Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

Analysing social networking sites 2

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Open/close headingCase study details

Title: Interviewing at the interface - A qualitative investigation into students' use of Social Networking Sites (SNSs)

Author: Rhianne Jones


Salford University
PhD candidate

Liverpool John Moores University
Sessional Lecturer


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[Open/close heading]Aims and overview of project

This research was designed to investigate the social and cultural significance of Facebook to the everyday lived experiences of current undergraduate students. The research was carried out in 2007 and was based on a sample of students from a UK collegiate based university who were registered members, and actively using Facebook at the time. The research set out to access students' views and experiences of Facebook with a focus on how students were using the site in the formation and maintenance of social relationships and personal networks and how they were using the site's facilities to access information about, and organise, parts of their social lives. Existing research has shown that Social Network Sites (SNSs) are primarily used to support existing connections rather then forge new ones. (boyd and Ellison, 2007). Therefore this research was particularly interested in developing an understanding of how students' activities on Facebook were related to their social experiences offline. Based on the data collected, the research was able to make some preliminary observations and comments about the role of Facebook in student's day to day lives and social and cultural experiences. One of the central themes that emerged was the centrality of browsing to users' activities and the idea of peer-to-peer social monitoring.



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[Open/close heading]Methodology and discussion

The research took an approach that was termed 'ethnographically informed' a qualitative approach designed to reflect a commitment to the core principles of ethnographic research, in particular, that research should adopt the participant's point of view (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1992) and is grounded in data (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Ethnography has been proven to be a useful means of researching Internet based social phenomenon (boyd, 2004, Hine 2000, Kendell 1999, Miller and Slater 2000, Ryan 2008, Turkle 1999). Some scholars use the Internet itself as the primary research site, using online forums and internet sites as ‘ethnographic fields' in which to carry out online observations and interviews, whilst others have set out to combine a mixture of online and offline research strategies, where research takes place in both online spaces and in physical places (Kendell, 1999, Miller and Slater, 2000). Typically, Ethnographic research is a lengthy and intensive process, whereby the researcher is immersed in the research setting over long durations of time. However this is not always a viable option for researchers due to time and resource constraints. This was the case in this instance, so what was termed an ‘ethnographically informed' approach was taken. This consisted of a multi-method research strategy that worked to adhere to the core principles of ethnographic research.

This research combined online participant observation and face to face interviews. The participant observation took place for the duration of one month and data was collected on students' online activities and interactions. This was followed by semi-structured interviews that were designed to gather data on students' views, understandings, uses and experiences of Facebook. However these techniques could not provide the opportunity to witness first hand how students actually used and interacted with Facebook. In ethnography one of the research advantages of observational techniques is the ability to witness first hand what people do, as opposed to relying on what they say they do and situate interactions and activities in context.



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Open/close headingMethodological innovation used: 'Interviewing at the interface'

Using visual prompts in the interview process, or in similar research situations, is a tried and tested technique used in social research to stimulate memory and discussion, and encourage reflection (Bryman, 2004). For example, in stimulated recall artifacts such as objects, documents, still and moving images (such as photographs and media content) and more recently the use of computers (Sellen, 2002) have been used in research settings as a stimulus to facilitate the data collection process. Using artifacts in this way is argued to help participants to recall thoughts regarding the artifact at hand and give reflective recollections about their associated experiences (Hodgson and Watland, 2004; Jones, 2004; Jones et al 2003, 2004)

In line with the principles of such approaches this research provided participants with situated access to Facebook during the interview process. This offered a fruitful and effective way to access information about students' interaction with, and use of Facebook. Access to Facebook was provided in the interview process via a laptop and participants were given the option to log on to the site at the beginning of the interview. Participants were given the opportunity to give a guided tour of their personal profile page and networks and informed that at any point during the interview process, they could refer to the Facebook site. The interviews were recorded and later transcribed alongside the variety of non verbal data, which was collected using handwritten field notes.



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Open/close headingPotentials and problems of methodology

There were several benefits to having Facebook on screen during the interview. Building participant's real time use of SNSs into interviews meant that a student's engagement with the site could be witnessed by the researcher first hand. This provided useful non verbal information on the types of facilities participants are drawn to when they log into Facebook, for example: wall posts, private messages, photographs and friend requests, as well as how long participants would spend on these facilities, their levels of engagement, and how they navigate round the site. It also allowed observations to be made on participants' reactions to new developments on the site such as status updates, photo uploads and friend requests. This technique also provided a degree of information on participants' levels of computer literacy and confidence with the technology. Moreover, students could give visual demonstrations of what they typically do online and provide personal accounts of their use of Facebook. The screen acted as a visual prompt to help stimulate discussion allowing students to navigate around the site and raise issues or points of discussion during the interview process and it provided them with the opportunity to use the site to support or illustrate particular points or examples. For example, when discussing issues of privacy one student provided access to his privacy settings and talked through why and how he had appropriated the settings for his own needs. Having Facebook accessible during the interview provided the opportunity for students to open up access to the more restricted areas of their Facebook profiles such as the private messaging and the poke facilities, which would have been inaccessible by observation alone. This supplemented the earlier online observations with a richer account of student's use of Facebook from the other side of the screen.

There are of course a number of limitations that need to be taken into account. The interviewer's presence may have an effect on the participant's behaviour online, as might the context in which the student is asked to log on because observations take place in an interview setting and thus the participant's use of the site is de-contextualised from a more natural setting and re-contextualised as part of the interview process. However, these limitations acknowledged, providing access to Facebook during the interview process proved a fruitful research venture that helped provide supplementary insights into students' use of Facebook. Long term ethnographic observations, in situ, to observe participants' engagement in offline contexts with SNSs or other forms of social software are not always viable research options. In such instances ‘interviewing at the interface' provides an effective means to gain access to data that can provide potentially important information on how people are interacting and engaging with these new technologies.



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Open/close headingReferences

Bryman, A. (2002) Social Research Methods. 2nd Edition. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

boyd, d. (2004) Friendster and Publicly Articulated Social Networks. Conference on Human Factors and Computing Systems (CHI 2004). Vienna: ACM, April 24-29, 2004.

boyd, d. and Ellison, N. (2007) Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13, 1.

Glaser B. G. and Strauss, A. (1967). A Discovery of Grounded Theory. Strategies for Qualitative Research. Chicago. Sociology Press.

Hammersely, M. and Atkinson, P. (1992) Ethnography: Principles in Practice. London. Tavistock.

Hine, C. (2000) Virtual Ethnography. London. Sage

Hodgson, V. and Watland, P. (2004) The Learner's Experience of a Networked Learning Knowledge Community Design. Presented at Networked Learning Conference 2004. Retrieved January 10, 2008 from: [External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.networkedlearningconference.org.uk/past/nlc2004/proceedings/symposia/symposium11/hodgson_watland.htm.

Jones, C. (2004) Stimulated Recall Discussion Paper. Unpublished.

Jones, C., Zenios, M. and Griffiths, J. (2004) Academic use of digital resources: Disciplinary differences and the issue of progression. In Networked Learning 2004: Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Networked Learning 2004. Lancaster: Lancaster University and University of Sheffield. pp. 222 – 229.

Jones, C., Zenios, Z. and Markland, M. (2003) Digital Resources in Higher Education: Pedagogy and Approaches to the use of digital resources in Teaching and Learning. CAL '03. 8-10 April, Queen's University, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Kendell, L. (1999) Re-contextualizing Cyberspace Methodological Considerations for Online Research, in S. Jones (Ed.) Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net. Thousand Oaks. Sage. pp. 57-74.

Miller, D. and Slater, D. (2000) The Internet and Ethnographic Approach. Oxford. Berg.

Ryan, J. (2008) The Virtual Campfire. Unpublished. Retrieved January 10, 2008 from: [External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.thevirtualcampfire.org/virtualcampfire.htm

Sellen, A. J., Murphy, R. M. and Shaw, K. (2002) How knowledge workers use the Web. Proceedings of CHI 2002, Minneapolis, MN. New York: ACM Press. pp. 227-234.
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://research.microsoft.com/~asellen/publications/knowledger workers and the web 02.pdf

Turkle, S. (1996) Life on the Screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. London. Wiedenfiled and Nicolson.




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Author of this page: Rhianne Jones - Year of publication: 2009 - Affiliations: University of Salford and Liverpool John Moores University
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