Dr Simon Smith: Online research – analysing forums

The latest PhD seminar featured Simon Smith presenting to us two pieces of research that he had worked on: a health management project in digital inclusion and an international local e-democracy project. Both projects involved the use and analysis of online forums but differed in the communities of participants involved and the methods employed to facilitate their use. The two projects presented interesting, and contasting, challenges to research which Simon presented under two broad themes: ethical issues and validity of claims about forum content.

The first example was a piece of action research in which a community of older people with a particular illness were encouraged and facilitated to manage their illness using online tools provided by the researchers. The participants were encouraged, in a very hands-on way, to form online discussion groups through the use of free handouts of computers and connections and real-world focus groups to initially ease the participants into interacting virtually. The online environment consisted of forums that were open initially to small groups of users and later the entire group. There was also an instant messenger (IM) service which the researchers assured the participants would not be monitored or analysed. The researchers analysed the content of the forum messages for information such as “self reported health” (in which they found positive trends as the illnesses were more effectively managed, though GP visits initially rose as better informed patients sought information). A full suite of web analytics was also employed so that usage trends could be monitored as well as the discourse analysis.

The second example was an ethnographic study built upon a previous EU e-participation strategy, concentrating on local issues discussion forums in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the UK. These forums consisted of user created threads (not seeded by councils) and the researchers monitored these over the long term to build up a picture of the people contributing and the topics covered using methods such as “qualitative meta-reading” or keyword searches. Issues such as social inclusion, diversity, local or collective identity were investigated, high volume users were identified as well as the level of intermediation (people representing groups). It was found that, although the users did not constitute a representative sample, socially marginal groups did have a voice through people voicing opinion on their behalf. The researchers also investigated how the topics discussed by contributors compared to topics covered in local media, council minutes etc, to identify differences in topics reported and topics discussed by locals. Interestingly, they noted that many of the topics discussed on the forums went on to form discussion topics in council meetings.

Discussing ethical issues raised by the two studies, Simon highlighted the uncertain boundary around online social data and the ethical duty implicit in reporting of it. The health management study was set up as a medical intervention and operated under informed consent. However, the discussion area was specifically designed for inexperienced users and the final structure was not exactly known at the beginning of the study so for this reason the researchers needed to address concerns by negotiating privacy terms throughout the study, rather than relying on the catch-all agreement made at the outset. The researchers also defined boundaries of privacy, signposting private areas, such as the IM service, that were not monitored or analysed. Further ethical issues arose due to the fact that full web stats (log files containing IP addresses etc.)  were also collected for analysis, a step possibly not understood by the participants. Simon explained that the researchers worked on a principle that they should not “exceed reasonable expectations” in terms of personal details designed their research accordingly. They even took the step of presenting preliminary drafts of reports to the participants for comments before publishing. The ethnographic study presented slightly different challenges. The participants were discussing public issues on a public forum but the local focus of the environment made it difficult to asses what people considered to be public and private. People were also able to post anonymously, giving an air of protection against identification. Both studies highlight the importance of considering what is quotable in your research and what is not. It is important to look at how people are using an online environment and developing norms (just like in “real”, offline environments). For instance, the difference between the in perception of privacy of IM due to its assumed ephemeral nature and that of a publicly archived forum. Finally Simon discussed an interesting view of the ethical use of online data when considering authorship issues and intellectual property rights. Researchers often try to avoid privacy issues by anonymising data but we need to consider the filp side of this: do we need consent to use a persons contribution to a forum? Should we be citing their name? The specific environment used must be considered before deciding where ownership of content lies.

Both of the studies described presented findings about the content of the forums and conclusions drawn from it. Simon addressed the issue of validity of conclusions drawn from data from discourse/content analysis. Technology is sociologically constructed  and its use is socially mediated – we don’t harvest any details about the rest of the persons life and it is is often impossible to contextualise their opinions in terms of their individual situations. The knowledge upon which a contribution is based is not neccesarily readily apparent. However, online environments do lend themselves to the collection of sociologically rich data as people may be less inhibited (perhaps if shielded by the cloak of anonymity)  with regard to contributing personal details. Participation is recorded in its entirety, in situ, and contextual knowledge can be included as the participant takes time to formulate a response, adding details and links to illustrate factors that have helped to build a viewpoint. Falsehoods may be rarer as they stand as a record to be challenged by large numbers of online participants.

The validity of conclusions drawn from online discussion is particularly pertinent to my own research. Any e-participation system designed to harvest public opinion must be designed in such a way to ensure that accurate contributions are solicited and the collective opinion of the virtual online community compares as closely as possible to its real world offline alternative. Indeed online systems can go beyond their offline equivalents to produce a method of soliciting opinion that is free from the factors that can degrade its quality. Structures have been built in to a number of e-participation systems for just that purpose. In Beth Novak’s  peer-to-patent system, communities and tasks are organised in granular fashion with clear goals and expectations to ensure that a task is completed in efficient manner and a reputation based system ensures quality comment from trusted individuals. Debatewise.org creates space for debate that is strictly structured into chunks of contributions, for or against an argument, which can be voted upon in an attempt to create a consensus of opinion. Innovative designs such as these will be crucial in the development of more effective e-participation solutions and investigation into them will form a crucial part of my research.

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About birchallchris

Research Associate in the School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds, teaching digital media practice and theory to students on the BA/MA New/Digital Media programmes. I research digital citizenship, using innovative digital methods; trying to bridge the gap between vary large scale phenomena and the individual human.
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