesting cross-comparison.
- Heather

Cathy McRae said...

Following our class discussion of the blog postings on this topic, I began to regret not having read ahead to these articles before completing the review paper assignment. I reviewed the paper " A view from the past: using the internet to rekindle weak ties" by Kelly Quinn. The paper examines the ways in which older adults (45 to 65) use the internet to reconnect with past relationships - such as old high school friends, past co-workers, etc. When reviewing the researcher's approach and methods I feel now that I may have had blinders on - I did not address the issue of online versus offline content. The researcher focused entirely on the online modes used for reconnection and how these technologies were employed and perceived by participants. Had the researcher explored reconnection techniques offline, how would this have changed/expanded her study? I suppose it would have drastically altered the scope of research, which is not necessarily a good thing. However, how accurate can her results be as they pertain to online reconnections if they are not shown to be unique to those that are offline?
In Orgad's study of women communicating online about breast cancer, she states that obtaining online and offline data was "crucial for making sense of the meanings of online participation and their use of the internet... (p. 38)." In the case of Orgad, an understanding of online communications is directly related to an understanding of participants' offline daily lives. In the case of the Quinn article, I believe the same could be said. Relationships that once developed offline and later re-established in some form online cannot and should not be separated from one another. How is one to dissect the nature of the new online relationship without understanding what the participant's offline relationships are like?
The above comments by Heather are insightful. Perhaps employing both approaches - online and offline - is not always necessary. In some cases however, it appears that this approach could add a new dimension of understanding and credibility to an existing study.

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