The internet and social science: a quick methodological statement on ‘comments’ and ‘media ethnography’

We all agree the internet not only stores and disseminates knowledge, it creates knowledge that wouldn’t otherwise be there. What kind of knowledge does it create? I would argue the central feature of the internet, in terms of knowledge, is the feedback loop the internet establishes between author and audience. Credibility of knowledge can be and is instantly judged. The internet creates knowledge of knowledge.

For example, the internet has made available a striking amount of textual data in the form of ‘comments’ following news items, posts, tweets, uploads, etc. A similar point is made by the sociologist Matthew Loveland here. My favorite places to read comments include many that resemble little communities, in which the same commenters, under the same aliases, frequent the same authors and among themselves develop long-term relationships (of a sort). If you ever want to find reason to hate the human race, read comments to just about any Yahoo story.  And then there’s Twitter, which takes the commenter and makes him or her explicitly the author.

The kind of data available on the web makes me wonder how ‘media ethnography’ could nowadays somehow fail to be part of a sociological study worthy of inquiry. Every object everywhere is being talked about on the web, and like it or not, how this discussion proceeds goes a long way to defining the “essence” of the object to be studied. A large-scale survey of attitudes about a given object can sometimes be undertaken in a matter of moments using the method of media ethnography. Other times it can take a bit longer.

I’ve always been of the mind that quantitative social scientific data analysis — to simplify, let’s just say the random sample — has an advantage over qualitative data analysis in its superior efficiency: a whole lot of data (a great number of cases) can be analyzed rather quickly while maintaining validity. But I am not sure I believe that anymore. I think we are getting to the point at which a media ethnography provides more cases, more quickly, with more validity (and possibly even more reliability). I recognize I might be way wrong to hold this position. The textual data from things like Twitter, blogs etc. could be, as Nate Silver might put it, “noise,” and the slow, methodical, poring over of quantitative data could be the true “signal” underneath it all. But I would submit the following: one learned more about the social and political fact of Nate Silver, and US politics, by reading about him on Twitter than one did by reading his quantitative analyses.

My only intervention then is that social scientists everywhere, immediately, if they haven’t already, should include media ethnographies of the object under study as part of their method. In advanced capitalism, media ethnography is at the very least an essential complement to whatever else the researcher deems fit.

This entry was posted in advanced capitalism, intellectual property, Media and knowledge, Symbolic data, the database, theoretical drivel. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The internet and social science: a quick methodological statement on ‘comments’ and ‘media ethnography’

  1. Pingback: The proliferation of textual data: more thoughts on social science and the internet | price of data

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