Alternative Press, Electronic Sources and Resources
Usenet, chat rooms, web forums, social media sites, and other varieties of electronic discussion groups all have the potential of being both research resources -- providing information that can reveal much about a company, person, product or service -- and research tools -- providing ready-made focus groups, survey groups, or target markets.
Such groups come in a variety of flavours: moderated and unmoderated; publicly accessible or password protected; available to everyone or open only to those who qualify; or made unexpectedly public by the technology, by deliberate grants of access, or by the actions of others. Some are purely informational, with postings consisting of news and announcements; other encourage interactivity. To identify groups of interest, begin with:
A Question of Ethics and the Law
Before plunging in whole-heartedly, it behooves us to understand something about the dangers, ethics and legalities of using discussion groups in this way. Just because someone has posted an opinion does not mean that a reader is free to use it just as he or she likes. Consider:
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- Monitor groups (in lurk mode) for comments, observations, complaints and kudos about products and services delivered by your company. Groups can provide an excellent early warning system for public relations problems.
- Monitor groups (in lurk mode) for comments, observations, complaints and kudos about products and services in which you or your company are interested in purchasing or acquiring.
- Identifying a potential market. If you are manufacturing Buffy the Vampire Slayer action figures, a line of goth clothing, or even tours of the sites mentioned in Dracula, the related discussion groups might give you a ready-made audience.
- Search potential employees for insight into their interests, opinions.
- Search current employees to determine if they are propagandizing against the company, using company computer resources inappropriately, etc.
- Set up a group specifically for your customers.
- Set up a group for anyone interested in discussing your products and services. This can be problematic if the group is unmoderated; trolls may creep in and destroy the usefulness of the group.
- Monitor groups openly (ie identifying yourself as a member of a particular company) for comments, observations, complaints and kudos about products and services delivered by your company, and serve as (impromptu) customer support.
- Participate anonymously or under false pretenses to hype or trash a product or service.
- Survey an identified group through a questionnaire. This might be an uncontrolled group (eg usenet) or a controlled group of company customers.
- Use your sig line as a promotional tool.
- Collecting any information from those under 18 should be considered very carefully in light of legal, privacy, and ethical issues.
- Limit your own vulnerability. Post from a single use email address. Receive all your responses there. Guard your personal information. Make sure your privacy settings are appropriate. Remember that everything you post has to potential to re-appear when and where you least expect it.
- Follow the rules. Read the FAQs. Lurk before posting. Don't be the UNAPOSTER. Don't be a troll. Don't get distracted from your objectives.
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Groups have a number of varying attitudes about the idea of research. Some groups have had specific rules against using their participants for that purpose. The Something Fishy Website on Eating Disorders Chat Rules stated, for example:
- "The chat rooms are also NOT meant for users to conduct research for book reports, research papers, a college thesis, etc. They are for those suffering with an Eating Disorder, or their friends and family, to find peer support. If you are looking to do research for a project please explore the site for what you need and do not harrass chatters with questions or comments."
Gay.com, noted that:
- "Research, interviews and therapy are prohibited in chat rooms. Links to Web sites promoting therapy treatments or research or interviews are not permitted in visitor profiles or chat."
Newman Online considers that Advertising and Research, should not occur without consulting the Discussion Moderator:
- ... b. No questionnaires of any kind may be circulated without the specific agreement of the Discussion Moderator.
- c. Information about, and requests for help with, research projects related to relevant topics are welcomed but must be eMailed to the Discussion Moderator in the first instance and not sent directly to the mailing list.
Some groups are set-up to promote their own research or discuss research relating to their particular subject area. Muscular Dystrophy Association Chat provides an example. Although there was no indication that those conducting or participating in the chats may also be conducting research on the participants, the MDA did not specifically prohibit it in their User Policy. The MDA left it up to participants to decide how they wish to proceed:
- "Users of MDAchat are entirely responsible and liable for all activities conducted, including the consequences of their own conduct through any association resulting from entering and/or using MDAchat. MDAchat discourages users participating in online discussions from giving personal identifying information. MDAchat is not liable for situations encountered as a result of any user release of personal information online or off-line. MDAchat does not provide lists of users or release any personal user information to solicitors for distribution without prior approval."
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In 2007, the New York Times article, On Facebook, Scholars Link Up With Data, opened with this comment:
Each day about 1,700 juniors at an East Coast college log on to Facebook.com to accumulate "friends," compare movie preferences, share videos and exchange cybercocktails and kisses. Unwittingly, these students have become the subjects of academic research.
In 2010, Twitter donated "its digital archive of public tweets to the Library of Congress". In 2011, the Library of Congress updated the public on its progress and how it sees the archive as being used.
For a look at how those participating in the internet community can be used as research subjects, you might want to take a look at:
- Internet for Social Research Methods, a tutorial from Intute
- Effective Spokespersons on Twitter: Experimenting with how profile gender and network size impact user perceptions of credibility and social attraction, Katerina M. Stam, MA Thesis, University of Missouri - Columbia, 2010
- The Benefits of Facebook "Friends:" Social Capital and College Students' Use of Online Social Network Sites, N.B. Ellison, C. Steinfield, and C. Lampe, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(4), article 1, 2007
- Persistent Questions in Internet Research, Special Issue, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol. 6, no. 1, September 2001
- Analysing the Communication in Chat Rooms: Problems of Data Collection, Claudia Orthmann, FQS, vol. 1, no. 3, December 2000
- Sampling for Internet Surveys. An examination of respondent selection for Internet research, Nigel Bradley, Journal of the Market Research Society, vol. 41, no. 4 October 1999
- Casting the Net: Surveying an Internet Population, Christine B. Smith, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol. 3, no. 1, June 1997
- The Internet as a Means of Political Communication: A Case Study of the Reform Party Web Site, a piece of student research by Dave MacLeay
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Created: 2001/09/01 Last updated: 2011/12/15
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