Virtual Methods: Issues in Social Research on the Internet

By Christine Hine | Go to book overview

2
Internet Behaviour
and the Design of Virtual Methods

Adam N. Joinson

The Internet, and in particular the World Wide Web, has enabled social scientists to create a virtual laboratory where data can be collected twenty-four hours a day, across the globe, without the costs (time, transcription errors and financial) associated with more traditional methods of research. Just as the video camera revolutionized observation methods, so the Internet is fundamentally changing the ways in which we can observe, measure and report on the human condition and societal structures.

However, despite the increasing popularity of the Internet as both a methodology and as the object of research, it is relatively rare for these two separate literatures to cross-reference each other. In this chapter, I argue that an understanding of the social aspects of Internet behaviour is crucial to the effective design of Internet-based methodology. While the need for an appreciation of theorizing about online interaction is clear for qualitative methodologies, online experimental methods should also be seen within the context of a social interaction for a number of reasons. First, people tend to respond to computers as social actors (Nass, Fogg and Moon 1996; Moon 2000), and as such transfer modes of interaction used with other people to their interactions with new social technologies. Second, the flexibility of Internet-based (specifically World Wide Web) research methodology has encouraged people to experiment with ways to personalize the encounter between the researcher and the participant. So, it is not uncommon to encounter quite extensive information about the researcher or line drawings/smiley faces embedded within a survey (Nass et al. 1996; Tourangeau 2004). Such techniques will tend to have unexpected effects: for instance, by encouraging participants to reciprocate disclosure (Moon 2000; Joinson 2001a), or alternatively, by increasing participants’ face-saving motivation (Paulhus 1984). Finally, it is possible that all writing, from diaries to the completion of web-based survey instruments, is conducted with an audience in mind. So, minor changes in the salience or type of audience, or in the identifiability of the author, may well have noticeable effects on the nature of the information disclosed by the research participant.

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