Richard Rogers gave what I thought was the most interesting talk of the conference on the social web and networked political protests thus far. Richard is particularly interested in “web epistemology” and asks whether the transfer (or application) of social scientific methods to the online environment dilutes the value of the ensuing findings? Owing to the problem of exhaustiveness, findings may become “indicators” as opposed to “grounded theory.”
So what methods exist for the study of online protest content? How do we study links, websites, search engines and social networking sites.
- Links can be studied using hypertext theory; small worlds; paths; and social networks. When we browse online we collect digital information from link to link thereby authoring a story, we leave a digital trace, a narrative that can be studied.
- Websites can be studied by assessing usability; eye tracking heat maps; site optimization. Increasingly, browsing has led to searching. For example, Google once used to have a directory on it’s home page. No longer.
- Search Engines can be studied as dark web matter since no search engine is able to connect to the entire world wide web. Users are looking at fewer and fewer results displayed by search engines. In fact, studies suggest we very rarely look beyond the first 20 results of an online search. One can also capture and study results generated by search engines. Such research shows both the stability and volatility of the web.
- Social networking sites can be studied by focusing on characteristics of profiles, which have become what one might call “post-demographics”. Richard used the ElFriendo.com website to display the profile characteristics of “friends” of Obama and McCain. These characteristics tend to cluster, with Obama friends sharing the same favorite movies and TV shows, for example; and McCain friends sharing interests that have little overlap with those of Obama friends.
In conclusion, Richard asks whether virtual worlds are really that virtual as they increasingly import and reflect characteristics from the offline world? Should we continue using the term virtual world? I’m really eager to read up on Richard’s excellent research.