Written by Dr. Hannes Nel
Should you steer clear from using data found on the internet for your research?
Are the possibilities that such data will be false or tainted too high to justify its use?
Is information in books more authentic, accurate and valid than data on the internet?
How does your study leader feel about this?
I discuss the internet as a source of data in this article and the article following on this one.
Written documents, oral interviews, demonstrations and many other data sources can be found on the internet. The internet can be used to gather data as well as to actively construct meaning through participation in social media networks. It is true that many internet sources of information are of poor quality, not well-researched and unreliable. However, internet data is often much more recent than what is written in books and old information is often no longer relevant and, therefore, worth less than information on the internet. What is needed when consulting and using internet data is a good measure of logical thinking and corroboration. Triangulation is the obvious way in which to ensure that the data that you find on the internet is valid, although, as many of you probably already noticed, surprisingly many internet articles contain much the same, sometimes even identical information. This is probably because people obtain information on the internet and use it in their own articles without acknowledging their sources or making any effort to rephrase what they copied.
The internet is an umbrella term for innumerable technologies, capacities, uses, and social spaces. Because the types of social interaction made possible by the internet vary so widely, qualitative researchers find it necessary to define the concept more narrowly within individual studies. This is complicated by the fact that the study of the internet cuts across all academic disciplines. There are no central methodological or theoretical guidelines, and research findings are widely distributed and decentralised.
Internet technologies are ubiquitous and mobile. You have access to more books, articles and other data sources via your cell phone than what can be found in the books in university libraries (although university libraries now also offer access to the internet).
The internet is often regarded as a tool for collecting information because of how easily researchers can gain access to groups, download texts, capture conversations, observe individual and group behaviour, or interact with participants at a distance. A researcher might also utilise various capacities and interfaces available via the internet to augment or replace traditional qualitative methods of collecting, storing, sorting and analysing information. The internet is also associated with the use of data analysis software, even if it is not strictly necessary to enable the functioning of such analytical tools.
The internet can also be experienced as a place. Therefore, you might conceptualise it as a field site. The internet facilitates the formation of relationships and communities. If these cultural formations rely on the internet for their composition or function, they are considered ‘internet-mediated’ or ‘digitally saturated’. Researchers of such cultural formations or network sociality might take their methods from a wide range of disciplines.
You will find that your emphasis in the use of the internet will shift depending on your ontological and epistemological premise, research goals and the specific form of the research question, hypothesis or problem statement. Rigorously analysing the connections between your questions, the subject of inquiry and the possible methods of collection, analysis and interpretation is an essential part of all good qualitative research. As the purpose of your research is identified and your study unfolds, certain characteristics of the internet will become more meaningful to you and those who will read your research report.
The following characteristics portray the internet much like a two-edged sword – it offers valuable facilities but also some flaws and threats:
1. Communicating and connecting.
2. Presence and location.
3. Flexible time.
4. Contexts of social construction.
Communicating and connecting. As a communication medium, the internet provides multiple means and modes of interaction, offering many choices and platforms for finding self-identity, building relationships and developing communities. We use the internet to help with many communicative activities.
For the most part, researchers focus less on the actual platforms for performance or networks of connections, than the communities made possible by the networks or the texts, still and moving images, and sounds facilitated by these networks. Researchers use the internet in ways that parallel but depart from or extend earlier communication media, such as letters, telephone, bulletin-boards, etc. Keep in mind, though, that the internet does not fully replace, but rather augments earlier communication media, at least for the time being.
A deficiency of the internet as a means of communication is that people easily misinterpret messages if they can’t see the speaker or writer. This is because social media, such as emails and Facebook, do not show the communicator’s body language, tone of voice or facial expressions. Even when using media where the communicator can be seen, for example in some visual media, the communicator can interfere with the clarity or meaning of the message, for example by wearing a mask and masking the voice.
If used as a research tool, the internet and its capabilities should be matched to the goals, topics and participants of the research project. There are many creative possibilities. Examples are not given here because the internet changes rapidly and new tools become available while old ones change all the time. Besides, students use social media not only for academic research but also in everyday social communication, with the result that most of them can think of better and more recent examples than what are written in a book, which might be a year or more old.
Presence and location. The internet brings many people who are geographically dispersed into contact with one another regardless of the distance between them. In this manner people can establish interactive contact globally through sight and hearing. In other words, the internet extends our senses, allowing us to see, listen and reach well beyond our local sensory limits. Many decades ago, we could communicate over long distances by telephone and two-way radio, telegraph and facsimile. Electronics, specifically the improvement of digital and networked quality of communication and information-sharing, substantially improved our ability to communicate while geographically dispersed.
Thanks to the internet, the meaning of “presence” has changed to include being able to communicate via the internet rather than just proximity to one another. We can communicate while seeing one another on our computer or cell phone screens.
The internet facilitates the development of varied cultural forms. Researchers might study communities that exist solely online in immersive environments. These ‘virtual worlds’ can have defined boundaries and stable cultural patterns. Alternatively, researchers might study how location or presence is more a temporary gathering of several people. We have witnessed how students in many countries rally to air their frustration with high university tuition fees. They extensively use the internet to start and grow the campaign and to gain international support for their plight.
Flexible time. The internet is not time bound. You can read something on the internet, stop halfway through the document and continue from where you stopped later. This enable us to manipulate time to suit our own schedule and the time that we have available for doing research.
Interaction on the internet occurs in multiple modes, alternately or simultaneously. This multi-modality is meaningful when designing or capturing interactions in the research context. We normally employ more than one internet-modality at the same time. You can send status updates to your social network, play interactive games with friends, download music, update your blog and watch videos simultaneously. Even more, your computer can warn you when a message is received, and you can check the message without closing any of the other modalities on which you are working. These functions can be studied as phenomena or used as tools to augment the ways in which you engage and communicate with the target group for your research.
You can also use the facilities that your computer offers to conduct interviews. Creative researchers can even use technologies in ways unintended by the designers. Also, what you are doing on your computer is mostly invisible to other people (unless you intentionally involve them in your work), which gives you a good measure of confidentiality.
Contexts of social construction. Computers and smart phones can filter our worlds to bring only information that we are interested in, to our attention. Different applications allow you to access and use many different sources of information and electronic tools. Some of the applications might be interactive, allowing you to participate in certain activities or communication while others allow you access but not to manipulate the information or services provided.
We often use different applications to communicate with different audiences. Some tools allow us to select the participants with whom we wish to communicate. This is especially useful for interviewing and communicating with focus groups.
The internet comprises expansive forms of presentation and interaction that can be observed immediately and archived. This capacity facilitates our ability to witness and analyse the structure of talk, the negotiation of meaning and identity, the development of relationships and communities, and the construction of social structures. Linguistic and social structures emerging through social interaction via the internet provide us with an opportunity to track and analyse how language builds and sustains social reality.
The internet is unique in that it leaves visible traces of actions, movements and interactions. Internet technologies allow us to see the visible artefacts of this negotiation process in forms divorced from both the source and the intended or actual audience. This can give you, as a researcher, a means of studying the way social realities are displayed or how these might be negotiated over time.
- Is an umbrella term for innumerable technologies, capacities, uses and social spaces.
- Is associated with the use of data analysis software.
- Facilitates the formation of relationships and communities.
- Is a communication medium.
- Is dynamic and continually expands and improves.
- Brings many people who are geographically dispersed into contact with one another.
- Offers us different applications to communicate with different audiences.
- Facilitates the development of varied cultural forms.
- Is not time bound.
- Can filter out events and phenomena to bring only information that we are interested in, to our attention.
- Leaves visible traces of actions, movements and interactions.
Not only can you find data on the internet; you can also use it to construct meaning.
Internet presentation and interactions can be observed and archived.
Data found on the internet must be checked for validity and accuracy.
You must give recognition to internet data sources that you use in your research.
Both researchers using qualitative and quantitative research approaches can use the internet as a source of information and for many other purposes.
The internet has become so rich and flexible in the data and research facilities that it offers that we can no longer ignore it.
Even so, you still need to accept information that you find on the internet with great circumspection.
Because some of the information on the internet is false.
Some people deliberately post information with deviant motives in mind.
But this also applies to books and articles that people write.
Even things that people say are not always true.
Therefore, you need to corroborate all the data that you gather, regardless of the source where you found it.
Enjoy your studies.