Researching the Internet Industries: Strategies and Methods

At the recent Association for Internet Research (AoIR) conference in Berlin (October 5-8, 2016), a number of scholars engaged in active research on internet-related industries participated in a session called “Internet Industry Research Rules! A Roundtable on Methods.” As a member of the audience, I was immediately struck by the deep and sophisticated engagement of each of the panelists with the epistemological and methodological pitfalls of investigating economic and social elites. The prospect of “studying up,” to use anthropologist Laura Nader’s (1972) phrase, can be daunting for both students and seasoned scholars alike. Obtaining (and maintaining) access to field sites, negotiating relationships with research subjects, locating relevant data, evaluating and processing the quality of the data, as well as publicizing findings, all present conundrums for scholars (Sullivan, 2004). The goal of the roundtable was to focus attention on successful methodological strategies for Internet industry research to hopefully lower some of the logistical barriers for other scholars.

The following is a rough narrative account of some of the key points made in the session. The roundtable participants were:

Nora Draper, University of New Hampshire: Nora is studying the digital privacy industry, specifically focusing on personal data brokerage that attempt to sell digital privacy to others as a service. Nora is particularly interested in examining startup companies and entrepreneurs in this area. She is conducting one-on-one interviews with these professionals, and supplementing those data with policy documents, as well as newspaper and popular press coverage of the industry.

Daniel Greene, Microsoft Research New England: Daniel conducted three years of fieldwork in Washington, D.C. on several local organizations advocating that individuals learn to code. During that time, he conducted over 70 interviews with local players,  attend meetings with municipal officials and partner organizations, and tracked the rhetoric of the “digital city.”

Tony Liao, University of Cincinnati: Tony is currently engaged in a study of the “augmented reality” (AR) industries. He’s studying the companies involved in producing and marketing AR technologies, what types of promises are being made about AR, how AR standards are constructed, and how these industry players interact with one another.

Nick Seaver, Tufts University: Nick conducted fieldwork with the developers of algorithmic recommenders for the music industry in the U.S. He attended industry and academic conferences on music informatics, held an internship at a software company, and conducted over 90 interviews.

Lana Swartz, University of Virginia: Lana is in the midst of a multi-year research project on the infrastructure of the online payments industry. She notes that online payment is becoming increasingly assimilated into social media ecosystems, particularly with efforts such as Google Wallet, Apple Pay, and others. As part of her project, Lana has attended professional certification events (third party training “boot camps”) and trade shows, and has conducted interviews with industry professionals. She has also engaged in an “ethnography of PDFs” by closely analyzing standards and regulatory documents, along with internal industry communications such as white papers, trend reports, and trade journals. 

And as moderator:

Brooke Erin Duffy, Cornell University: Brooke is exploring issues of gender and class in the debates about digital labor and internet entrepreneurship. Drawing upon in-depth interviews with fashion bloggers, beauty vloggers, Instagram influencers, and designers, her new book project chronicles the experiences and aspirations of a new class of digitally networked creative workers. Brooke was the moderator of the panel discussion.

 

Opening Questions: How did you negotiate access to your field site? How much did you reveal or conceal about your role as a researcher?

 

Point 1: Join groups (social and professional) and attend public events where barriers to entry are low. While you’re there, cultivate key informants who can provide entrée to decision-makers within their own companies and within other organizations.

Joining social or professional groups can provide a means of locating key informants. Tony Liao noted that he made excellent initial contacts by joining a local AR group. Since many of these individuals had joined the group as a means of self-promotion and competitor surveillance, his presence was not questions and he gained relatively easy access. Daniel Greene agreed, noting that local groups involved in advocating “digital city” initiatives were always interested in recruiting more volunteers, thus making those organizations rather friendly to researchers looking for access. Nick Seaver explained that he made contacts for his study of algorithmic software companies by seeking out entrepreneurial hubs that can be found at many large universities. Often some very useful tech-oriented entrepreneurial activities can be found within your own university setting, and your faculty or student credentials can gain you instant access to those settings. Researchers can use snowball sampling to expand out from contacts made in these contexts to get to other professionals in the industry.

Since the internet industries are constantly in flux (there is a great deal of “churn” with companies continually starting up and going out of business), Daniel Greene suggested that new tech startup unveilings or public tech demonstration events can be excellent sites for making contacts and for examining the “public face” of the company. Often, he noted, CEOs, CTOs, and other high level executives (including PR personnel) attend these public events. This can present prime opportunities for the researcher to set up interviews with “power players” in the company. Parties or other social occasions were also good time investments, he argued, because they may yield coveted contact cards or email addresses: essential for follow-up interviews. Daniel noted that once he gained the trust of several well-placed informants within one of these startup firms, he was able to gain access to high-level meetings and interactions between company executives and local municipal leaders (what he called “the good stuff”). Researchers will experience lots of “mini-rejections” on the way to getting access, argued Nick Seaver, but that they should expect that and not feel daunted.

 

Point 2: Go to professional conferences and/or trade shows. Always ask for the press rate or whether you can go for free. Examine institutional forms of sensemaking, but be skeptical of truth claims and established forms of institutional knowledge.

All of the panelists recommended attending professional conferences or trade shows, as they can have a number of benefits. Lana Swartz noted that conferences should be of key interest because they are sites of coordination of the industry. Each year, professionals from her industry of interest essentially construct how are going to do the industry for another year. They arrange everything from partnerships, to understanding standards and regulations. At many of the trade conferences she attends, companies are not necessarily invested in hiding their behavior from outsiders, which makes the task of gaining access relatively routine. In fact, she noted, many of these events are quite “boring” to outsiders, and expressions of interest from the researcher in these activities can provide another avenue for entrée. Professionals may say to her, for example, “We can’t imagine that someone else is interested in this stuff. Why are you interested in this?”

Lana Swartz argued that, along with attending conferences and trade conventions, it’s important for scholars to monitor industry discussions (on blogs, social media, and even newsletters) in the days and weeks after the conference. She noted that everyone is engaged in sensemaking after an industry conference, and participants’ blog posts and other social media utterances can serve a gatekeeping function and help other participants to make sense of the conference. What was most the shocking or surprising moment at the conference? Was there a subtle undertone that was picked up by only some insiders and then communicated to the rest via their online writings?  This is another reason, argued Lana, why you would go back multiple times to the same conference: to align your own sensemaking with that of the participants in the environment. After several conferences, you may begin to see re-circulated narratives from one time to the next. These key narratives can clue you into important realities that are being constructed by the participants in these spaces. Just be aware that there is rarely ever one” truth” to discover about your industry, but instead there are a constellation of narratives that participants construct. Nora also noted that you cannot just go once to a trade conference, because any observations you make will be simply impressionistic. Research on internet industries is thus longitudinal by nature – one has to be a “scholar of transition.”

Other panelists noted that definitional battles among participants in the field that also become interesting sites for research. How people or organizations define the boundaries of their industry can become a motivating question for scholars. Some questions to consider might be: What is a startup? Why does everyone want to be a startup? Boundary definitions become a key unit of analysis. When analyzing industry discourse, argued Nick Seaver, it’s key to identify the specific orientation of that discourse. He noted that there are five distinct orientations to organizational discourse: truth, lies, bullshit, visions, and jokes/irony. Drawing on the work of Clifford Geertz, Nick noted that people in organizations often speak in ironies or jokes, and you’ll miss this if you are not deeply embedded in that organizational environment.

All of the panelists bemoaned the often exorbitant admission prices for industry conferences and trade shows. These prices are no doubt meant to keep out certain players, but they end of directly hampering researchers. Tony Liao noted that the standards conferences he attends are not only expensive, but are often hosted in far-flung international locales, making it challenging for scholars to attend. How can scholars keep costs down while also attending these events? Lana Swartz noted that she had had tremendous success in asking whether or not she could attend the conference for free or with a “press” rate simply by contacting the conference organizers. One audience member noted that his university was an institutional member of a trade organization he wished to attend, and therefore he could have attended that particular trade convention for free.

 

Point 3: Scavenge all information you can from multiple sources, including social media.

Speaking from the point of view of an anthropologist, Nick Seaver argued that scholars conducting internet industry research must engage in what Gusterson (1997) calls “polymorphous engagement.” In essence, the research should develop an eclectic and pragmatic approach to collecting data that doesn’t necessarily fetishize the participant observation method. Nick noted that “you have to become a kind of scavenger to look for information” because access to elites is so challenging and fraught. Only through this kind of scavenging, he noted, can you begin to identify what Diana Crane (1972) calls “invisible colleges”; those key decision-makers within your industry. Archiving conference “swag” is one technique of documenting the material culture in an industry, for example.

Nora Draper noted that LinkedIn was her “best and closest friend” in her research because her potential respondents did not necessarily share a particular physical space or field site, and were typically no longer employed by their company (or their company had since gone out of business). Through LinkedIn, she was able to find current email and street addresses for her respondents. She did note that she had to pay for a Premium LinkedIn account in order to gain access to this information. Lana Swartz also mentioned Twitter, Slack channels, and other forms of social media as good places to obtain information about her subjects.

Tony Liao noted that researchers can also obtain valuable perspectives on their industry by scrutinizing the sociology of futures literature. He argued that the “performance of future” has an important effect on the activities and conceptualizations of the present. Circulating and managing visions of a particular future are often a key goal of companies. Analyzing these discursive futures can get beyond the “hype” of marketing language.

Nora Draper noted that she would routinely examine patent applications as one way to puncture the idea of the “reputation society.”  She spent time looking through patents, and this proved to be a useful way to balance the discourse with something that is perhaps more concrete. There is a portion of all patent applications where the applicant explains the rationale for what they are doing – the social implications of this particular technology, for example –  and this is where you can find some of the information that can give you insights into the motivations of a particular company or industry (the imagined future, in other words). This is where you see the benefit of the longitudinal view/frame of the industry. Researchers can log these promises and then compare them to what actually happens in the future.

Daniel Greene noted that examining SEC documents can be another powerful technique for examining the “vision” for a publicly-traded company. Here, he argued, you will often find (along with court depositions) the private face to the company that you wouldn’t necessarily find elsewhere. Ethnographically, scholars can also look at “pivots” for data. Pivots are where the company had one idea and no one bought it and then they “pivot” to another idea (a party is usually involved). Pivots typically have a couple of audiences: funders, employees, competitors, regulators, other people in the space/industry.

 

Q: How do you manage your identity and role as a researcher once you are embedded within your field site?

 

Point 4: Managing access at the field site is a process of continual negotiation.

All of the participants agreed that getting initial access to their field site or to key informants in their industry was no panacea. In fact, issues of access were continually negotiated while they were on site. Nick Seaver noted that studying corporations often involves signing non-disclosure agreements or otherwise navigating the social and legal apparatus that keeps the corporation together. Lana Swartz agreed, stating that she was well aware that her continued access to key meetings may be contingent on her own expertise and behavior – if she does not demonstrate certain levels of industry-specific knowledge or is critical of the industry then she may not be allowed back into those meetings.

Further, Nick Seaver urged scholars to avoid the classic “colonial imagination” of the field site, noting: “Once you’re in there, this is where the ‘truth’ is, everything on the outside is the ‘not truth.’” Instead, every elite field site is a “jungle of concealment”, wherein even the participants may have only a limited sense of knowledge about what is happening around them at any given time. Nick drew upon feminist STS studies to challenge the highly gendered notion that knowledge projects can “strip the clothes” from nature to reveal the truth (including the sexist metaphor of “opening the kimono”).

In sum, access is continually negotiated. Scholars can think about how people think about authenticity and culture within their institutional settings. How do borders gets enacted by other people and by the researcher herself? These are important epistemological issues to consider. Borders and boundaries can have a profound effect on your research. How the research negotiates this “texture of access” and where she might find resistance to access is a valuable question to consider.

 

Audience Question: How do you negotiate center-periphery issues to make sure that we hold major corporate powers up to proper scrutiny?

The question of power was something of interest to the entire panel. Nick Seaver pointed out that to study the power relations in the world, we do not stand outside of them, but we are always implicated in those relations. We can be looking more attuned to power relations by conducting longitudinal research.

Nora Draper argued that most big players are assemblages of a bunch of different players. We can talk about them as intermediaries, but really what they are is different people providing different aspects of the same service. Consultants, for example, are an important aspect of all industries. We can identify the technology assemblage, the consulting assemblage, the legal assemblage, the funding assemblage, etc. People in these areas are continually sensemaking about the industry so these are people to target as key informants or institutional interlocutors for the researcher.

Daniel Greene noted that was valuable to look back at the history of industrial/organizational research to come to grips with power relations both within and outside of the organization. Often, the most important person at the corporation is not the CEO, but is instead the admin assistant or other less senior personnel who are most directly responsible for keeping the organization together. Sectoral-ness is another issue to consider: Should we study large firms or small firms/startups? Where should you focus your research? This literature can also assist in managing that question.

Tony Liao argued that speaking “truth to power” in hyper-capitalist spaces like the startup tech world can be very difficult to do. We as researchers make decisions about how we are going to present these interactions, and we may no longer be welcome in these spaces if we challenge the very basis of the capitalist logic. What we can do, noted Lana Swartz, is demystify and destabilize the hegemonic visions that are floated at trade shows and in other institutional communications as an important aspect of speaking truth to power and de-stabilizing it.

 

References

Crane, D. (1972). Invisible colleges: Diffusion of knowledge in scientific communities. Chicago: Chicago University Press. (summary)

Gusterson, H. (1997). Studying up revisited. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 20(1), 114–119.

Nader, L. (1972). Up the anthropologist: perspectives gained from studying up. In D. Hymes (Ed.), Reinventing Anthropology (pp. 284–311). New York: Pantheon Books.

Sullivan, J.L. (2004). On the rewards and perils of “studying up”: Practical strategies for qualitative research on media organizations. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the International Association for Media & Communication Research (IAMCR), Porto Alegre, Brazil.

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