When Qualitative Study Goes Wrong (MSTU 4020; Week 10)

Maybe the title's a bit hyperbolic and maybe I'm a bit frustrated with some of the readings this week because my brain is fried and it's 1:00 am.

Nonetheless, I found The Benefits of Facebook "Friends" profoundly cumbersome. I will concede to the fact that my view of any scholarship on Facebook at this point is nauseating. I feel like we're all staring at a chimpanzee at the zoo as if to study it from a distance only to realize the chimpanzee is really our own silly reflection in the glass window. We're hell bent on finding something "new" or interesting about something that's not really that new or interesting anymore -- at least that's what it seems like. The initial response to Facebook was certainly warranted. Mark Zuckerberg's a genius. Social networking is sexy. And algorithms are the new black. I get that we're entirely obsessed with wanting to understand more about ourselves and our communities. The Internet is a fantastic means of seeing and studying those ideas. But what are we truly getting out of it all?

I have a hard time wrapping my brain around how qualitative studies like The Benefits of Facebook "Friends" have managed to quantify bridging, bonding, and maintaining relationships to the Cronbach’s alpha statistic. This is utterly mind boggling. As I tried to skim the article for definitions of what the authors mean by bridging, bonding, and maintaining relationships, all I found were references to other authors' scales, followed by some random (okay, not random) equation. *pulls out hair*  Do we really need statistical data to represent an understanding of how people feel and interact on Facebook? Granted, maybe we do, but boy-oh-boy western society sure does pride itself on rationale and objectivity through scientific measure, even to the point that something qualitative must be quantified.

The fact that nearly all Facebook users include their high school name in their profile (96%) suggests that maintaining connections to former high school classmates is a strong motivation for using Facebook.

Um, okay. Fascinating stuff. So what about those who don't include their high school names, are they less likely to want to maintain connections to former high school classmates? What if the motivation to not include their high school name has absolutely nothing to do with maintaining connections with former classmates? What if that 4% still wants to (and do!) maintain connections, but inserts "High School of the Gifted Pocket Protector Posse" in their profile? What's truly in a name?

This excerpt is really only a small (and silly on my part) example of how quantitative data seems, to me anyway, pointless in the realm of study that's overwhelmingly qualitative.

We've already discussed how complex identity (and identifying) works within digitally connective social spaces. Some of these findings, for instance, do not speak to those complexities or nuances of identity representation and formulation whatsoever.

This particular reading, along with some of the others, brings me back to an issue that I've been thinking about throughout this semester. That is, how do we go about researching digitally connective social spaces? What do we, as researchers and educators, need to consider as it concerns emerging ethnographies in the field? I'm nearly convinced that some of the ways in which we've been going about these "studies" are wrong. And I'm not sure what the alternative is at this point. But it does seem as though we're applying odd and useless methods to a complex area of study.

What of these so-called "findings" is necessary (found on p. 1147)?

  • Hypothesis 3a (supported): The relationship between intensity of Facebook use and bridging social capital will vary depending on the degree of a person’s self esteem.
  • Hypothesis 3b (supported): The relationship between intensity of Facebook use and bridging social capital will vary depending on the degree of a person’s satisfaction with life.

Talk about mixed ideas; self esteem, social capital (what an abstract notion!), bridging. Is this a psychology study or a study I'd find in a business journal? Even the languaging is wretched.

Aside from the study itself, I worry that the lure of researching SNS outweighs it's effectiveness for educators and scholars. It only seems that these sort of studies are useful stats to inform media soundbites or marketing/PR talking points, but what value do they have toward our understanding of phenomena in communication, societal shifts, technological usefulness, and education (beyond what we already know about physicality, virtuality, embodiness, etc.)? Maybe I'm bothered that the studies aren't moving as fast as the technology itself. Or maybe it's that the studies aren't broad enough in scope (what about Twitter?). Or maybe it's the lateness of the hour and the moment of intellectual exhaustion. Whatever the case maybe, I recognize something unsettling in my gut about all of this sort of research. I really want us to go somewhere with it, to see something truly remarkable about who we are as people and as communities. I want this area of study to inform what else is out there beyond our localities and our realm of awareness.  But I just can't see anything biting beyond the proverbial glass window.

On another note, thank God for SuperNews.