Wednesday, April 12, 2006
in theory, this could be a gorgeous enterprise to publish on.
I've been working on some paper ideas lately about how you can't be an ethnographer of an online community without being an insider. That you lose so much if you come from outside the structure and study it, and you're locked out of so much information in social networking sites if you don't actually make an effort to be part of the community. It's sort of related, though, to be an academic and come to online social network sites just to grab data and not actually understand the culture that is going on there or the conventions of communication.
Okay, off my soapbox now.
i think part of the motivation is easy access to interesting data, to be honest. rather than looking for little communities of practice that focus on rationalizing eating disorders through community discourse about them, for example, you can find a perfect online community doing just that. Rather than trekking down to this group with a lot of video equipment to record interactions, you can just copy and paste their conversations into a transcript. Rather than needing a contact to really establish yourself within this group, you might be able to just log in with a nice degree of anonymity - and this possible anonymity among group members will probably also make it easier to get IRB approval for your research. And if you've already found a local group who does this and choose to study them, looking at this online group will help make claims that this isn't just a local phenomena, but has even spread out among the interwebs.
there are probably lots of good reasons, though just as many potential bad ones.
Now, online discourse/language, I think that's another matter, b/c the structure of the specific channel does make a difference. For example, a few years ago I did a discourse analysis project on a fan listserve (where yes, I had previously been a member). One of the things that interested me about this list was that it was distributed as digest-only, and therefore allowed for posts that were constructed with a high degree of intertextuality that made for very interesting ways of expressing ideas. If a researcher interested in language just went there to grab a chunk of talk, I think it's quite possible that not understanding the structure and affordances of the medium would potentially lead to incorrect/misleading conclusions about how language was used.
Plus it's just lazy.