"Online sources have created new forms of expression about everyday life"
The internet has created new opportunities and challenges for the qualitative researcher, including the way in which material is gathered, accessed and archived.
The internet can be used as a method of research through online interviews, focus groups, online observations, interactive chat and surveys. It is also a rich source of easily accessible archived data about people's lives.
Using the internet as a method
The internet can be used to facilitate a variety of qualitative research methods.
Online interviews for example are a popular internet-based method, which can be carried out through an email exchange or through a more instantaneously interactive chat forum.
Interviewing online has the advantage of being able to access geographically dispersed respondents and is more cost effective than meeting people offline.
A notable disadvantage to online interviewing is the lack of physical co-presence and bodily clues which the researcher would usually rely on in a face-to-face interview and this lack of non-verbal contact can make the development of rapport more challenging to establish and maintain. Counter-arguing this though is that the lack of personal contact with a respondent online makes the research perhaps less ethically demanding.
In an interview, conducted through an email exchange, interviewees have time to think through and formulate their answers rather than giving more spontaneous response which might be more revealing.
The process of interviewing through email can also be a much slower process than through instant messaging or talking face to face with someone; as a result conducting research through emails can be time consuming and also a long-term commitment for both the researcher and respondents.
Due to the relatively distant and impersonal aspect of online interviewing there is a greater risk of the participant withdrawing from the communication process. It therefore becomes particularly important for the researcher to maintain the interviewee's interest and engagement with the project.
Online interviewing could also be used in conjunction with offline methods for example following up an offline focus group or interview with email communication, or through carrying out online and then face-to-face interviews later.
The shift from an online to an offline relationship or visa versa can be a complicated area of negotiation in research and trust is an important factor in the success of this transition. Some interviewees may prefer the relative anonymity afforded to them by the online setting.
Using the internet as a source
The internet has seen a rise in new forms of inter-personal communication for instance through chat rooms, internet forums, blogs, home pages, bulletin boards, and virtual worlds.
These new online sources have created new forms of expression about everyday life giving a unique insight into the personal lives of many people and can yield a particularly rich source data for the qualitative researcher.
Weblogs or blogs as they are more commonly known are a particularly popular form of computer mediated communication which is unique to online culture, and their popularity has increased dramatically over the last decade.
Blogs are personally-created websites on which people develop and regularly update a commentary on a specific topic or use it to record their everyday life events, almost like an online diary with each entry listed in a reverse chronology.
Other people can then comment on the blogs and respond to each others' comments. Blogs often contain embedded images, photographs and hyperlinks to other sources, making them particularly interesting sources of visual as well as textual information.
The capacity to remain anonymous when posting internet material can raise some issues about authenticity, particularly as the writers of internet entries are able to play more freely with their identity and self-representation then they might otherwise have done offline. It is easier for an anonymous writer to deceive the researcher; however the way in which people construct their identities online may also be an interesting area for research in itself.
Other areas that the researcher should take into consideration when using online sources include finding and collecting relevant data; due to the infinite and intricate links on the internet it can become an overwhelming and quite time consuming process. Therefore it is important for researchers to set their own limitations to the amount of online searches that they do.
There are also other considerations such as issues of confidentiality, what is considered private material or public material, issues of copyright, and the representativeness and authenticity of material and consent to use it (Hewson, 2003, 52).
Study Number: SN 5475
Study Title: United Kingdom Children Go Online, 2003-2005
Principal Investigator(s): Livingstone, S., and Bober, M.
Date of Fieldwork: Phase I: summer 2003; phase II: January to March 2004; Phase III: autumn 2004
Abstract: This project conducted a thorough investigation of 9-19 year olds' use of the internet between 2003 and 2005. Work was conducted with girls and boys of different ages and socio-economic backgrounds across the UK in order to ask how the internet may be transforming, or may itself be shaped by, family life, peer networks and education.
The final report can be located at the following web address.
Citation: Livingstone, S. and Bober, M., United Kingdom Children Go Online, 2003-2005 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], November 2006. SN: 5475.