Web Sphere Analysis: An Approach to
Studying Online Action
Steven M. Schneider and Kirsten A. Foot
Online action what people do (or do not do) alone and together on the World Wide Web and via other Internet applications, is drawing the attention of a wide range of social researchers. The World Wide Web (hereafter referred to as ‘the web’) can be viewed as an evolving set of structures supporting online action, which manifests and enables the production, inscriptions and experience of cyberculture with a myriad of social, political and cultural dimensions. The hyperlinked, co-produced and evolving characteristics of the web necessitate reconsideration of traditional research methods, and the development of new ones. Each of these characteristics poses particular challenges for researchers. For instance, the hyperlinked and multilevel nature of the web makes the identification and demarcation of units of analysis a critical but difficult task. Seemingly straightforward questions, such as what constitutes a web site, and from what or whose perspective (that is, robot, browser or human) that question will be framed, require careful consideration. The co-produced nature of the web, evidenced in the joint production by multiple actors of many features and much content, makes problematic the attribution of authorship to producers of specific bits. The often rapid and unpredictable evolution of the web is one of the greatest challenges scholars face as they seek to develop methodological approaches permitting robust examination of web phenomena over time
Scholars from a variety of disciplines are interested in analyzing patterns within and across web materials some in order to document and make sense of webbased phenomena, others to understand relationships between these patterns and factors exogenous to the web. We suggest online action can be explored, and at least partially explained, through an examination of web objects. These objects, including texts, features, links and sites, can be viewed both as inscriptions of web producers’ practices and as potentiating structures for online action on the part of web users. In this approach, web objects and the technologies used to create them are considered as tools that are employed in and that mediate these practices as well as artefacts resulting from them.