“The internet’s broken…”

Pfft

Reading this piece of investigative journalism over the weekend, I was struck by the sub-text that if something’s not on the internet, then it doesn’t exist.

The author was investigating the use of micro-targetting of social media in the EU referendum and funding links to the US, and much of it turned on the absence of an online footprint of the various companies and entities.

This struck me as a marginal issue for two reasons: firstly, I’m a digital migrant, so I remember a time of card-filing and dusty archives; secondly, I work in a field where much activity remains resolutely off-line.

However, from the perspective of one of our students, things might look a lot different: we know that many of them seem to struggle to get beyond the first page of whatever Google search they have entered, so how do they cope with this kind of thing?

Three basic elements suggest themselves here.

Improve the quality of your online searching

Most obviously, students need to get out of the habit that so many of us have, namely clicking on the first link (as I’ve done here): sure, it’s often what we need, but if our interest is more niche, then we need students to be working through many pages of results, varying search terms, checking search filters and trying different search engines. No engine is perfect, so you need to spread yourself about in different ways to cover different issues.

The basic premise here has to be that Google might well want to create a single, searchable internet, but they haven’t got there yet: instead, we have any number of walled gardens. For example, I used to spend a lot of time lurking on various chat forums because it was the only way to access (public) conversations between individuals I was researching, as this didn’t come up on searches at all. Even now, when my focus has shifted to Twitter, I still need to find content through that platform rather than Google.

Remember the offline world too

For all the digitisation that’s gone on, there’s still a vast amount of information that’s offline. Unless and until you have spent some time wandering the ranks in the library or the archives of some organisation, you can’t really appreciate what is available. On our field, that includes material that might be classified and the kind of mundane communication that tells you vastly more than any sanitised report on the website.

This isn’t a plea for the ‘good old days’ (because it was actually a massive pain in the neck to find stuff), but rather a reminder that most political activity leaves a trace and even if someone is savvy enough to keep their online profile to a minimum, they will find it much harder to do offline. In the case that triggered this, one might look to company registration data or other public filings to get names and dates.

Reshaping research agendas

This is a bit different, but it’s a function of the other two. As online research becomes easier, so more researchers will do it, leaving the offline behind. Think of it as the writ-large version of the student writing an answer to your essay question based on what they find on the first page of the Google search of your question.

This is mainly about friction of effort, but in some cases – as in the one we started with – the danger is that we don’t properly research something because it’s too much effort.

Online research offers a myth of (relatively) effortless data collection: we just have to be careful not to let that become the driving factor in what we chose to do.

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