Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net
Editor: Steven G. Jones
Publisher: London, UK: Sage, 1999
Review Published: June 2000
Darren Reed notes in his review: "What is clear is Jones's enthusiasm for the subject. What is less clear is the underlying attention and commitment to fluidity of method and approach that at times seems to warrant fragmented epistemologies and research. What one feels in the rush of observations, brainstorming and enthusiasm is disorientation. Yet this disorientation is a product of the narrative, a result which should come under reflexive observation. For all his insightful commentary on academic practice and conception, what is missing from Jones's account is a reflexive appreciation of his own exercise which characterizes the area of Internet research in such explorative terms. Similarly, few of the pieces in the collection reflect upon their own position. In methodological terms this results in a lack of positioning and comparison. There seems neither the will to combine to form one singular discipline nor that to engage with each other in debate." I entirely agree with these last few comments, particularly with the two expressed in the last sentence.
In regard to the first observation, it would be presumptuous to try to form a singular discipline, but worse still it would be counterproductive. The attraction of the Internet as an object of scholarly study is its parallelism with other forms of communication and interaction. To try to set it apart in disciplinary terms would create a situation similar to that which exists in many disciplinary organizations some of whose members are studying the Internet. In a recent conversation with a member of one such organization, for example, I was subject to a near-harangue by one member that a division within the organization "wanted to claim the Internet for themselves." To which my reply was, "So what?" I can't imagine they could so whether they wanted to or not.
It is interesting that media studies have relied on individual media as a means by which one can distinguish theory and method. Those studying journalism, television, radio, etc., have been bounded by those media, by the object of their study. Those studying the Internet are similarly bounded in regard to the medium, but such a boundary is even more illusory than that deployed in media studies previously. The social engagements that occur among, across, and within these media, the ways that people move in and out of media, and the points of co-location of these media and other non- or less-mediated forms of interaction know no such boundaries. It is clearest when one considers Internet use that its existence as a medium is only useful in relation to it as technology, for when one considers its shifting configurations in interaction it is unclear whether it is a "medium" in the sense that term is used in media studies.
Consider the forms of academic department devoted to media studies, rather than academic departments that "do" media studies (such as communication departments). There are, typically, journalism, radio-television-film (and variations on the theme), mass communication and media studies programs. For what reason are there not telephone departments? Why no printing press departments? What has caused the focus on quite specific media of communication? And why are these not generally reconciled to programs that engage less technologically sophisticated (but far more advanced in other ways) forms of mediation, like speech?
The obvious answer is that journalism, radio, television, and film are "mass" media, not, of course, in the sense that they are simply employed by many, but in the sense that they are "one-to-many" forms of communication. But another answer is that these are "professional" media in the sense that they require a set of skills, understanding of routines, socialization, etc., that are generally taught rather than self-taught and/or received. The Internet is far less so (unless one gets involved in software/hardware, which is a whole 'nother discussion). Indeed, it is largely understood at present that the skills needed for it are quite similar to ones in precisely the aforementioned professional areas.
But what, then, of an "Internet studies"? To whom shall it belong? To what sort of department? Should it form its own department, what shall be "in" and what shall be "out"? What needs teaching? Since we cannot determine whether it is a medium of mass communication, interpersonal communication, some combination of those (and others), what shall be its place? Decisions based on such questions have been made in the case of other media, much to the detriment of our willingness to approach them with multiple methods, theories and interests. When the study of mass communication was begun in the early part of the 20th century, psychologists, sociologists, mathematicians, and others participated in its growth. Where are the scholars from those disciplines now? Shall we find them in our scholarly associations? I fear not, and I fear that as a result we will become less and less likely to encounter the Shannons, Weavers, Innises, Mertons, Deweys, that can aid our understanding.
In regard to the second observation, that there is not "the will...to engage with each other in debate," the reviewer is entirely correct. It was not a goal of the book to have the contributors tussle with one another's work. Rather, each contributor was instructed (where any instruction was actually needed, and little of it was) by me to engage with method in relation to Internet research. Subsequent conference panels, articles, and symposia have generated the sort of debate I think the reviewer would have liked to haveread, and I shall hope it continues.
If this book will "undoubtedly encourage future discussion" and "encourage more thoroughgoing debate between various perspectives," then it has succeeded at its goal. At the time of its inception I was approached to write a "definitive methods book." Naturally it would not have carried the title "Internet Research for Dummies," but no matter the title I found myself feeling that none would scarcely veil the prescriptive nature of such an undertaking. The approach I found more fruitful was one involving multiple voices, and I shall hope that more and more of them will make themselves heard.
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