Are we allowed to talk about downloading?

A few months ago I ran some groups with the usual warm-up of discussing mobile and internet use.  The one difference between this and normal practice was that for this project, we rang up the attendees a few days before the groups and had a short conversation with them.

The intention was merely to check that the attendees were using the specific services we were researching, but it had some interesting effects in the subsequent sessions.

In the focus group, we started off with a nice conversation about Internet habits.   I gradually began to notice that people I’d interviewed earlier weren’t sharing parts of their internet use.    That woman wasn’t talking about her Ebay addiction.  That young man wasn’t talking about his use of dating sites.  As we got on to talking about music and film, one man leaned forward, threw a quick glance at the client who was sitting in, and said, ‘Are we allowed to talk about downloading?’

It was an interesting one.   The observers, I think, thought he was referring to iTunes or the BBC iplayer or Channel 4 on demand.   From the conversation we’d already had on the phone, I knew he was talking about torrenting and Limewire.   Our focus in the research was rather different, so we had a brief  and somewhat coded chat about music downloading and then moved on.

Talking about internet habits in a focus group poses some interesting challenges.  Most people use the internet – YouTube apart – when they’re by themselves.  Ask about internet habits these days and you may be prying into some very private territory indeed.   And that’s well before we get onto s*x.

What are the reasons for not sharing habits in a group?

Websurfing is solitary and private Sharing one’s favourite sites may be like sharing favourite books or TV programmes.   The amount of time spent checking celebrity gossip sites may not be something that the respondent wants to share.

Respondents fear being judged for their interests Both the Ebayer and the internet dater didn’t want to talk about these specifics.     Things might have been very different if the group were composed of like-minded people, but it wasn’t.   These people stayed quiet.  They joined in the discussion of Facebook, because Facebook was something that everyone could share, but they didn’t want to discuss some of the sites that actually meant a great deal to them.   The internet dater was a big user of gay dating sites like Gaydar: talking about that site to a mostly straight group would be a step too far.

Some habits are grey in terms of their legality An in-depth discussion of someone’s torrenting habits may be possible one-to-one, but in a viewing studio with cameras, microphone and three people behind a mirror taking notes, it’s easy to decide not to mention it.

Researchers aren’t aware of what’s out there The researcher who has only ever used Facebook or perhaps read the occasional technology blog does not have a good feel for the myriad of ways in which people connect online.    While some researcher naivety can be helpful, lack of awareness can mean that certain questions never get asked.

Clients may be even less aware (and in any case, are tightly focused on their own organisation’s interests) The typical research client is heavily overworked and either has little time for personal exploration of say, social media, or is in the wrong demographic for it to be second nature.    There are some very web-savvy exceptions, of course.

Research (especially market research) is heavily normative Market research tends to be commissioned by rich white business people who want to sell things to a relatively quiescent audience.   People working in large companies would probably agree that internet privacy is really only a concern for people who have something to hide.

I would argue that the effect of all these forces is to downplay the discussion of messy or problematic habits, especially in group discussions.   The problem then is that the research user ends up with, at times, a heavily edited and skewed version of reality, which may leave out some important yet uncomfortable truths.

The practical implications of the shadow web is that researchers should be aware of group pressures when talking about internet habits, and should, where possible, be digital natives themselves.

Researchers also need to use mixed methods.  Telephone interviews and web-enabled interviews can be far more revealing than a one-and-a-half hour focus group, for some subjects.  Message boards may encourage quiet people to speak their minds.

Researcher openness also helps.  Although it may go against the grain, it can be very helpful to share some of one’s own messy habits.    It sets the right kind of non-judgemental atmosphere.  Once the group knows about your addiction to websites about Jennifer Aniston, they may relax and become more open.

The research client may secretly pity you, but that’s how it goes.