From Online to Offline and Back: Moving
from Online to Offline Relationships with
Since its early days, the field of CMC research has been overwhelmed by a tendency to rely merely on ‘virtual methodologies’, that is, studying Internet-based phenomena through methodologies implemented by and through the Internet (Bakardjieva & Smith 2001: 69). Even when studies combined offline methodologies such as interviews with Internet users (for example, Correll 1995; Turkle 1996), almost no attention was given to the implications of moving from online to offline with research informants and of triangulating the two kinds of interactions and the data they generated.1 This chapter seeks to address this gap in the literature, by stressing the significance of combining online and offline interactions with informants when studying Internet use contexts and considering some methodological aspects implicated in this approach. To explore these methodological issues I draw on an empirical study which involved a move from online correspondence with patients who participate in interactive breast cancer web sites as part of the experience of their illness and recovery, to face-to-face interviews.
The chapter starts by discussing the strengths, as well as the potential risks, of choosing a methodology that combines online and offline interactions with informants. It then moves on to exploring in detail the empirical process that a move from online to offline might entail. Drawing on the experience of my study, this section discusses two key stages of the empirical process: first, establishing a relationship with informants online, and second, moving with informants from online to offline. The next section reflects on the differences and the similarities between the online and offline interactions with informants, considering both the informant’s and the researcher’s positions. Finally, the remainder of the chapter focuses on the implications of the move from online to offline interactions with informants for epistemology, analysis and the actual context being studied.