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How Authentic are we Online?

Is what we say or show online more or less of an authentic account of our real view on something (assuming that concept exists)? Does the medium influence our opinion?

By Edward Appleton

There’s been a huge swing over the past few years towards the use of online research in Quant. and Qual. MR -  MROCs, online Access Panels, online groups, online IDIs, Bulletin boards, virtual shopping, online co-creation…there’s lots of movement. With the continuing rise of Smart phone usage, maybe we’re on the edge of a Mobile Insights boom, not to mention the use of Social Media for insights.

Using the Web for Insights certainly has some “hard” advantages – speed & cost for starters.

But how honest are we really with what we say & post on the web?

Is what we say or show online more or less of an authentic account of our real view on something (assuming that concept exists)? Does the medium influence our opinion?

As MR begins to embrace Social Media as a source of insights, and as data quality concerns with Online Access panels continue, I think these philosophical sounding questions are important if online increasingly becomes the dominant form of data collection.

Here’s my take:

1. The “online disinhibition effect” (http://bit.ly/4HGsN) is certainly real, as anyone reading the sometimes less than polite comments on many UK national daily newspaper articles can testify to. Anonymity encourages people to be more forthright & sententious.

There are plenty of MR upsides to this enhanced freedom of expression. Online Qual. for example removes many Group pressures, and for research projects on very personal or sensitive topics, anonymity and/or invisibility can lead to respondents being more willing to open up. Bulletin Boards allow people to contribute to a debate in their own time.

When it comes to Social Media, I’m not so convinced. Take Twitter. How many of us there say exactly what we would say in real life to a friend in a social context?

I suspect that more and more folk are actively managing their online identity, and statements on social media become part of a projected persona, an identity management tool.

Same, in my view, goes for blogs – we project a voice which is a part of us, but no more than that.

2. What we say online is often there for posterity – we’re on record. This is a potentially inhibiting factor that may well be increasing over time as we become more aware of well publicised instances where people, often Celebrities, regret what they’ve written online somewhere.

The consequence is less immediacy, not more – we overrule the intuitive with the considered and deliberate. This may mean our comments are artificially biased by rationally driven System 2 type thinking, and don’t fully reflect our real opinions.

3. The projection of an online persona means that we filter what we say to fit an image, an identity. Doesn’t mean it’s not “true” just not the whole picture. Data analysis needs to take this into account – which isn’t always easy if you haven’t ever met the actual person you’re talking to and don’t have an understanding of their lives, warts and all.

4. Online ethnography is tempting in that we can seemingly get visual access to people’s lives quicker – videos, pics are easily uploaded, sometimes with location data. We shouldn’t forget the selective nature of this seductive medium – zoom out, so to speak, of the shot, and you may well see something totally different to what you’ve been shown.

5. My observation over the last 12 months of online Social Media interaction is of an increasing bias to the positive or silence. One example from my sphere: Blipfoto (http://bit.ly/qkfUsg) – an increasingly popular  Edinburgh based photojournal site – has this as one of it’s Contributor Rules: “If you don’t have anything nice to say in public, don’t say anything at all”.

Disapproval is best expressed by saying nothing – a difficult concept to quantify but a potentially serious bias.

Online is great – it’s transforming the way we experience the world, totally liberating us from many restrictions of place, time and format, and transforming a lot of the way we carry out research. It’s also a medium that in my view changes the way we express ourselves.

As Social Media evolves to become a mainstream and legitimate fishing area for Insights, and text analytics and sentiment analysis tools become more sophisticated, how we approach the issue of online authenticity is an important one.

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

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10 Responses to “How Authentic are we Online?”

  1. Jay says:

    February 2nd, 2012 at 9:09 am

    As Tom Ewing said on the previous post, all identity is performative. Human beings are fundamentally social creatures, and the opinions expressed in one-to-one interviews or focus groups or online searches are just as much nuanced by the speaker’s desire to present themselves as a certain kind of person.

    To talk of “authenticity” appears to imply two things:

    First, a belief that, firstly, social performances aren’t “real”. So what are they then?

    Secondly that there is some means of accessing a “pure”, “real” self or set of opinions, unmediated by social group effects. (1) How methodologically, and (2) How would this in fact be valuable?

    The shopping & purchases our clients are interested in happen in social contexts and as part of our relationships with other people, so understanding how people want to present themselves socially would seem to be the key area requiring insight – not something to try to avoid.

  2. Edward04 says:

    February 2nd, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    Jay. Thanks for your comments. Who’s trying to avoid social context? My actual point related to contrasting contexts – with my suspicion that in certain social media there is more inhibition than in certain offline contexts. As a client, my only concern is actionability of an insight. Part of the quality I expect from all our suppliers is a qualificiation of potential risks – systematic bias being one of them. As SM is a relatively new context, I am curious as to the ability to begin to categorise bias effects across media – including the presentation of self. As a final point, am surprised by your reference to “shopping and purchases” as happening in social context: how would Amazon.com fit that?

  3. Tom says:

    February 3rd, 2012 at 5:37 am

    I saw a slide once which showed an Amazon page with 43 (!!) points of “social proof” to guide decision making!

    (Actually it may only have been 41)

    (But they’re pretty social!)

  4. Edward04 says:

    February 3rd, 2012 at 7:19 am

    Tom: How many comments would you read about a book you wished to purchase on amazon? I might wish to read the synposis, but most likely I have read a review somewhere else (possibly offline mag/newspaper), possibly even browsed a bookstore (yes, they still exist in Germany ;). Or a CD/ MP3 download: for what it’s worth, and on an n=1 basis, I listen to a few tracks of a CD, then check price, then purchase. I only refer to “Other people who bought this also listened to….” if I’m in real browsing mode. I certainly don’t read what they say about the music itself – tastes are so fragmented. I’m suggesting that the relevance of “social commerce” (comments) depends on category and issue. Another issue: even if – tack TripAdvisor – I do choose to read people’s opinions about a certai hotel, how can I know their expectations levels? What for one person is “great standard” is a “lousy standard” to someone else. These are people I do not know – so why should I trust their opinions? So what is “social proof”?

  5. bindu says:

    February 3rd, 2012 at 8:58 am

    Yes it is true that online research might be useful in some of the tangible aspects like, which cellphone would you buy and why?

    But when it comes to Qualitative research like In-depth interviews, Focus groups or by other means, online is not the right choice, because when we do offline, we might be meeting them at their place for an indepth interview, and we observe the locality, we can read the face of people, we can understand the tone, we can probe further where we feel the need to probe is there. So all these are absent in online research, or will be difficult.

    I did some online research, for that all my respondents were my friends, and the topic was about Linux V/s Windows, because respondents were my friends, and topic did not have anything to do with their social status, I could get honest opinions.

    Same might not be true for different situations, respondents and products.

    :-)

  6. Tom says:

    February 3rd, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    I understand and sympathise – I find the “other people also…” bits useful for browsing but I also check a good and bad review usually: I also suspect I am very susceptible to social influence, no matter how much I’d wish it otherwise. (For instance, the “people I do not know” are also people I have something very concrete in common with – they made the same decision I’m contemplating making – so being human I’m interested in what their decision was)

    But my point was only that Amazon in particular bend over backwards to make their site as subtly ‘social’ an experience as it’s possible for a web purchase to be – they also, famously, split-test their site to the Nth degree so it’s a safe bet that any given social feature is there because the alternative is worse for conversions.

    I also browse bookshops – my kids love doing it – but unlike Jay I don’t think it’s a particularly social experience, even though it’s in meatspace. It’s a more serendipitious and pleasant one but actually happens on an individual basis (for me anyway). Amazon if anything is *more* social – it’s fascinating to peek at what other people have done.

  7. Tom says:

    February 3rd, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    TripAdvisor on the other hand I rather cynically assume is full of fake reviews anyway. ;)

  8. Luke Winter says:

    February 9th, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    Edward,

    How terrifying it would be for those companies betting their future product development on social media analysis if twitter suddenly turned into solely positive sentiments or silence.

    I think, and as touched upon in these comments, there are two tiers of communication individuals engage in online, and that in your analysis you merge these rather than regarding them as separate.

    I agree we’re seeing a trend towards a ‘positivity or silence’ approach but only in those expressions individuals make concerning their private lives in the public sphere.

    Private spheres of communication in social media will still buzz with positive and negative sentiment as trusted friends discuss the peaks and troughs of their lives behind closed doors, between messages and emails etc. And the public sphere will still buzz with positive and negative sentiment regarding products, news, the weather, lana del ray on snl: opinion.

    It’s just the overlap between these areas that will be affected. People will be less inclined to broadcast “i feel sad”, or “today sucked” to the public sphere under their own names, and will begin to retract their personal emotions from public online display. Anonymous venting though will remain as popular as ever (tumblr.com/tagged/lonely).

    And as savvy customers understand that increasingly, businesses are listening to the views they express online, they’ll understand the new power their public social media mouth pieces have vested in them. Whilst individuals may not say “my phone broke, yet another thing in my life that’s wrong”, they’ll feel increasingly encouraged to say “my @nokia 5510 broke after only 10 years of use. RT til they give me new one”.

    I agree that the public Internet may be moving away from authentic expressions of the emotions of the individual, but I think it’s hurtling instead towards an increase in people voicing their opinions. These opinions will be both positive and negative, but will be without deep attachment to the people’s private lives.

    Looking forward to hearing your further thoughts.

    Luke Winter
    Community Manager
    OneDesk

  9. Luke Winter says:

    February 9th, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    How terrifying it would be for those companies betting their future product development on social media analysis if twitter suddenly turned into solely positive sentiments or silence.

    I think, and as touched upon in these comments, there are two tiers of communication individuals engage in online, and that in your analysis you merge these rather than regarding them as separate.

    I agree we’re seeing a trend towards a ‘positivity or silence’ approach but only in those expressions individuals make concerning their private lives in the public sphere.

    Private spheres of communication in social media will still buzz with positive and negative sentiment as trusted friends discuss the peaks and troughs of their lives behind closed doors, between messages and emails etc. And the public sphere will still buzz with positive and negative sentiment regarding products, news, the weather, lana del ray on snl: opinion.

    It’s just the overlap between these areas that will be affected. People will be less inclined to broadcast “i feel sad”, or “today sucked” to the public sphere under their own names, and will begin to retract their personal emotions from public online display. Anonymous venting though will remain as popular as ever (tumblr.com/tagged/lonely).

    And as savvy customers understand that increasingly, businesses are listening to the views they express online, they’ll understand the new power their public social media mouth pieces have vested in them. Whilst individuals may not say “my phone broke, yet another thing in my life that’s wrong”, they’ll feel increasingly encouraged to say “my @nokia 5510 broke after only 10 years of use. RT til they give me new one”.

    I agree that the public Internet may be moving away from authentic expressions of the emotions of the individual, but I think it’s hurtling instead towards an increase in people voicing their opinions. These opinions will be both positive and negative, but will be without deep attachment to the people’s private lives.

    Looking forward to hearing your further thoughts.

    Luke Winter
    Community Manager
    OneDesk

  10. anne-sophie tricaud says:

    February 10th, 2012 at 11:37 am

    Bindu, I agree with you. There are many more aspects to take into account than respondents’ declarations when doing qualitative research. Body language, energy level, context (if doing ethno), cultural context (invisible online). Moreover, there are ways to connect with respondents and read between the lines of social projections. I have found that a combination of online and in-home can yield outstanding learnings.

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