Understanding Online Communities and Politics: Conducting Qualitative Research in Ephemeral Environments
For her 2014 award-winning book “Expect Us: Online Communities and Political Mobilization,” Jessica Beyer applied ethnographic methods of observation and participation to four online communities. She was interested in the question, “Why do some online communities mobilize politically and others don’t?” In the 2007-2011 period when she collected qualitative data from four cases – Anonymous (4chan.org), The Pirate Bay, World of Warcraft, and the IGN.com posting boards – this was a contested question. A question that has resurfaced again in the last few years, especially during the online discourse in the 2016 U.S. election campaign.
Beyer, a Research Scientist in the Jackson School for International Studies and in the Technology & Social Change Group in the Information School, gave the last of the QUAL Speaker Series talks for the 2016-17 school year, sharing the challenges of conducting qualitative research in online communities where users are often anonymous and content is ephemeral.
Challenges for studying online spaces
“The Internet is forever, except it isn’t always,” Beyer said. A lot of the content she studied during her dissertation and book research period appeared on chat rooms and message boards and in some of her cases none of it was archived, making it very short-lived. She also navigated completely anonymous communities (such as 4chan.org) and others were actors used more than one fake identity. These features of the online groups she studied posed a particular challenge for Beyer when attempting to draw a causal link between online interactions and real-world political actions.
Case selection process
When Beyer set off to choose which online communities to dive into, she started off with a guiding hypothesis – that young people’s conversations in otherwise “apolitical” online spaces had some significance to offline political engagement. Thus she looked for cases that fit the following criteria: apolitical, large, anonymous, cross-national (though in English), young population, and a diversity of interfaces.
Methodology for studying online communities
Beyer said that unlike political science, the discipline she received her PhD in, online researchers were in agreement that case studies and ethnographic research on one hand, and analysis of large datasets of social media and network mapping on the other hand, were complimentary approaches. For her own project, she focused on ethnography and opted for long-term observation (of Anonymous and Pirate Bay) and participation (in World of Warcraft and IGN). She triangulated that information with the analysis of community-produced cultural artifacts, events, and – when available – archived documents.
Findings from the comparative case-based research
Early on in her data gathering process, Beyer came across something strange. In 2008, a video of Tom Cruise talking about Scientology sparked a shift in Anonymous. Suddenly, the language in this community turned from focused on entertainment to that of action and soon after real-world protesters hit the streets in many cities world-wide, from London to Brisbane, Australia. Anonymous’ online conversation had stepped into political mobilization. In Sweden, Pirate Bay supporters also took to the streets in 2009 after administrators of the online file-sharing community were found guilty.
But it was only in these two cases that political rhetoric online moved to real-world political action. Beyer postulates in her book that some of the key catalysts for mobilization are a high level of anonymity among online community members, a low level of formal regulation of discourse, few or no small-group interactions, and a conflict between online and offline social and legal norms.
Today, when the study of digital politics has been re-energized by phenomena such as GamerGate and the Alt-right (the latter of which originated in online communities like 4chan), Beyer said she is revisiting her four-case study work. Qualitative research, she said, is plagued by doubts – were her conclusions wrong, did she miss something in the data? Beyer said she is looking at current phenomena and continuing to examine her earlier-generated hypotheses.