How Authentic are we Online?
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.