What’s the issue with online data?

Hi All,

Having just read the Orgad piece on online/offline research, I understand and agree with most of what she says about deconstructing the distinction between online and offline research.  What still confuses me a bit is what she’s arguing against.  What reasoning supports maintaining an online/offline distinction in research?

Early in the article she points out that looking at the Internet as either a cultural artifact or a culture informs our choices about whether to collect information in an online or offline setting, and seems to be saying that this is the reason people put online data in a different category.  But rather than supporting a distinction, this seems to me to just confirm her point, that everything depends on what kind of information your research is trying to get at.

Towards the end, Orgad provides the quote by Pitts, who talks about the lack of offline data in her research as a limitation.  Pitts writes that she can’t confirm the identities of her subjects, and that got me thinking that maybe that’s the real reason researchers might feel that online research isn’t as reliable as offline, whether consciously or intuitively.  Is identity the whole issue?  Is there more to it than that?

Again, I definitely agree with Orgad, but I’m trying to think about this from different angles.


5 thoughts on “What’s the issue with online data?

  1. hannahmasterman

    I agree with you that I’m not sure what argument supports a distinction between online and offline.

    I’m trying to think about my own behaviour online vs. offline and think if there’s any noticable difference. I guess identity is the biggest thing — you can take any identity you like in an online forum. Another relates to the asynchronous nature of online forums. I think when you’re typing replies you have longer to think about what you’re saying, and can edit yourself. Whereas if you’re answering live you don’t have that luxury. So maybe offline seems more real because it has to be more spontaneous? I don’t know if that would be the data collected would be different though. Like you say, I guess it depends on what you’re studying.


  2. jessstarr88

    Just finished the Orgad article and basically had some of the same thoughts that you guys did. I think it seems pretty obvious that sometimes online data would be more desirable than offline data and vice-versa, but also that in certain cases a combination of the two would be ideal.

    I agree that perhaps the identity issue is the biggest sort of drawback for online data – and the lack of spontaneity perhaps plays a role as well. What I’m really interested in, though, is how online data, and especially online ethnography could be utilized for some interesting studies. We’ve been talking a lot in class about ethnography, and the many ways in which it can never be a perfectly authentic study of a certain culture/group of people, etc. I think that maybe online communities would be the exception to that rule. It would not be ethical I guess, but if one was interested in studying certain online communities than it would be much easier to pose as “one of them” to get more “real” or accurate information from the subjects. The subjects would not have to know that they were being studied, and therefore so many of those researcher/subject biases could be eliminated. Like I said, I’m sure this wouldn’t be ethical, but it does kind of put an interesting spin on the strengths and shortcomings of online data in ethnographical studies. But, as Hannah suggests, it all depends on what you’re studying.

  3. Brett Phillipson

    I’ve got to wonder if it’s a generational thing. It’s easy enough for us, having used the internet for most of our lives (and certainly our entire adult lives) to acknowledge a lot of the concepts Orgad is discussing – the internet as community, the “realness” of the online experience, the validity of data gathered online, etc. For people whose introduction to the internet came later in life, I can see that being a problem. I’m not trying to be condescending or to say that older people don’t understand the internet – many of them do, obviously. But I can see it being difficult to accept the legitimacy of what is a very new culture and a very new means of communication. So I don’t know exactly who Orgad is arguing against, but I can definitely see those sorts of arguments existing, and I think Orgad reaches out to them a bit by making the point that online communication is not the only kind that can be seen as “virtual”.

    I thought one point that Orgad brought up with regards to the authenticity or truth of online identities was interesting. She mentions critical readings of autobiography, and how all autobiographical speech or writing is “true” to the person saying/writing it, even if it may not correspond to what actually happened or to what they believed at the time of the event. Orgad actually discusses this in the context of face-to-face interviews, if I recall correctly, but I think it can be applied to online personae as well. Who we claim to be on the internet may not be who we are in our offline lives, but it is still a real identity, in a sense. Studying how those identities are constructed, within their cultural context (in this case, online communities) can, I imagine, be very illuminating.

    Personally, I’d love to read some ethnographic research dealing with online communities. I don’t know if I’ll have time to seek it out anytime soon (it’s that time of year) but it’s definitely a topic that interests me more generally.

  4. Jordan

    I think there’s a tendency, as Taylor talks about, to privilege certain types of data collection, and that’s what Orgad is getting at. I wouldn’t necessarily say that there’s no distinction between the two modes of data gathering. She talks about how different types of communication will lead to different research, that there is a difference in function between each mode of communication. But the relationship between the two is not hierarchical, which I think is the assumption. People have been interviewing and undertaking other modes of face to face data collection for a long time. The internet is still reasonably new and challenging to navigate. It might seem less reliable compared with methods that have been in place for a long time.
    Problems with identity and authenticity are not restricted to online research anyways. People tell bald-face lies face to face. The Taylor piece talks about this too. You don’t always know to what point the data you’re receiving is reliable, even face to face. The assumption probably underpinning the question of identity is that the interviewer will know when an interviewee is lying and when they are not, that a social cue will announce itself, and the interviewer will be able to distinguish authentic data from inauthentic. I’m not sure it always happens like that. A risk comes with the method.

    Also: How awesomely weird as the first paragraph of the Taylor reading? Is that from something?

  5. emmalb

    I had a very similar reaction to this as most of you. I agree with Hannah and Jess, it is all dependent upon what you’re are studying and what you are trying to argue. Obviously the issue of identity is going to be something researchers struggle with. I feel, while knowing who you are interviewing is important in most cases, it could be good not to know in other cases, a blind study. There are times that when biases can be placed by researchers on their interviewees if they know their identity. Conversely, not knowing the identity of who you are interviewing, especially through online interviews, can raise the issue of validity. Who are these people to have such views? Are they simply making things up to participate? etc. The main thing I have drawn from this reading and most of the readings for this course is that not every method is ideal for every research project, it is a difficult task to find which works for your study.

    – Emma Blackburn


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