A research design framework for understanding online conversations

In this week’s blog post, Trena Paulus talks about her forthcoming co-authored book on conducting research in online spaces.

While the phenomenon itself goes by many names –  social media, discussion forums, computer-mediated communication, online conversations – people have been talking together online now for nearly four decades. Research into what happens in these spaces has a long history across many disciplines, but little attention has been paid to ensuring the methodological alignment needed to produce trustworthy, valid findings to answer important research questions.

In May, a new book by Trena M. Paulus (University of Georgia) and Alyssa Friend Wise (New York University) will provide methodological guidance in this area. Looking for Insight, Transformation, and Learning in Online Talk (Routledge) is a comprehensive guide to analyzing digital interaction in formal and informal online spaces. The book establishes a new research framework for addressing major challenges that have arisen as social exchanges, meaning-making, and knowledge-building increasingly take place in social media, discussion forums, and online communities.

With a focus on methodological alignment to support valid and trustworthy knowledge claims, the authors present a series of design decisions to help researchers:

  • frame their object of interest, unpacking underlying assumptions;
  • understand key differences between researcher-influenced and pre-existing online talk;
  • ethically extract and organize data for analysis; and
  • apply rigorous qualitative, quantitative, and computational methods to answer their research questions.

Written for scholars in education, business, communication, media studies, health sciences, political sciences, and beyond, this is a thorough approach to the research methods and concerns essential to the study of talk in online contexts. Below is an excerpt from Chapter One:

In late 2018 as we were finishing this book, the Pew Research Center reported that the American population had reached near-saturation levels of computer, cell phone, Internet, and social media adoption. In February of that year, roughly seven out of ten Americans reported being active on social media – engaging with news and entertainment, sharing information, and connecting with each other (Smith & Anderson, 2018).

As social science researchers, we want to understand human life – what happens in social worlds and how people experience them. Our research methods for doing so have been honed over time – surveys, observations, interventions, interviews. Studying how people talk together online – or designing interventions that invite people to talk online – can provide invaluable insights into what is happening in a social world increasingly connected through its devices.

However, online talk (also referred to as computer-mediated communication, online discussions, Internet-based communication, and so on) is complex – it is varied in form, ambiguous in origin, persistent, and often without a natural endpoint. It involves multitudes of prospective participants competing for the floor, overlapping their turns of talk, and conversing on virtually limitless topics of interest. As such, online talk as a research focus can be challenging to define and analyze. Researchers have, however, been studying computer-mediated communication for over four decades now. We wrote this book to help researchers learn from this previous work and better design studies to investigate the phenomenon that is online talk.

People talk together online in a multitude of ways and in a variety of spaces. While in 2019 social media refers to interactions that take place through the latest generation of mobile-enabled apps, these platforms are not the only spaces in which online talk occurs. Online support and hobby groups engage using threaded discussion forums, people share their stories in blog posts, and educators teach in entirely online learning management systems. These spaces can emerge spontaneously or be intentionally designed, can occur as part of formal or grassroots endeavors, and are of research interest because they are spaces in which insights, transformation, and learning among people are made visible. Understanding what happens in these spaces can have value across a wide range of disciplines from public health to consumer marketing and from international politics to environmental education.

Yet too little attention has been paid to the methodological design of studies into online talk, with critical implications questioning bringing into question the validity of the conclusions that can be drawn. In this book we overview the particular set of analytic issues and challenges that arise in identifying and analyzing the insights, transformations, and moments of learning that occur (what we call the “objects of interest”) in online talk —whether they arise by intentional design, incidentally, or sometimes not at all.

Looking for Insight, Transformation and Learning in Online Talk is available for pre-order here (for a 20% discount enter the code FLR40 at checkout.)


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