What exactly is “Online Data”?

Categories: Data Collection, Online Research, Other, Research, Research Design

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We will define our April focus broadly to include any qualitative or quantitative methods that involve questioning, prompting, or working with participants to collect or generate data. Find the unfolding series here. Dr. Zina O’Leary, author of numerous SAGE books including the new Doing Your Research Project, is a Mentor in Residence for April.

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Well there are actually two distinct ways we can think of online data. The first is the online data that simply sits on the Internet.  In this case, think of the Internet as a massive library or repository. Almost every bit of paper that every organization, government agency, NGO, researcher, etc. produces also (and sometimes, only) exists online. Digital photographs, records, databases and government files are available at your fingertips. You may not even realize how extraordinary this is. If you are under 30, you probably never knew, and if you are over 30 you are likely to have forgotten, what it was like before everything we wanted to know was right there. BI (before Internet) if you wanted to know the lyrics of a song, and you didn’t have the album cover or the CD case, you had to ask a friend. BI, we visited actual buildings called libraries, and searched through rows and rows of index cards to locate books made of real paper organized by the Dewey Decimal System. BI, the news was delivered to us by a kid on a bike who threw rolled-up sheets of paper at us. BI, Funk & Wagnalls had the answer.

And aside from accumulating the vast sum of all human knowledge, the Internet is also an archive of itself. Copies of websites are preserved at specific moments in time. This means that web pages are preserved as they existed in 1997 or 2006. Think of it as a virtual time machine, where the dancing animated clip art of the 1990s comes alive. Websites that would otherwise be overwritten, updated or deleted are forever preserved.

This makes the Internet a researcher’s best friend and is, in fact, the main resource for secondary data.

The second type of online data is online generated data. Online generated data is a different beast. It is data that is produced by the Internet or only exists because of the Internet. We are talking here about websites, feeds, blogs, posts, videos, and tweets that are proliferating at an unfathomable pace. It is also the data we generate as we live out our lives online, i.e.) the evidence of our net based communities. This is the data that would cease to exist if the internet was abolished. A frightening thought, given that we live more of our lives online, removed from the physical spaces that once defined us.

For researchers, this is relatively new territory, and is territory that is shifting and expanding at a rate with which we can barely keep up. But as our world shifts in this direction, we need to keep pushing the boundaries of social science research, which means becoming comfortable with exploring online generated data.

Interested in Online Research? Join the webinar!

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