Ethnography in Cyberspace: Data Collection via Email and Instant Messaging

Jean S. Mason
University of Toronto
Erindale College

I am in the final stages of a web-based doctoral dissertation ( in which I have used ethnographic research to address the question:

How are writers' perceptions of the new rhetorical situations presented by hypertext affecting their attitudes towards writing and the consequent decisions they make in response to these perceptions?
The overall design of my research is constructed around the phenomenological concepts and methods common to qualitative research using an emergent, field-based, modified case study approach. My data collection methods reflect the "indwelling" posture of the qualitative inquirer (Maykut & Morehouse, 2536). They include in-depth and group interviews, observation, journals, and document collection and analysis.

Much of my data collection has taken place in one-on-one interviews. Many interviews have been face to face, and some data has been collected over the telephone. These methods are relatively "tried and true.. I have also ventured, however, into the brave new methodology of computer-mediated communication (CMC). I refer specifically to asynchronous email, and synchronous instant messaging (IM). Very little research exists yet as to the viability of collecting data this way.

"Experimenting" with this new methodology, I have been concerned with both the logistics and ethics involved. Consequently, I have tried to develop some criteria for using email and instant messaging to collect qualitative data. My observations here are simply the result of experience reflected upon, and familiarity with the scant research that exists.

I agree with Barbara Sharf that "these exchanges constitute a unique hybrid genre somewhere between written text and spoken conversation" (Jones, 243). I find that there is a continuum between simple small and instant messaging, with the former closer to the writing end of the continuum and the latter closer to the speaking end.

I also concur with Annette Markham, who observes that when "users frame computer-mediated communication, their definitions fall along a continuum from tool to place to way of being" (85). As Markham notes, "people who connect to this network often feel a sense of presence when they are online" (17). I have experienced this sensation myself, and find that it is different from a telephone conversation. Perhaps the physical presence of text as opposed to the ethereal quality of spoken words that disappear upon utterance creates this sensation. Perhaps the interaction one can have with text based discourse in CMC enhances its presence. Text can be altered, stored, and recalled by the receiver-- even in synchronous IM.

And instant messaging is by far the most intriguing and challenging form of CMC from a researcher's point of view. It is a new and fascinating experience to conduct a "conversation" in print, watching text appear, change, and disappear on screen as the informant "speaks" in real time. This text can even be inflected with emoticons to express emotion more typical of interpersonal or verbal exchange. The computer itself, with its luminous screen and humming central processor, creates a unique atmosphere that "feels" quite different from exchanging information by telephone. I find that it seems both more intimate and more public at the same time-- the intimacy of silent almost covert exchange combined with the notion of public sphere inherent in the Internet. I believe this sensation is part of the nature of virtual reality.

Here are my observations to date on the advantages, disadvantages, and satisfactions. At this point, I have not differentiated to any great degree between instant messaging and email, although the following points do not necessarily apply equally to both.

Some obvious advantages are that CMC offers convenience, easy transcription, and access to informants in remote locations other than by telephone. There is also, perhaps, an enhanced comfort level for some participants since they can have the opportunity to "measure words" more privately before offering them. In certain instances, it might also be very useful for an informant's visible identity to remain concealed. For example, one can imagine studies where knowledge of gender or race could create a bias. Markham suggests that "text-based, computer-mediated communication equalizes the participants to the extent that everyone, regardless of gender, race, authority, age, etc., is limited to exchanging texts" (155). One could speculate, however, as to how individual facility manipulating text in this medium might affect that potential equality. There could also be instances where informants with information valuable to a study might be willing to be "interviewed" if their identities were protected. Furthermore, the fact that the writer/speaker controls the transcription process means that s/he supplies the punctuation which, perhaps, gives the informant an added measure of control over meaning.

The most obvious disadvantage of using CMC is loss of body language as a key source of understanding. Software does exist that allows for online interviewing, either written or spoken, to be accompanied by visual imaging using a digital camera. I did not use this method in my research. I find that the image quality currently available over the Internet is so distorted as to be distracting.

From an ethical standpoint, computer-mediated chat opens the possibility for fraudulent data (i.e., how do you know it's really so-and-so on the other end?). This could, I suppose, be dealt with by sworn statements, witnesses, etc., but then that's not really the ethos of qualitative research, which is supposed to be built on establishing trust. Another concern might be that, in highly sensitive studies, the chance for invasion of privacy is greater on the Internet than in person; the risk is probably somewhat greater than with the telephone. Information, once digitized, always resides somewhere.

Moreover, any CMC requires access to relatively expensive equipment, familiarity with the technology, and relative comfort using a keyboard to transmit one's thoughts at a reasonable pace. There is also the risk of equipment failure mid-interview, but this is possible in tape recorded interviews as well, although probably less likely. Last, but not least, these programs aren't faultless; I found that some of the dialogue was stored and printed out of sequence, and I experienced cross platform problems between my PCand an informant's MAC.

Although I found that for me the advantages far outweighed the disadvantages, my satisfaction with the data collected varied in terms of both process and product. Email presented no particular problems in terms of process, but the data was often less than satisfying since there was no opportunity for spontaneous dialogue. Instant messaging resulted in a much better data quality since it does integrate "dialogue," albeit text-based. However, I found that not all interviewees were equally comfortable in this medium. At one end were those informants who felt totally at ease with IM; at the other end were those who found it very awkward. One respondent summed up that awkwardness by commenting that it was like "painting a picture through a keyhole." He attributed this to his dislike of keyboards. I cannot help but believe this discomfort affected the quality of his data. Finally, I definitely found a difference between using either email or IM to supplement personal contact as compared to using CMC in place of it. I only did the latter when personal contact was not possible because of distance, but the results were never as satisfying. I never had the same sense of "knowing" my respondent in depth in the context of my study.

In conclusion, in any study the principle of triangulation implies that it is best to approach one's subject from a number of perspectives. Although a researcher might not choose to use computer-mediated chat as the only means of gathering data, I see no reason why it should not be of value as an option. Furthermore, if it were the only way to gain access to a crucial respondent, I believe it would definitely be better than nothing and, for reasons cited above, I believe there are instances when CMC could be preferable. Overall, I would put it on a relative par with a letter or a recorded telephone conversation but different in nature. In the final analysis, as Annette Markham concludes, "online or offline, all of us make sense of our experiences and tell the stories of our lives in self-centered and sdf-understood ways. Truth is an elusive term in any context" (210).

Instant meting interview protocol

Following are some basic practical guidelines I developed specifically for conducting interviews via instant messaging. I used ICQ instant messaging, available as a free download at

Works Cited

Markham, Annette. Life Online. Walnut Creek CA: Altamira Press, 1998.

Maykut, Pamela and Richard Morehouse. Beginning Qualitative Research, A Philosophic and Practical Guide. Washington, DC: The Palmer Press, 1994.

Sharf, Barbara. "The Ethics of Doing Naturalistic Discourse Research on the Internet" in Doing Internet Research, Steven G. Jones, ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1999.

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