Sharing Networks 2017: pen-and-paper fieldwork in a big data world

I’m excited to report that earlier this month, I ran the second wave of data collection for our Sharing Networks research project at OuiShare Fest 2017!

Publicizing the survey at OuiShare Fest 2017

To understand how people form and reinforce face-to-face network ties at such an event, I fielded a questionnaire with the help of a committed and effective team of co-researchers. It is a “name generator” asking respondents to name those they knew before the OuiShare Fest, and met again  there (“old frields”); and those they met during the event for the first time (“new contacts”). Participants then have to choose those among their “old” and “new” contacts, that they would like to contact again in future for joint projects or collaborations.

Interestingly, my good old pen-and-paper questionnaire still gives a lot of insight that digital data from social media cannot provide – just like a highly computer literate community such as this feels the need to meet physically in one place every year for a few days. Like trade fairs that flourish even more in the internet era, the OuiShare Fest gathers more participants at each edition. They meet in person there, which is why they are to be invited to respond in person too.

One part of the Sharing Networks 2017 onsite survey team.

True, this community tends to dislike paper. Not even the programme is printed at the OuiShare Fest. The secret that I learned from last year’s experience is not to give respondents a paper questionnaire and a pen to complete it, but to approach them for a short interview – after which it is the researcher who completes the paper sheet. The reason is simple: asking them to complete a questionnaire on their own is like asking them to do some homework, and nobody likes homework. By contrast, interviewing means displaying interest for the interviewee, and people like feeling appreciated. An interview can also be seen as a form of socialization – that especially those new to the community might appreciate. In short, interviewing instead of distributing self-administered questionnaires improves the participation experience and potentially increases the response rate.

There’s more to it for the researcher to the extent that engaging in interviews with participants gave us invaluable access to the thinking behind their responses. People often thought aloud, and I found it fascinating to get a glimpse of what they were thinking about when they had to decide what to respond. This is certainly not something I would have guessed if I had just seen the completed questionnaires at the end, without the process leading to that result.

For example, would a participant mention someone previously known only through Twitter among the “old friends” or the “new contacts”? Some people might choose the former option, others the latter. In an interview, they would tell me – so I would not only know that they talked to, say, “Jack” at the Fest and included him among the new contacts, but I could also record on the side that for this particular respondent, a previous Twitter-only acquaintance is not actually a connection.

Of course, interviewing is not always easy. Approaching unknown people may be a bit stressful (shall I talk primarily to people who are alone, or may I dare disturb groups? what if someone is rushing to a session and has no time?) and it is sometimes challenging to find appropriate prompts (some respondents talk very little, or have more limited command of the language; others are very talkative or might bring the conversation somewhat off-topic). Fortunately, OuiShare Fest participants are generally friendly and well-disposed, globally easier to approach than other populations.

I am very happy with the result: 160 completed interviews over just three half-days! It is just because there was not enough time to do more, that we have also offered an opportunity to participate online to people we didn’t manage to talk to onsite. (So far, about 40 people have completed it… which is also in itself a success!)

Many thanks to the team of co-researchers, who helped me achieve this goal, the OuiShare team members who supported us, and all respondents onsite and online.

More information about the Sharing Networks study is available here.

Highlights from results of last year’s Sharing Networks survey are available here.

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