About this Resource

Exploring online research methods in a virtual training environment: Online methodological futures module

For information on copyright and how to cite this module, please refer to the following web pages:


  1. Introduction
  2. Analysing web analytics
  3. Blogs as research tool
  4. Social networking - Quantitative Analysis of MySpace Users: Gender, Friend Counts and Swearing
  5. Print version
  6. References
  7. Further resources


Innovation and reflexivity on the 'research methodology frontier'

In an article entitled 'How virtual are virtual methods?', Andy Phippen (2007, 1) proposes that 'while there is a significant body of social research that considers the online world, the methods used to research such things are what one might describe as traditional in nature.' He suggests that the vast majority of research methods used to explore the virtual world to date have been 'conventional' in nature, and have involved a translation of onsite methods (including focus groups, surveys and interviews) to the online environment. He suggests there is now the need to explore more novel methods that might be used to examine the virtual world.

Similarly, Christine Hine (2005, 9) has suggested that: 'New technologies might…provide an opportunity for interrogating and understanding our methodological commitments. In the moments of innovation and anxiety which surround the research methods there are opportunities for reflexivity. Seizing these moments for reflexivity depends, however, on not taking the radical capacities of the new technologies for granted, nor treating them as poor substitutes for a face-to-face gold standard.' We believe that a moment for such reflexivity exists now as the technological artefact of the internet opens up possibilities for a 'research methodology frontier'.

About this module

In the light of Phippen and Hine's comments above, we developed a new section of this website between 2007 and 2009, with the aim of explicitly exploring new and innovative online methodologies. We received seven case studies. The first explores how people interact online and precisely measures levels of interaction through exploring the underlying technology of the internet and the data it produces. The second and third explore the use of online blogs for research. The first of these explores how online blogs can provide fascinating insights into the ways that citizens connect with political processes/institutions and elites in a community context, and considers the methodological and ethical issues of intimacy and the public/private divide presented by researching blogs. The second presents the use of blogs as a data collection tool and considers the methodological, practical and ethical issues involved. The fourth and fifth case studies explore new methods for examining social networking sites and considering their use and significance. The sixth considers moves towards performative social science, opened up through the development of new technologies. The final case study presents a review of Web 2.0 methodologies for research. This explores the methodological implications of employing Web 2.0 tools for data collection and considers issues such as how relevant 'offline' evaluation criteria continue to be in an online context and what the ethical issues around use of Web 2.0 tools might be.

Learning activity: Background reading


Read the following articles by Phippen (2007) and Illingworth (2006) and debate Phippen’s contention that to date the methods used to research the virtual world are traditional in nature.

Web analytics

Case study details

Title: A Case Study into Web Analytics

Author: Andy Phippen

Affiliation: School of Computing, Communications and Electronics, University of Plymouth

Aims of the project

Understanding user behaviour online is problematic to the social researcher – traditional techniques such as interview, survey or focus group rely upon the user expressing their perceived behaviour, rather than actual behaviour. However, techniques already used throughout the business world to understand customer online behaviour may offer alternative, complimentary techniques that provide the social researcher with a different dataset to examine.

Methodological Innovation Used

The infrastructure behind the Internet provides the researcher with opportunities to non-intrusively observe user behaviour, as long as the researcher can appreciate the manner of the data presented to them. The business world invests considerable resources into the practice of web analytics – understanding this data to interpret how users behave on their sites in order to better optimise the promotion of products and site layout and therefore maximise profit. However, little has been done within social research to embrace these techniques; I have commented upon this elsewhere ([External Link - opens in a new window]http://erdt.plymouth.ac.uk/mionline/public_html/viewarticle.php?id=43&layout=html).

This case study presents a brief introduction to web analytics and considers their use applied to an oral history website – Mediterranean Voices (See [External Link - opens in a new window]http://www.iictd.org/medvoices/londonevent/about_the_project.cfm for project information). It suggests that with some appropriate technical techniques, understanding specific user behaviour related to website aims and even, one might hypothesise, cultural behaviour, can be achieved.

What Happens When You Click a Link?

The user perception of clicking a link within a webpage is that the request resource is retrieved and displayed in their browser. What is less well known is that the web server - the computer upon which the resources reside - make a note of the request it has just processed. This happens for every single request to the server and each is recorded in a logfile - an archive of all of the requests that the server has had to process. Each entry in the logfile looks something like the following (Logfile formats will differ between servers, but all will have some standard fields within them):, -, 30/04/2004, 09:49:03, W3SVC9, WEBSERVER,, 1002, 537, 9774, 200, 0, GET, /pages/search/showresource.aspx, id=1177&lang=0

Figure 1: An example logfile entry from the Med-Voices server

Obviously, on first observation, this information looks somewhat technical and of little benefit in observing behaviour! However, within this string of technical information lie some very useful units:

At a very basic level, the most fundamental metrics are those such as hits and page views. A hit is a single request entry in a log file, a page view is a request asking for a web page. Arguably, one can also identify session, or clickstream, information – the pages a single user views in a single web site visit, through an aggregation of all requests from a specific IP address over a single date within a finite timeframe. However, while these basic metrics have some use, it is when such information is combined with more site specific data that the information one can glean becomes more useful. For example, if we resolve the location of the IP address, we now have an approximately location of the user, and therefore their clickstream. And if we know the nature of the resource requested, and how the arguments passed modify the nature of the resource (for example, looking at a particular item within an oral history database), we start to build a far richer picture of online interests and behaviour.

Understanding User Behaviour on Mediterranean Voices

The Mediterranean Voices project is an ongoing project, initially funded by the European Union, to collect an oral history of cultures in the southern Mediterranean. The histories were recorded using a number of different media (image, audio, video) and were coded according to location and “themes” – cross cutting definitions of common practices within cultures (work, play, worship, etc.). Each resource had additional textual commentary in both the local language and English added to it, and researchers also had the option to tag resources they considered related to the one they were currently coding. Once this coding was complete, these resources were stored in a web based archive. The project aimed to demonstrate cross cultural similarities within the region and encourage the exploration of resources outside of a specific location. For further information on locations, themes and aims of the project, visit [External Link - opens in a new window]http://www.med-voices.org.

The application of analytics to the study of user behaviour within the Med-Voices site combined data from web logs and the resource database to enable an examination of individual’s explorations of the archive. IP resolution software (i.e. a piece of code that takes an IP address and provides an approximate location) was also used to examine the regions that were interested in the project, and what they examined.

The logfile data used for the experiment examine 1231 unique visits to the site, comprising in total 4672 resources viewed. The first experiment combined the data sources to consider the proportion of resources viewed by users in each of the locations represented in the project to give an indication of the regions of interest from specific counties. This would hint at interests of individuals within these locations. It grouped clickstream information based upon IP address groups (to group IP addresses by country), and then decomposed the sessions through the identification of requests to the “showresource.aspx” page (the page that displayed a given archive resource) and the arguments passed to that request (which would allow us to discover the origin of the archive resource being viewed). Table 1 provides a summary of this experiment, showing that some locations were more insular than others. While the volume of sessions is such that this cannot be taken as authoritative without further investigation (for example, only a single session from Italy cannot be taken as a general view of the interests of visitors from Italy!) it does provide an interesting an example of what we can learn from analytics techniques.

User location

Resource location

Valletta (Malta)

Alexandria (Egypt)

Mallorca (Spain)

London (UK)

Chania (Greece)

Nicosia (Cyprus)

Ancona (Italy)

Marseilles (France)

Granada (Spain)

Bethlehem (Palestine)

Istanbul (Turkey)











































































































Table 1: % Resources viewed vs. location

A second experiment examined the preference for viewing resource descriptions either in the local language or English, compared to the location of the user. This was possible through the isolation of the argument in the request that stated the preferred language for the resource. The results displayed in Table 2 again show indicative results rather than definitive statements regarding regional interests in language.

Local %

English %




























Table 2: Language in which resource was viewed, compared to location

Finally, we examined the use of themes as a technique for encouraging exploration across locations. For this examination, specific clickstreams were examined and the resource path exploration was followed. A number of sample clickstreams are illustrated in Figure 2 below, showing the number of resources viewed within a specific location and theme, and the route traveled from each location:

Clickstream 1 (location: Spain)
Bethlehem (The Person) 2 resources - Granada (Worship) 3 resources - Bethlehem (Worship) 1 resource - Bethlehem (Spaces)

Clickstream 2 (location: Spain)
Marseilles (Spaces) 2 resources - Bethlehem (The Person) 2 resources - Granada (The Person) 3 resource - Marseilles (The Person) 1 resource - Marseilles (Work) 4 resource - Granada (Work) 1 resource

Clickstream 3 (location: UK)
Granada (Worship) 1 resource - Bethlehem (The Person) 2 resource - Granada (The Person) 1 resource - Granada (Play) 3 resources - Chania (Play) 1 resource - Chania (Spaces) 6 resources

Clickstream 4 (location: France)
Marseilles (Spaces) 4 resources - Marseilles (Worship) 5 resources - Marseilles (Objects) 3 resources - Marseilles (Spaces) 3 resources

Figure 2: Sample Med-Voices clickstreams

Final Discussion

The use of analytics is still very much in its infancy within social research, but does have the potential to complement existing techniques in understanding social behaviour online. It is acknowledged that there are some drawbacks – for example, the technical knowledge required to implement such analysis, and the imprecise nature of the IP address as a user identifier (although further techniques, outside of the scope of this paper, can focus the clickstream onto an individual, rather than a machine). Certainly I would not propose that the techniques are immediately accessible to every researcher, but I would hope that such results would encourage further dialogue between technologists and sociologists in realising that their interests can, sometimes, converge. And the techniques do offer non-intrusive approaches to understanding user behaviour, so are not subject to the Hawthorne Effect (refers to the often observed phenomena of individuals modifying their behaviour when they are aware they are the subject of research. It has been observed in a variety of different social research methods, but was first described in a series of experiments in the Hawthorne plant of Western Electric, USA, in the 1920s). As such they offer the opportunity to add validity to traditional techniques.

One final acknowledgement should be made to the ethical use of such techniques within research. I have had many discussions regarding whether the use of such data is a privacy infringement. Indeed, the recent news articles about Google’s use of user’s data for prolonged periods of time ([External Link - opens in a new window]http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/6692063.stm) suggest that there is growing public mistrust about what websites do with 'their' data. In the case of base log file analytics, my own view is that the IP address represents the computer, not the user, and the details stored within a web server are not related to personal information. However, it is unquestionable that some techniques within the analytic world, which I have not discussed in detail in this article, certainly do have implications for privacy and lie in some grey areas ethically.

The best approach to the researcher is to be open about the data collection. Website users are becoming familiar with viewing privacy policies within a website and it is entirely appropriate to include a privacy policy within a social website, clearly stating how IP addresses, cookies, etc. will be stored and analysed. Another useful indicator of openness is to including contact details so should a user wish to examine the use of the data in more detail, they can. However, exposing an email address on a website does then open the researcher up to mail harvesting and spamming, so I would suggest a postal address rather than an electronic one. While such a policy may dissuade some people from using such a site, the people who will take the time to inspect such a document (which, in my experience – through examining logfiles to see who have retrieved the page – will only be a minority) will have clear reassurance about the use of their data


Case study details

Title: The personal is political? Blogging and citizen stories: the case of Mum's Army

Author: Tracy Simmons

Affiliation: University of Leicester

The aim

The aim of the project was to examine the use of blogs by citizens in a community context, the focus being the Mum's Army blog. This blog is concerned with people's experience of 'antisocial behaviour'.

Methodological Innovation Used: Blogs

Blogs or 'web logs' are on-line diaries that allow people to post their thoughts on any topic they choose. Blogs do come in a range of sizes and shapes. For example, some have plain text while others have multi-media functions. One defining feature of blogs is that they display information chronologically, with the most recent entry appearing first and previous posts archived underneath. Another feature is that blogs often (though not always) allow other users to respond and leave comments. There are a variety of sites which provide blog templates most notably [External Link - opens in a new window]https://www.blogger.com/start which provides you with the necessary tools to set up an account. Sites such as [External Link - opens in a new window]http://technorati.com/ track and index blogs, which can be a useful tool to search particular themes and topics in the blogosphere. Also, these sites are useful in tracking the links within and to other blogs that are displayed on the 'blog roll'. Similarly, a number of academics are creating web tools that enable researchers to map and gather data on blogs. For example, two free sites [External Link - opens in a new window]http://voson.anu.edu.au/ (you need to register with this site) and [External Link - opens in a new window]http://www.govcom.org/index.html enable the researcher to do just that.

The Mum's Army blog case study

Much work has been focused on how political elites use blogs to connect with the ordinary citizen (see for example Coleman, 2005). My interest was in how citizens might use blogs to connect with political processes/institutions and elites in a community context. The Mum's Army blog was launched in January 2006 by Take a Break, a UK based 'best selling' weekly magazine aimed mainly at women that features 'true life' stories. The magazine launched a campaign called 'Mum's Army' which was concerned with mobilising communities to tackle antisocial behaviour in their local area. Therefore the blog does not operate like a traditional blog, where an individual posts their feelings or thoughts. Instead, it is a collection of different individual posts that are placed on the blog site via one of the magazine's editorial team. Through correspondence with the 'blog administrator' I was able to gauge to what extent editorial control is placed on the posts (especially as blogs are seen as unmediated) and more generally why a blog was chosen as part of the campaign, rather than a conventional website. The administrator pointed to how a blog would be useful tool to chronologically organise the different accounts of those participating in the campaign. In that sense, the blog works as record, as well as a conduit for the various experiences, groups and events being set up as part of the campaign.

I applied a textual analysis of the blogs, more specifically examining the discourses of intimacy in the blogs. This involved an examination of all the posts, including the archived posts from the launch of the blog a year ago. Part of this analysis was to examine the key discursive themes in the blog that connect with debates about intimacy and the public and private divide. Blogs it could be argued (see Alexanian, 2006) transcend the public/private divide in that they tend to be concerned with the personal and intimate that is made available on a public space (cyberspace). But also, in the context of Mum's Army, the emphasis is on how experience and individual testimony becomes part of a process of politicisation. Many of the posts on the blog were about individuals, mainly women, who self-defined as not interested in politics and had never voted. Their participation in the campaign had led to them becoming more interested in polical issues and some had put themselves forward as councillors in the local elections. More importantly, the sharing of their experiences, recording of what action they had taken in their local area appeared to encourage and galvanise others to participate in their local communities.

Using blogs for research

Like many online sources, although blogs can be considered 'public' there remains some ethical questions about using them as part of a research project or paper. There appears to be little consensus or clear cut guidance on this in the early research on blogs. In the case of Mum's Army, it was not practically possible to contact all those that had posted on the site, not only as contact details were unavailable but also due to the large numbers of individuals who had posted. But as mentioned earlier, I did contact the blog administrator, making clear the scope, aims and intentions of my research. In addition, I was clear about what the destination for any extracts from the blogs might be (part of a journal article) and that any contact details or names did not have to be included. The administrator was also at liberty to let participants know of my interest in their accounts. Although my approach does not entirely resolve ethical issues of using blogs for published research, it does flag up the importance of thinking carefully about what impact the inclusion of material from blogs might have on the bloggers. On a more philosophical level, what is our responsibility to bloggers especially in view of the very personal content placed in blogs? This is something that resonated with me in my case study and this issue needs more attention in methodological accounts of online sources and research concerned with blogs.

Blogs 2

Case study details

Title: Staying up and sleeping in: young people's sleep within a household context

Author: Susan Venn

Affiliation: University of Surrey

Aims of the Project

This project was one of many that have been, and are being, undertaken within the Sociology of Sleep group at the Centre for Research on Ageing and Gender at the University of Surrey.  Projects have included researching the sleep of women in later life (EU-funded, Sleep in Ageing Women), couples' sleep (ESRC funded, Negotiating Sleep:  Gender, Age and Social Relationships amongst Couples), and currently the meanings and experiences of poor sleep for older people (ESRC/MRC/EPSRC funded, SomnIA:  Sleep in Ageing, [External Link - opens in a new window]http://www.somnia.surrey.ac.uk/).

This project grew out of the previous project looking at couples' sleep.  Those couples who had young adult children, or teenagers living at home, or intermittently returning home, reported their sleep being considerably more disrupted than when their children were younger.  I decided to pursue this by looking at the way parents and young people interact with each others' sleeping space and time. Firstly, by exploring the influence on parents' sleep of having teenagers and young adults living in the home, then moving on to look at sleep from the perspective of young people, by examining how parents, other household members and technologies, such as mobile phones, influence their sleep. Finally, the positive aspect of sleep interruption that both parents and young people expressed was examined, as, for example, when entering each others' sleeping space and time provides peace of mind and security, and can, in some instances, facilitate sleep. (Moran-Ellis and Venn, 2007;  Venn and Arber, 2008)  

Methodological Innovation Used

A weblog (blog) was created as a tool for data collection from young people.  The use of this sleep blog arose out of previous methodological difficulties.  Following focus groups and interviews, ten young people (aged 13-14 years) had been asked to undertake an audio sleep diary for one week, that is recording on a small hand held tape recorder, every morning, information on their previous night's sleep, including duration of their sleep, the quality of their sleep, any awakenings or any other unusual occurrences.  Essentially I was asking for a subjective assessment of sleep and sleep quality over a 7 day period.  However, this proved problematic in two ways (a) some young people lost the tape recorders, and others recorded over the tape accidentally, and (b) most of the young people did not talk with ease into the tape recorder, resulting in very short diary entries.  In an attempt to engage the young people in complying with recording their sleep experience, I decided to offer alternative methods of data collection, some of which were felt to be more age-appropriate.  A further group of ten young people (aged 13-17 years) were given the choice of a written sleep diary, the audio diary, email or signing up to a blog, and the majority chose the blog.  There are many tools available on the internet for creating blogs (for example, www.blogger.com) but maintaining the confidentiality and anonymity of the respondents was of paramount concern to me, so I wanted to ensure that this blog would be secure and not accessible to anyone else using the internet.  To achieve this, I registered and signed up for a blog that enabled the use of password protected text entry and viewing (www.typepad.com).  As the blogging was only to take place over the course of one week, I was able to sign up for a free trial, so the blog did not cost anything. 

The 'Big Sleep Blog' was created, and I added images and text to customise it specifically for the study.  Prior to inviting young people to sign up for the blog, I ensured they were fully informed about the nature and implications of the blog, including issues concerning anonymity and confidentiality.  Written consent to take part was also obtained.  Subsequently, those who wished to join the blog were emailed with instructions on how to log into the blogging area (including giving them the password) and how to post a blog.  I also gave them my phone number should they need to call for advice, although only one young person needed talking through the signing up instructions.  Included in the instructions for logging in was a further invitation to anonymise their posts, either by not mentioning their name, or adopting a pseudonym, as well as making the young people aware of the need to not mention the names of family or friends.  As manager of the blog I not only had control of who signed up, but also of the posts themselves, although there was never an occasion where I needed to stop a posting. 

Once the first posts from respondents started appearing, I added comments, such as thanking them for taking part, snippets of entertainment news that I had picked up, including images and words of encouragement, so the blog grew and grew on a daily basis.  It is important to reflect that this blog took place at a time before personalised web spaces such as Facebook, Myspace and bebo had really taken a hold, but the comments that were posted onto the blog reflected how young people talk on their own web spaces, that is they were conversational in nature and included comments about their daily activities and jokes.

Text was easily accessed and copied and pasted into word for later textual analysis in qualitative software.  The only potential disadvantage was that others in the group could see what had been blogged and this may have had the potential to influence the content of some of the postings (for example, someone not wanting to reveal sensitive information). However, this cohort were already well known to each other, so the blogging became a 'cohort conversation'.


Moran-Ellis, J. and Venn, S. (2007) The Sleeping Lives of Children and Teenagers: Night-Worlds and Arenas of Action, Sociological Research Online, 12, 5.
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.socresonline.org.uk/12/5/9.html.

Venn, S. and Arber, S. (2008) Conflicting Sleep Demands:  Parents and Young People in UK Households, in B. Steger and L. Brunt (Eds.)  Worlds of Sleep. Berlin. Franke & Timme, pp. 105-129.


Analysing social networking sites

Case study details

Title: Quantitative Analysis of MySpace Users: Gender, Friend Counts and Swearing

Author: Mike Thelwall

Affiliation: University of Wolverhampton


Project aims and overview

Social network sites have rapidly grown in previous years, with MySpace apparently challenging even Google as the most-visited web site in the U.S. (Prescott, 2007). As a result of the rapid growth of social networks, their importance far outweighs the volume of research about them (for an introduction see boyd and Ellison, 2007) and social scientists now need to answer general questions, such as who is using them and how they are being used, as well as to address specific issues such as how group X is using social networks, and to investigate privacy concerns. The Wolverhampton MySpace quantitative research project took a predominantly general approach: extracting general details about MySpace users from their online profiles and then investigating factors associated with gender and friendship patterns (Thelwall, 2008/9, to appear).

The findings included:

Graph showing the proportion of female firends and the tendencey for a higher proportion of female friends
Figure 1: The distribution of the proportion of females in the “Top 8” best friends of a sample of 403 MySpace users.

A follow-up project investigated language use in MySpace, concentrating on the extent to which strong swearing associated with gender (Thelwall, 2008, to appear). It found evidence that amongst young U.K. MySpace members, the strongest swear words were used with similar frequencies by males and females – apparently the first evidence of gender equality for swearing in English.

Methodological Innovation

MySpace is a very attractive object for quantitative social science research because it is important and innovative and because, almost accidentally, it is easy to select random samples of it users. The reason why random samples are possible is because each member is allocated with a unique ID number and randomly sampling these numbers –for example with Excel’s random number function rand() – translates into randomly sampling members. To find the member associated with an ID, simply visit any MySpace profile page and alter the ID in the URL to the one selected. A powerful general approach to analyse MySpace quantitatively is therefore the following:

  1. Find the last MySpace ID number (approximately)
  2. Create a random sample of numbers up to the size of the last MySpace ID
  3. Download the pages associated with these random number IDs
  4. Apply the desired analysis technique to each downloaded page

Potentials and problems of the methodology

The random sample technique for MySpace has some limitations. Most seriously, about a third of MySpace users – and all those with declared ages under 16 - have private profiles, meaning that a researcher can only obtain very basic information about the member (including gender). This means that for most purposes the random sample approach described above is biased against users with privacy concerns and against younger users. Second, any analysis of MySpace profiles is dependant upon the honesty of member self-reporting. Some users may deliberately set out to deceive with their profile ages, including those under 14 who lie about their age to gain membership (Hinduja & Patchin, 2008). It is not clear what percentage of information is truthful, but it seems that ages are about 90% accurate and other information (e.g., gender) seems likely to be mostly (99%?) accurate.
Other researchers have also taken advantage of the ease of MySpace sampling to produce interesting research, for example concerning information disclosure (Hinduja & Patchin, 2008) and the geographic spread of friends (Escher, 2007). It seems that the potential for this approach is much wider, however. For instance it could be used to investigate language use or any topic of common interest in MySpace.
For those who wish to apply this technique and need to automatically download a large number of pages then this is possible using free open source software (e.g., http://search.cpan.org/dist/WWW-Myspace/) or email the author if you are a PhD student or researcher and would like to use his (free) MySpace analysis software.


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

Escher, T. (2007) The geography of (online) social networks. Web 2.0, York University. Retrieved September 18, 2007 from: [External Link - opens in a new window]http://people.oii.ox.ac.uk/escher/wp-content/uploads/2007/09/Escher_York_presentation.pdf.

Hinduja, S. and Patchin, J. W. (2008) Personal information of adolescents on the Internet: A quantitative content analysis of MySpace. Journal of Adolescence, 31, 1, 125-146.

Prescott, L. (2007) Hitwise US consumer generated media report. Retrieved March 19, 2007 from: [External Link - opens in a new window]http://www.hitwise.com/.

Thelwall, M. (2008, to appear). Fk yea I swear: Cursing and gender in a corpus of MySpace pages. Corpora, 3, 1. Retrieved November 14, 2007 from: [External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.scit.wlv.ac.uk/~cm1993/papers/MySpaceSwearing_online.doc.

Thelwall, M. (2008/9, to appear). Social networks, gender and friending: An analysis of MySpace member profiles. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. Retrieved August 23, 2007 from: [External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.scit.wlv.ac.uk/~cm1993/papers/MySpace_d.doc.


Analysing social networking sites 2

Case 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

Project aims and overview

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.

Methodological 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.

Potentials and problems of the 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.


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.

Performative social science

Case study details

Title: Rough talk and chocolate brownies (This is a reworking of a story originally posted on the Autoethnography newsgroup:
[External Link - opens in a new window]http://groups.yahoo.com/group/autoethnography/)

Author: Kip Jones

Affiliation: Bournemouth University

# # #

“I am big. It's the pictures that got small”—Norma Desmond

Kip Jones from Bournemouth University talks, in his particular tangential way, about how he came about writing and producing “The one about Princess Margaret” for the World Wide Web


“The one about Princess Margaret” is an audio/visual production uploaded to the Internet. The purpose of the project was to test if auto-ethnography could be used to circumvent the ethical questions involved in performing the stories of others. Emerging spaces for knowledge transfer, such as the World Wide Web, were explored as outlets for this example of "Performative Social Science". Contemporary thinking in aesthetics was investigated in order to answer questions of evaluation, supporting the collective elaboration of meaning prescribed by Relational Aesthetics and also test whether principles of Relational Aesthetics could be used to evaluate Performative Social Science. The conclusion was reached that the free and open environment of the Internet sidelines the usual tediousness of academic publishing and begins to explore new answers to questions posed about the evaluation and ethics of Performative Social Science.

Methodological innovation

Methodological innovation includes the use of humour and a personal story to convey a sense of time and place. Scholarship is back grounded in order to fore ground the more immediate experience of being a member of an audience, sitting in the dark without the usual academic expectations and with suspended disbelief. This approach produces possibilities for the reduction of the inter-personal distance typical of scholarly outputs by the development of a sensibility for the intuitive and associative aspects of communication. (These innovations are discussed further in Jones, 2007a.)


What follows is a discussion in a performative format that recalls the creative problem-solving involved in writing the script and producing the audio/visual production for the web.

# # #

When I used to paint pictures, (I would say ‘for a living’, except that there is not much of a living to be made from painting pictures), the thing that always amazed me was how viewers would/could put themselves into the pictures’ stories and relate to the paintings personally. These narrative canvasses usually chronicled something from my private life—and this created the irony of this phenomenon. A second fact of making these pictures was that, although the paintings represented my narrative, the real story was about painting itself and getting to the bottom of the painterly struggles of a particular canvass. In fact, while viewers often wanted to talk about the subject matter of the paintings, I really became animated when asked about the problem-solving involved in making a large narrative picture.






I create audio/visual productions based on my narrative interview work. Sometimes I am asked about the ‘ethics’ of ‘performing’ someone else’s story without their knowledge or specific permission for its performance. [This sort of criticism ignores the assumed god given right of researchers to ‘interpret’ as long as it is textual and buried in academic journals that no one reads much anyway]. Seemed like a BIG question, nonetheless. I needed a creative answer to it.




Years ago, when I would go out dancing several nights a week, I stopped myself for a moment of self-reflection and examination, questioning: “Are you going out dancing too many nights a week? Should you limit the number of nights?” I thought about it for a day or two. Then the answer came to me: If I go out dancing every night, then there is no longer a question of how many nights I should go out dancing. And so I did, I went dancing every night of the week. I think for about five years, give or take.



Eventually, I got to auto-ethnography. In a similar homage to creative problem solving, I decided that if I used my own stories as the basis for my A/V productions, then I could circumvent this particular ethical question about ‘permission’. Since I had experienced using my own personal stories (painful ones, usually) for my ‘art’, I had no problem returning to that resource in a new medium.

I began to read about auto-ethnography and joined an email discussion list. After a while of scanning postings to the list, I started seeing a lot of talk about ‘sad’ stories. Now, as I have said, I am not unfamiliar with sad stories in my painting and in my narrative research and I have put a lot of energy into telling other people’s sad stories in order to engage audiences. But, I thought at the time, can you do auto-ethnography and tell a funny story or an amusing story? Will it still work and have the same impact?

Thus, “The one about Princess Margaret” was born—an audio/visual production about one night in my life in 1965. I remembered having just told that story to a friend and I thought it would work well as a test case of this particular question. In the process of writing it, I did a lot of the self-examination that any story (or painting) based in our own experience requires. I confronted the tendency to gloss over small misrepresentations in order to put myself in a better light. I think I overcame that natural inclination.

After several months of writing and rewriting, I then began the process of turning the script into an audio/visual presentation; that took another three months time. It has now been shown at four universities in the UK to receptive audiences. It has had over 1250 viewings on the Internet. After I show it, audience members come up to me and start talking about where they were or who they were in the 1960s. Younger audience members excitedly relate it to their parents’ generation—as though they have been given a special insight into their parents’ pasts. This need to personalise a narrative is a familiar response, similar to my experience with my paintings. What still pleases me most, however, is when someone wants to talk about ‘production values’, software programmes, etc.—the ‘craft’ of making it and some of the more subtle cultural references embedded in the piece. Yes, same as with the paintings.


When I was painting canvasses, I had this friend Carol, a painter whose work was well known. A bullish lesbian and proud of it, Carol always made herself available for long discussions with me. The premise of these consultations was art, but our tête-à-têtes usually turned into long monologues about my disastrous love life. Carol loved to cook and bake and always had a chocolate cake or brownies to fuel my pouring out of my soul (chocolate and love, traditional co-stimulants). When I would finish my sad story, she would usually sum up my tragic complaint in her rough voice, “Yeah, but did you get a painting out it?”


I have never forgotten her admonition. So it is with my auto-ethnography (and painting and A/V production for the World Wide Web): the product of my labour will outlive any pain that inspired it. My personal story is simply one of the raw materials used to produce my product. What I construct stands alone for what it is (a story, a painting, an A/V production), but comes to life when it engages with the response that it instils in the reader/viewer/audience, “… those wonderful people out there in the dark!”

# # #


Jones, K. (2006) The one about Princess Margaret (Film) is available for viewing at:
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://vimeo.com/4339217

Jones, K. (2007a) How Did I Get to Princess Margaret? (And How Did I Get Her to the World Wide Web?) Forum: Qualitative Social Research Special Issue on Virtual Ethnography 8, 3.
Available at: [External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.qualitative-research.net/fqs-texte/3-07/07-3-3-e.htm

Jones, K. (2007b) The one about Princess Margaret (Script) Forum: Qualitative Social Research Special Issue on Virtual Ethnography 8, 3.
Available at: [External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.qualitative-research.net/fqs-texte/3-07/07-3-3-e_app.pdf

You can see more of Kip’s A/V work on his website: [External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.kipworld.net/

Web 2.0 as a Social Science Research Tool

Case study details

Title: Web 2.0 as a Social Science Research Tool

Author: Helene Snee

Affiliation: University of Manchester


Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, social network sites and wikis have been increasingly utilised for social research. This project aimed to explore the methodological implications of employing these tools for data collection and considered issues such as how relevant 'offline' evaluation criteria continue to be in an online context and what the ethical issues around use of Web 2.0 toold might be.

The aims of the research were:

To publicise the benefits and issues of new technologies for the social science research community;

To report on current practice and thinking in the use of Web 2.0 technologies as a social science research tool.


A literature review was conducted to examine methodological and ethical issues identified in online research literature. This informed a series of qualitative interviews with fifteen researchers.

The project report

The full report from the porject can be downloaded from the link below. An overview of teh contents is as follows:

The first section of the report outlines the objectives of the study and the data collection method. It then goes on to cover:

The report is available from the following link (Requires Adobe Acrobat, [External Link - opens in a new window]link to Adobe Reader)

[i] The report will open in a new window, which you should close to return to this page.

Project report: Web 2.0 as a Social Science Research Tool (pdf, 216 KB)

List of references

The following is a list of references cited in this module:

Alexanian, J. A. (2006) Publicity Intimate Online: Iranian Web Logs in Southern California, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 26, 1. 134-145.

Beer, D. and Burrows, R. (2007). Sociology and, of and in Web2.0: some initial considerations, Sociological Research Online , 12, 5.

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

Coleman, S. (2005) Blogs and the New Politics of Listening, Political Quarterly, 76, 2. 273-280.

Escher, T. (2007) The geography of (online) social networks. Web 2.0, York University. Retrieved September 18, 2007 from: [External Link - opens in a new window]http://people.oii.ox.ac.uk/escher/wp-content/uploads/2007/09/Escher_York_presentation.pdf.

Hinduja, S. and Patchin, J. W. (2008) Personal information of adolescents on the Internet: A quantitative content analysis of MySpace. Journal of Adolescence, 31, 1, 125-146.

Hine, C. (2005) Virtual methods and the sociology of Cyber-Social-Scientific knowledge, in Hine, C. (Ed.) Virtual methods: issues in social research on the internet. Oxford. Berg. pp.1-13.

Lefever, S., Dal, M. and Matthiasdottir, A. (2007) Online data collection in academic research: advantages and limitations, British Journal of Educational Technology, 38, 574-582.

Phippen, A. (2007) How virtual are virtual methods? Methodological Innovations Online, 2, 1.

Prescott, L. (2007) Hitwise US consumer generated media report. Retrieved March 19, 2007 from: [External Link - opens in a new window]http://www.hitwise.com/.

Thelwall, M. (2008, to appear). Fk yea I swear: Cursing and gender in a corpus of MySpace pages. Corpora, 3, 1. Retrieved November 14, 2007 from: [External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.scit.wlv.ac.uk/~cm1993/papers/MySpaceSwearing_online.doc.

Thelwall, M. (2008/9, to appear). Social networks, gender and friending: An analysis of MySpace member profiles. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. Retrieved August 23, 2007 from: [External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.scit.wlv.ac.uk/~cm1993/papers/MySpace_d.doc.

Further resources


Lu, H. and Hsiao, K. (2007) Understanding intention to continuously share information on weblogs, Internet Research: Electronic Networking Applications and Policy, 17, 4, 345-361.

Rickman, T. and Cosenza, R. M. (2007) The changing digital dynamics of multichannel marketing: The feasibility of the weblog: text mining approach for fast fashion trending, Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management, 11, 4, 604-621.

Stanyer, J. (2006) Online campaign communication and the phenomenon of blogging: An analysis of web logs during the 2005 British general election campaign, Aslib Proceedings: new information perspectives, 58, 5, 404-415.

Web analytics

Bennett, C. (2006) Keeping up with the kids, Young Consumers: Insight and Ideas for Responsible Marketers, 7, 3, 28-32.

Phippen, A. D. (2004) An evaluative methodology for virtual communities using web analytics, Campus-Wide Information Systems, 21, 5, 179-184.

Online ethnography

Beaulieu, A. (2004) Mediating ethnography: objectivity and the making of ethnographies of the internet, Social Epistemology, 18, 2-3, 139-163.

Access grid nodes

Fielding, N. and Macintyre, M. (2006) Access Grid Nodes in Field Research, Sociological Research Online 11, 2.

Hodgson, S. M. and Clark, T. (2007) Sociological Engagements with Computing: the Advent of E-Science and Some Implications for the Qualitative Research Community, Sociological Research Online 12, 3.