Online conversations – a useful research resource or ‘Have your say’ irrelevance?

12 August 2010 Blog
Back to top
Lecture hall with students and their mac computers

While there are still significant numbers of people lacking access to the internet (some estimates suggest as many as 10 million1), it is now widely accepted that it has become an integral part of daily life and that many people want to ‘have their say’. As a result, the growth in social networking, blogging and online forums has created a huge reservoir of information about collective opinions and the way people lead their lives. A recent White Paper by Onalytica suggests that monitoring freely and publicly available web posts (‘buzz’) prior to the UK General Election provided a good indicator of poll results2. The paper also highlights the way in which debate in social media was largely driven by the content generated by influential media stakeholders, including the BBC and Guardian websites. The new government has latched on to this public desire to ‘have a say’ by launching the ‘Your Freedom’ website, aimed at collecting public suggestions about which laws to repeal – an initiative so popular that the site crashed on launch due to heavy traffic!3

So what are the implications of this for charities seeking to campaign, influence and communicate? It is tempting to dismiss much of the growth in online debate as an explosion of tabloid-fuelled populism, providing rich fodder for the ‘Speak Your Branes (sic)’ website, where examples of ill-informed, knee-jerk public reactions to current debates are mercilessly lampooned4. But to dismiss these online conversations would be to ignore the reality that individual decisions, whether as consumers or citizens, are influenced by online communication and interaction. Positive or negative word of mouth can be key to the success of a campaign, so all organisations looking to the public for support, whether financial, political or moral, need to engage with and understand the conversations that are happening online.

It is of course true that some conversations are more useful than others – it is difficult to imagine, for example, that those civil servants responsible for analysing submissions to the Your Freedom website will glean much from suggestions such as ‘repealing the 3rd Law of Thermodynamics’5, or indeed from the site’s countless conversations about restoring capital punishment. But this does not mean that all online debate is facile and/or populist. Those of us trying to get to grips with what the ‘Big Society‘ idea might mean for the sector, could do worse than look at recent conversations stimulated by a piece on The Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ website, which provides an insight into public response to the idea:6

Contributer A

The Big Society is likely to evaporate in popularity when people realise that well intentioned Oxfam ladies are no substitute for proper public services.

Contributer B

Whilst I accept that there are significant gaps and doubts regarding the concept of the Big Society, it is a massive oversimplification to write off the third sector (or civil society as we're supposed to call it now apparently) is all about well intentioned Oxfam ladies... There are thousands of third sector bodies all over the country combining volunteers and paid staff - many of them as qualified as any you will find in the private or public sectors. They frequently go where the public and private sectors fears to tread and work with the people that society has just decided to throw money at and hope they stay quiet.

In short, charities need to embrace the idea of virtual ethnography, or ‘webnography’7 – generating insight from computer-mediated social interaction in order to inform campaigning and communications strategies. But this is perhaps easier said than done. With the overwhelming amount of information available, how can you begin to make sense of it all? And how do you know that you’re doing it ‘right’? Anjali Puri highlights several key issues that need to be addressed to ensure a rigorous approach to webnography: What are the best sources of data? What should we study?

People interact online in numerous ways such as chatrooms, Newsgroups, public discussion boards, mailing lists or e-groups, social networks and blogs. All of these have advantages and disadvantages and choosing the types of sources to look at will depend on the particular issue that is of interest. Chat rooms, for example, may be a good way of understanding youth trends and developing an awareness of the language young people use. Newsgroups and discussion boards are a way of accessing the views of those who are more likely to be highly involved and motivated by a particular issue, and may therefore provide the most up-to-date ‘buzz’ – for example, disability charities campaigning on issues of equality and access to employment and services might find useful insight by looking at online discussions sparked by the government’s proposed changes to the benefits system. Blogs generally offer a profile of the blogger, with details of age, gender, location etc, which can offer the opportunity to study specific segments that are of interest.

Can we address issues of representativeness and authenticity?

Although the internet has penetrated deeply into society, we still need to consider the extent to which those who are most active, the bloggers and regular contributors to discussion boards, are representative of the wider population. It is difficult to draw a definitive conclusion about this, as the situation is constantly evolving and is also likely to depend on the target group. It would not be sensible to look to online sources to establish the views of low-income older people! In almost all cases, it will be necessary to combine insights from webnography with those gained from ‘regular’ research methodologies, such as interviews and focus groups.

We also need to consider issues of authenticity – how do we know that people are what they say they are? This is an issue even with more traditional methods of research (how do we ‘know’ that the person completing a postal questionnaire is the person to whom it was sent?) but it is even more of an issue in an arena where anonymity is commonplace and there is no direct interaction with respondents. It is not possible to remove this concern entirely but checks can be put in place to minimise risks, such as relying more on discussion boards and blogs where user profiles are available and assessing the extent to which posts ‘fit’ the profile.

How do we analyse the data?

Given the amount of information available, attempts at analysis can seem overwhelming. To make sense of it all, it is important that a process of filtering and categorisation takes place. News aggregators and alert services can assist with regularly checking for website updates and news on topics of interest. Text mining software can help to identify patterns in the data. There are also commercially available aggregation and analysis services. Automation is essential as it would be impossible to trawl through the thousands of pages of information that might be available. However, to some degree, it is important to retain a human element and a focus on the qualitative insights that webnography can deliver – most researchers would recognise the value of actually ‘doing it’ themselves and it is by actively reading blogs and discussion boards that some of the most useful insights can be obtained.

Mining the internet for insight is not set to replace traditional qualitative research methodologies. In particular, issues of representativeness and authenticity mean that it would be unwise to use it as the sole method of establishing public reaction to a particular issue, campaign or communication. However, used in conjunction with other techniques, such as focus groups, it can help to provide much richer and more vivid insight – not least because of the lack of inhibition that tends to be exhibited in online debate. It can be especially useful for those needing to understand the concerns, motivations and attitudes of young people, or for those wanting to engage with people already motivated by a particular issue. Clearly, basing a campaign strategy on the musings of contributors to one or two newspaper discussion boards would be foolish, but the ways in which this information might contribute to, and help frame, further research should always be included in the planning process.

Add new comment

Image used under Creative Commons license, thanks to luc legay