The importance of context for studying online groups in Facebook

This piece originally appeared on the Australian Digital Futures Institute blog with the same title.

Social science researchers in the 21st Century often find themselves wanting to analyse interaction in online groups. This is quite simply because an awful lot of social interaction occurs online these days what with Facebook, email, learning management systems, forums and all the rest. We are as a society perhaps still coming to terms with the notion that there are quite a few people out there who utter more words online than they do face to face (I suspect that some days I might be one of them).


At first glance, online groups represent an incredible opportunity for researchers. Every trace from every interaction, however informal, is recorded, along with its timestamp and a unique code. A greedy glint comes into the eyes of any statistician or researcher with a data mining technique or two up their sleeve at the mere thought of thousands, perhaps millions, of interactions waiting to be analysed. But there is more to this story – context is important for studying online groups in Facebook.

My particular area of study is looking at the professional development of teachers in online groups. In work that I’m doing with Dr Amy Antonio of ADFI, we’re looking at Facebook groups to see how teachers are providing for one another with things like links to resources, opportunities for reflection, practical advice and emotional support.

We picked a popular Facebook group and downloaded its thousands of messages and began applying the tools of the trade in earnest: social network analysis to see who is important in the group; thematic analysis to see what’s being talked about; manual coding to get a calibration and an intuition for the data and a deeper understanding through discourse analysis of specific parts of the interaction.

The problem with all this though is that we hadn’t taken into account the question of context.

Online spaces are by definition artificial environments. Everything is designed: the look and feel of the space, the actions it affords, the representations of the people inside it and even the ways in which those people can interact. Again: all this is designed.

When researching these online spaces, we need to confront the fact that we cannot make assumptions about what might constitute “normal” activity or interaction in the space.

If I’m studying an online group that only talks to each other once a week, when for other groups within the same environment the norm is about 100 posts a day, then that is significant and says perhaps that whatever we find out about this group doesn’t really apply generally to the larger environment. I’ve not conducted a meta-analysis or anything, but anecdotally this seems to be missing from many studies of online groups.

And so what I’ve learnt from all this is that:

  1. When analysing online groups, we can’t make assumptions that the group is “typical” for that environment without making sure of it. And beyond that:
  2. We can’t assume that we know what a “typical” interaction in the environment looks like without considering the design of that environment.

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