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The Internet Matters: Exploring the Use of the Internet as a Research Tool

Nicola Illingworth
Sociological Research Online 6 (2) illingworth

Abstract: The arrival of the virtual realm and computer mediated communication (CMC) continues to attract considerable interest from a wide range of disciplines. Hine (2000) has suggested that previously negative understandings of CMC have been transcended. The virtual realm is now welcomed as a site for richer and more sustained interaction than previously envisaged. For the research community, the rapid development of the World Wide Web has opened new horizons and provided access to a new frontier and tool for data collection. The researcher can now engage in research on a world-wide, low cost, almost instantaneous scale - and in ways which potentially overcome some of the barriers imposed by more conventional research approaches. However, this somewhat idealistic view obscures both methodological and ethical difficulties that have become apparent throughout this research. If these difficulties are left unchecked, they may serve to undermine the use of the Internet as a tool for social research. The primary aim of this paper is to expose these difficulties and thus broaden the scope of discourse surrounding the Internet. A secondary aim is to explore the implications of the use of the Internet for the feminist methodological and research project. My aim here is to problematise the transference of existing methodological frameworks to an online setting. In this respect, I have presented this paper in the form of a research trajectory, outlining the course of my research from its conception to latter stages. The intention here is to suggest an avoidance of the use of the Internet as an 'easy option' and encourage a more developed focus on the justification, applicability and benefits of Internet research to the particular project. What has become apparent is that the effectiveness of CMC is much dependent on who is being researched, what is being researched and why.