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Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net

Editor: Steven G. Jones
Publisher: London, UK: Sage, 1999
Review Published: June 2000

 REVIEW 1: Darren Reed
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Steve Jones

Doing Internet Research, edited by Steve Jones, is a collection of papers that view the Internet as the unknown, and yet to be discovered, virgin land of social research. The chapters convey initial questions, thoughts, and applications of methods that constitute foundational research efforts.

Like earlier collections edited by Jones (Cybersociety: Computer-mediated Communication and Community, 1995; Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety, 1997; and Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting Computer-mediated Communication and Community, 1998), there is a predominance of communication approaches. Twelve of the twenty-one authors come from, or are affiliated to, communications departments. This is supplemented by four from the area of English language and literature, four from Sociology, and one from Computer Sciences. The institutions represented range in geography from Illinois, California, and Denver, to Sydney, Toronto, and Japan.

The chapters cover a wide range of approaches and have various objectives. Some papers advocate an established research approach. In "Recontextualizing 'Cyberspace': Methodological Considerations for Online Research," Lori Kendall advances a participant-observation approach in her study of gendered communication on a Multiple-User Domain (MUD). In "Studying Online Social Networks," Laura Garton, Caroline Haythornthwaite, and Barry Wellman recommend Social Network Analysis. James J. Sosnoski, in "Configuring as a Mode of Rhetorical Analysis," advocates Rhetorical Configuration analysis, an example being Haraway's use of the cyborg analogy. In each case the writers support the efficacy and adaptability of these methods.

Other pieces apply traditional approaches and find them lacking. For example, in "From Paper-and-Pencil to Screen-and-Keyboard: Toward a Methodology for Survey Research on the Internet," Diane F. Witmer, Robert W. Colman, and Sandra Lee Katzman attempt to apply established methods of survey research through email and conclude that paper and pencil methods cannot be simply imported to the electronic environment. Instead, the Internet requires "specific and carefully designed instruments that not only accommodate but exploit [its] features" (158). Others discuss the barrier to "traditional" methodologies and provide discussions of the issues to be acknowledged and addressed. In "Analyzing the Web: Directions and Challenges," Ananda Mitra and Elisa Cohen outline features that require specific attention, such as overt intertextuality, nonlinearity, and textual ephemerality, as well as the range of representational strategies such as video and sound. Some chapters present formulated methods of enquiry. In "Complementary Explorative Data Analysis: The Reconciliation of Quantitative and Qualitative Principles," Fay Sudweeks and Simeon J. Simoff propose Complementary Explorative Data Analysis (CEDA) to deal with the contingencies of the "new research environment" (30), an integration of quantitative and qualitative methods of content analysis, cluster analysis and neural network analysis. Further, Jan Fernback, in "There is a There There: Notes Toward a Definition of Cybercommunity," reveals the "place-community" metaphor used in Internet research and advocates a methodologically grounded theory approach to allow for its discovery, rather than presupposition.

Other writers draw attention to issues and research possibilities specific to the Internet, such as the ethical issues of conducting qualitative investigations of naturally occurring discourse (Barbara F. Sharf's "Beyond Netiquette: The Ethics of Doing Naturalistic Discourse Research on the Internet"), the investigation of audiences through server logs and "hit" counting (Margaret McLaughlin, Steven B. Goldberg, Nicole Ellison, and Jason Lucas' "Measuring Internet Audiences: Patrons of an Online Art Museum"), and the investigation of electronic community networks (Teresa M. Harrison and Timothy Stephen's "Researching and Creating Community Networks").

One of the few essays that looks to combine approaches (in this case, cultural studies and conversation analysis) is the chapter "Cybertalk and the Method of Instances," by Norman K. Denzin, who investigates the social distribution of power through the "method of instances." Denzin examines small pieces of talk-in-interaction and works up an understanding of the "cultural machinery" that produces inequality. As a researcher interested in conversation analysis I found much to engage with in Denzin's method.

In typical style, editor Steve Jones, in "Doing Internet Research," discusses a wide range of thoughts about the Internet and its study. These include: the "Internet-as-market metaphor" (3); the unique persistence of the various (textual and communicative) elements of the Internet countered by ephemeral features; the role of historical narratives as constitutive and predictive phenomena; and the need for academic reflexivity in its approach to "new" areas. He asks whether scholars can "sufficiently eschew the prescriptive and predictive, embrace the critical and self-critical, and be sufficiently sensitive to language and meaning so that our work will be meaningful to those we study?" (8). With an emphasis on renewal of research purpose, Jones muses, "Perhaps the Internet can restore a bit of lustre to the faded glory that came with being a PhD" (11).

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.

One exception is Jonathan Sterne who, in "Thinking the Internet: Cultural Studies vs. The Millennium," argues that cultural studies needs to develop alternatives to what he terms "millennial conceptions" of the Internet. These "discourses of technological transformation" emphasize the "possibilities" and "impact" of the "new" medium. Instead, Sterne ascribes cultural studies "the pedagogical task of disentangling the Internet from its given millennial metanarratives of universality, revolutionary character, radical otherness from social life, and the frontier mythos" (267). He draws scholars back to the central (established) features of cultural studies: an emphasis on context and how this acts to produce "possibilities of meaning." According to Sterne, the Internet needs to be approached in the same way as other media and technologies, and in its relationships to these established research phenomena (277-278). In line with this centering of the cultural study approach, and premised upon a renewed interest in theory, Sterne suggests that the area would benefit from the production of a historical overview, in the style of Raymond Williams' seminal Television: Technology and Cultural Form. This might aid future development of the research area by providing a "platform for critique" (268). It is this type of position that will encourage productive discussion and debate about theory and method. All too often, in social research and in the wider opinion, the Internet is viewed as an enigma, worthy of awe. In my view, it is rational, measured (and, in many senses, conservative) approaches, that do not invest in the "millennial" furore surrounding the subject that will best serve academic pursuit.

That the Internet is new, unique (at least in part), virginous, and unfathomable, that it requires new methods, a new academic effort, is the lingua franca, the rallying cry, of Internet research (or at least that presented in this collection). It is a shame therefore that there isn't the feel of discussion and debate about this book. In Jones's words Doing Internet Research "is not a book that will (at least in any direct way) help people to use the Internet as a research tool. Rather, its goal is to assist in the search for, and critique of, methods with which we can study the Internet" (x). Given this assertion, the collection misses an opportunity to generate critique, and aid the search for methods, through the engagement of one position and method with another. It is only with Jones's introduction and Sterne's finale (and possibly Denzin's mixture of methods) that we feel a potential fordiscussion, debate, interaction and development of methods for the future.

Jones has succeeded in bringing together a range of perspectives that will act as a useful resource for those embarking on a study of the Internet, whether they are professional academics or students. The collection will undoubtedly encourage future discussion of appropriate methodology. It may even encourage more thoroughgoing debate between various perspectives. The real contribution of Doing Internet Research is that it makes research methodology a topic, a topic which will be central to an area which will grow in importance as the Internet becomes more and more ingrained in our daily experience.

Steve Jones, editor. Cybersociety: Computer-mediated Communication and Community. London: Sage, 1995.

___. Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety. London: Sage, 1997.

___. Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting Computer-mediated Communication and Community. Thousand Oaks, CA & London: Sage, 1998.

Raymond Williams. Television, Technology and Cultural Form. London: Fontana, 1974.

Darren Reed:
Darren Reed is a doctoral candidate at Loughborough University, where he also completed a BSc degree in Sociology. He is currently researching textual interaction through Internet USENET newsgroups from an ethnomethodological perspective. His interests include the work of the late Harvey Sacks, the accountable production of gender identity, and the social construction of technology.  <d.j.reed@lboro.ac.uk>

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