Online Communities and Digital Research Methods: a cautionary note

One of the most exciting things about the internet from a sociological perspective is the impact it has on the formation of communities – groups who might otherwise be too geographically dispersed are able to come together, often elaborating some degree of collective identity from the dialogues which ensue as they gather in this ‘virtual’ space. Furthermore the same process which enables the community to form also enables it to be studied. Online communities represent potent sites in which digital research methods can be used to study groups who, again, might previously have been too geographically dispersed to be studied and/or would not even be recognisable as a group prior to their coming together online. From the perspective of someone who has done this sort of study (in my case on the asexual community) it really can be quite exciting. However I’m increasingly aware of the risks inherent in such approaches which, as digital research methods solidifies as a distinct specialism, look set to grow.

  1. The actors you find in online communities are, well, actors. The specificity of their personhood is not reducible to their participation in the community. The community might be hugely significant to them or, conversely, it might not be significant at all – more likely any given individual will occupy some point on this spectrum. Exactly what point this is remains, unavoidably, an empirical question. It is a mistake to infer past motivations and history on the basis of present participation in an online community. 
  2. Similarly participation of individuals in an online community is not reducible to their activity as actors. Someone might read a forum daily, never posting, yet define the contours of their identity in terms of what they read. Thanks to Jon Hickman for pointing this out to me: lurkers are participating too! It is a mistake to reduce participation in an online community to observable ongoing activity. 
  3. Online communities regularly have ‘offline’ out growths and the two spheres, which can seem distinct from the perspective of the researcher, might in reality interpenetrate in complex and messy ways. Granted it might be difficult to study the offline aspects of the community but be creative! It is a mistake to reduce online communities to the collective activity which takes place online. 
  4. The fact that online communities allow geographically dispersed individuals to congregate around a given shared characteristics often leads to the formulation of some apparently shared identity. Furthermore, given the nature of the online vehicles which host such communities, this shared identity often pervades the ‘online space’ itself. However just because people participate in a community doesn’t mean they partake in a shared identity. This seems an obvious point but, I fear, it is easy to ignore because it is often this apparently shared identity which motivates the research into a given group online. It is a mistake to infer a collective identity on the basis of prima facie empirical evidence: this is often an artifact of the research design and/or the process which allowed the community to form. 

Mark Carrigan is editor of the Sociological Imagination. He blogs about stuff here and tweets about things here.

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