Doing Internet Research: Foreword

by Steve Jones (

This excerpt is the foreword to the book Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net from Sage Publications, Inc. (Newbury Park, CA). It is © by Sage Publications and Steve Jones, all rights reserved.

No one ever said that change

Had to make the kind of sense we swear

Is only right

-- Lynn Canfield/Area, Larger Than Life, 1990


Don MacDonald and John Pauly, professors of communication at the University of Tulsa, developed and regularly taught a course titled "Inquiry in Communication" offered in that department. At the very start of the term they would challenge undergraduates to unfailingly ask "So what?" and "Who cares?" questions when the students would read research, and when the students would begin to plan research projects of their own. Those questions are critically important to research not merely because they should drive scholars to justify their work, nor simply because they may give us insight into the motivation(s) of scholarship, but, rather, they engage scholar and reader in a conversation about values.

But such questions continue to be easily dismissed when it comes to Internet research -- the Internet's very ubiquitousness (if only due to its coverage in the media) has ingrained in us its importance. Of course, many people do care about the Internet and what goes on within and through it, and well we should care. As a medium of communication new to us (newer than television, the former undisputed champion of research of assumed importance), a medium that intersects with everyday life in ways both strange and omnipresent, popular interest in the Internet is enormous, and not just in industrial countries, but worldwide.

We are still coming to grips with the changes we feel are being brought about by networked communication of the type so prominently made visible by the Internet. In some cases it is even possible that we feel change where there is not any, from anticipation bred by being accustomed as we are to its occurrence. Change is what motivated this book's creation, as did the frequency with which I find myself wondering if change makes sense in regard to the methods we have been using to study the Internet's convergence with modern life. It is the result of discussions with many scholars from a wide variety of disciplines who believe, as do I, that simply applying existing theories and methods to the study of Internet-related phenomena is not a satisfactory way to build our knowledge of the Internet as a social medium. Consequently, this is not a book that will (at least in any direct way) help people to use the Internet as a research tool. Rather, its goal is to assist in the search for, and critique of, methods with which we can study the Internet and the social, political, economic, artistic, communicative phenomena occurring within, through (and in some cases without, but nevertheless related to) the Internet. As Rice and Williams (1984) caution:

We need not jettison useful communication theories when we wish to understand the new media...we should take advantage...of the new media to further specify and modify those theories....The new media need to be included in traditional communication research, but we need to look at those traditional theories untraditionally. (p. 55, 80).

Rice's and Williams's call for interdisciplinarity in new media research is one that has been heeded by contributors to this volume, and one that I hope will continue to suffuse Internet research.

Disciplinarity is useful for a variety of reasons, however, including that it provides a starting point and structure for systematic scholarship. Since another goal of the book is to help people get started...well, doing Internet research...structure and disciplinarity will be evident. Yet disciplinarity should never lead us to abandon inquiry. The instant it structures to the extent that it disengages curiousity, disciplinarity will ruin scholarship. We must keep asking: What are the methods that scholars are already using to study the Internet, what are ones that we could use but have not yet, what are the advantages and disadvantages to these methods and others? There is not yet a field known as "Internet studies," though there may well be one before long. Though it is not a goal of this volume to create such a field, it has as one of its goals to get us to begin thinking about how we might go about systematically studying this medium. On the other hand, the last thing I would like to have happen is for the study of the Internet and related social phenomena to get systematized to the point of bureaucratic rigidity. There are no "traditional" methods for studying the WorldWideWeb, or e-mail, or Usenet, or, for that matter, anything Internet related.

As I have examined my own feelings during the making of this book, I have found myself less in favor of the formation of a field of study, in large part because we would do well to avoid what Stephen Jay Gould (1993) succinctly pointed out in an essay on field research:

All field naturalists know and respect the phenomenon of "search image" -- the best proof that observation is an interaction of mind and nature, not a fully objective and reproducible mapping of outside upon inside, done in the same way by all careful and competent people. In short, you see what you are trained to view -- and observation of different sorts of objects often requires a conscious shift of focus, not a total and indiscriminate expansion in the hopes of seeing everything. The world is too crowded with wonders for simultaneous perception of all; we learn our fruitful selectivities. (p. 213)

The Internet is a "different sort of object" (if it is, indeed, an object at all), and studying it does require a "conscious shift of focus." However, I will hope that we can continously both shift focus and method in the pursuit of understanding, and hope that we do not fix our gaze one way or another, lest we fail to grasp the Internet's essential changeability.

There are, of course, methods that have been traditionally, and successfully, used to study other media, that are now being used to study the Internet, also with success. Ron Rice wrote in 1989 that "research on the uses and implications of CMCS (Computer-Mediated Communication Systems) reflects a variety of disciplinary paradigms, technological distinctions, and evaluation approaches" (p. 469). When it comes to Internet research, most of these are drawn from communication research, media studies, anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, cultural studies, psychology, political economy. Some are quantitative, some qualitative. Some are rooted in the social sciences, others in the humanities, while others still cross over such boundaries. Which are useful, which are not, which do we believe will contribute most to our knowledge of the Internet? Those are the kinds of questions with which contributors to this volume have grappled. I must say I hope they have been engaged, but not quite answered, for if there are answers that readily at hand, I may have been fooling myself that the study of the Internet is exciting and intriguing.

One might ask a priori: Why should we do Internet research? That question suffuses the work of contributors to this volume. Suffice to say for now that, whether or not one believes the hyperbolic claims about the Internet being the biggest thing since the invention of the wheel, the Internet is a medium with great consequences for social and economic life. To some extent it simply does not matter whether one is online or not -- one's life will be, in some way, for better or worse, touched by the Internet. As Rice noted in 1989, "providing instruction, the delivery of health services, the retrieval of database information...the computerization of political campaigns" are among the activities "experiencing...convergence" with computer technology (p. 469), a convergence accelerated by the Internet. In a few years in the early 1990s, with a certain rapidity and inexorability, the Internet became a medium as widespread in the public mind, if not the physical world, as television and radio before it. Like technologies preceding it, the Internet has commanded the public imagination. What that says about us is even more important than what it says about the Internet. And what command it has -- it is not often that a technology can so engage diverse interests in the public sphere. Consequently, the Internet matters, though precisely in what ways it is difficult to discern. It is my hope that you will find this book useful precisely as a guide to the means by which we can better that discernment.

I will hope, too, that as we find out more about what the Internet means to us we will also find out what social life means to us. The Internet does not exist in isolation. To study it as if it was somehow apart from the "offline" world that brought it into being would be a gross mistake. Internet users are as much a part of physical space as they are cyberspace (more so, really, insofar as users' choices regarding place, identity, etc., are far more limited in physical space). As a result the notion that our research should be "grounded" takes on even greater significance when it comes to Internet research. That makes Internet research particularly interesting -- and demanding. Not only is it important to be aware of and attuned to the diversity of online experience, it is important to recognize that online experience is at all times tethered in some fashion to offline experience.

The bulk of research into the Internet has been essentially administrative, driven largely by the concerns of commercial interests seeking to get a grip on the demographics of online audiences in much the same way as that research is done on other media. Measures of web page "hits," domain name growth, etc., give us in broad strokes some sense of the Internet's shape. But I am not convinced such measures tell us much about Internet use. For example, measuring the number of domain names registered tells us nothing about the uses to which those domain names are put. Commercial Internet users hoard domain names and often do not use them. It is a form of trademarking -- McDonald's not only reserves, but also,, and so on. And often if they do use all of these names, they all lead to the same web page. Educational domains are probably responsible for more web content than commercial ones -- at my university, for instance, the top level domain contains tens of thousands of pages strewn across hundreds of servers (* And each student, staff and faculty member can, if they wish, have web pages on, denoted by syntax like That may, however, not tell us about measures of Internet traffic either -- but can we now even achieve a reliable measurement of Internet traffic, given the proliferation of agens and bots, software-based browsing mechanism like the ones used by AltaVista, for instance, to search and catalog web sites? Those generate untold traffic -- not human traffic, however. How shall we account for it, and not simply measure it?

The point I wish to make is not that Internet research is difficult. That is obvious. Internet research, as I will discuss later in this book, must avoid being prescriptive. But it is extremely difficult for it even to be descriptive, given the ever-changing networks involved, the mutating software and hardware, and the elastic definitions. Writing in 1988, Williams, Rice and Rogers stated:

Although we consider possible research methods for new media as mainly extensions of existing methods, we propose that the new media researcher should consider alternative methods, or even multiple methods, and to attempt a triangulation of methods. (p. 15)

One hope that we should have is that the Internet itself can serve as a medium of communication of the research we conduct, that the triangulation Williams, Rice and Rogers seek can occur, at least in some small part, by the publication, hyperlinking and communication of research findings online.

This collection may itself require some hyperlinking of a sort: It is far from exhaustive -- it is not even complete. Many disciplines are not considered in these pages; many methods are overlooked, and, in some cases, even the term "method" might be inappropriate. The goal of editing this volume never was to make it a complete one. In fact, I scarcely believe such completeness to be possible, just as I believe method itself should not solely drive inquiry. There is no one way, nor even a set of ways, to go about studying the Internet, just as there is no one way or set of ways to study social relations and processes. Another goal of this volume is to consider methodological issues that arise when one tries to study and understand the social processes occuring within the Internet, and, in a sense, without it, insofar as the Internet penetrates social life beyond its networks. The contributors to this volume do consider a broad range of methods, and have their intellectual roots in various disciplines.

They have, in fact, done such a good job I scarcely know what to add. The contributors were asked, in essence: What can a particular method, area of interest, mode of inquiry, way of asking questions, contribute to Internet research? Their responses move us several steps along toward discovering ways with which to engage this emergent social word. Their responses also raise additional questions, bring to light further issues, in some ways moving us several steps to one side and other (and, appropriately, in some cases back a step or two). As Ringer (1997) noted:

the "intellectual field" (is) a constellation of positions that are meaningful only in relation to one another, a constellation further characterized by differences of power and authority, by the opposition between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and by the role of the cultural preconscious, of tacit "doxa" that are transmitted by inherited practices, institutions, and social relations.. (p. 5)

If this book manages to express some of those positions, then I believe it successful. It is my hope that this book will be but a beginning, that the steps we take here are part of a long walk that we are taking, talking all the while about cyberspace -- and life, generally.


Gould, S. J. (1993). Eight little piggies. London: Jonathon Cape.

Rice, R. E. and Williams, F. (1984). Theories old and new: The study of new media," in R.E. Rice (Ed.), The new media, pp. 55-80. (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.).

Rice, R. E. (1989). Issues and concepts in research on computer-mediated communication systems. Communication Yearbook, 12, 436-476.

Ringer, F. (1997). Max Weber's methodology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Williams, F., Rice, R.E., and Rogers, E.M. (1988). Research methods and the new media. (New York: The Free Press.)

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