AIMRI meets in Hampton Court -  The internet & social media

Hampton Court On 15th October 2010 AIMRI met at Hampton Court near London to debate the impact of the internet and social media on research.

Following the chair’s introduction, Ben Marks kicked off the session with a traditional talk about quality entitled “What would you do for 15 pence?” – describing some of the problems with on-line access panel based research and offering some thoughts on solutions. The quality of the sample matters in research and many on-line questionnaire panels don’t offer it.

Furthermore, and this was reflected in the title of his talk, the incentives offered and questionnaires presented do not encourage ‘real’ people to respond. Ways of avoiding these problems included using the digital fingerprint to identify the computer to prevent multiple completions by a single respondent. Of course, one might feel that one of his solutions – increased respondent incentives – would aggravate one of the problems he identified – professional respondents. He mentioned a project he is involved with on the subject of ‘Understanding Students’ – a challenging objective indeed!

However, later in the day the problems of ‘dodgy’ panels faded into insignificance compared with the problems of the ‘modern’ social network so-called ‘research’ methodologies where the difficulty of getting a representative sample is ignored in favour of ‘Wisdom Of Crowds’, i.e. as long as there are enough respondents it does not matter who they are! Tony Dent pointed out in his rumbustuous presentation “Do social media provide us with the message?” that Francis Galton, the original proponent of this doctrine, had only one example of this method yielding a ‘correct’ answer – guessing the weight of an ox at a country fair!

It almost appeared that there are two schools of thought – either to embrace the ‘new’ social media ‘research’ which clients appear to want because it is cheap (or even free, as Peter Bennett pointed out), fashionable (for how long?) and fast – or to continue the battle for quality research based on representative samples. There was some comment that these ‘modern’ so-called quantitative approaches can only provide a feel for what is going on and are more in line with desk research or, as some said, qualitative research.

It is worth noting that Peter Bennett described himself as a ‘social media geek’ rather than a researcher – he brought an interesting non-market research insight to the proceedings, showed with a practical example how Twitter can be used to get people’s opinions about Boris Bikes for free.

Moving on to ‘old fashioned’ qualitative, Robin Shuker described his on-line group methodology. He said that the preparation of the pre-listed questions was key, although new ones can be written and the order changed in the course of the groups. It would appear that they are more useful for an American style focus group than for a European group discussion, where the skill of the moderator is to ask the questions which follow organically from what respondents say, and to encourage interactive discussion amongst respondents. However, his Special Offer, of a free group for AIMRI members to enable them to try out the system, will no doubt be popular.

Neal Sandin (“Internet & mobile research in developing countries”) reminded us that there are more mobile phone users than either internet or landline users, especially in the developing markets such as China and India with huge populations rapidly embracing social media. His data came from the CIA World Factbook

John Attfield (presenting a paper jointly prepared with Philip Rhodes) talked about Cloud Computing but your reviewers are not computer experts! He covered some interesting thoughts around the public scepticism about internet sites, issues of data protection and the opportunities and limits of the internet for researchers. For us, the most illuminating insight was the ability to search for Google Trends – the trend in incidence of searches for the term ‘Cloud Computing’: shows a rapid increase since 2007.

The meeting enthusiastically welcomed a new member of AIMRI, SANEP, from the Czech Republic and Oldrich was brave enough, at his first meeting, to attempt to give an explanation in English (via an interpreter) of his unique Internet off-line system, for which he made some interesting claims. On the whole the talk appeared to raise more questions than perhaps it answered and some of the aspects appeared very specific to their national situation, but no doubt we will be hearing more about this from SANEP in the future.

The day ended in traditional AIMRI style with an excellent meal at a local restaurant 

Charlotte Tatton-Brown & John Peirce

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