Laura Hamilton Thompson's Community Network essay

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Her sample consisted of voluntary respondents, presumably people who felt positively about the website given that they are using the site, and are willing to fill out the questionnaire, as Thompson herself admits. Little data about the demographics of the respondents could be gleaned from the structure of her surveys, such as their occupation and geographical and social situation within the community. Thompson noted that as both her quantitative and qualitative methods were assembled from online sources which meant that she could not assess the body language of the respondents. Given that supposed enhanced interpersonal relations were being assessed in an anonymous, relatively impersonal and arbitrary format gave minimal support to her thesis about enhanced community spirit. Nor did her questions section in the appendix indicate that she asked the respondents about community involvement and participation, and the additional fulfillment created by the use of the message board. Her questions mainly focused on Internet use and their vague sense of improved community. The demonstrable action of creating a community off-line, as a result of inspiration drawn from the webpage was essentially absent from her queries. Also, her questions did not ask about specific examples of how community had been generated (greater volunteerism, more active involvement in community activities, meeting people met online) rather they spoke about community as a vague, general 'feeling.'

One interesting comment derived from her qualitative findings was the note that one user of the site believed that a global, rather than a local community was generated by the webpage and his use of a connection of the Internet in general. This seemed to highlight the difficulty of focusing on the online format to evaluate the findings -- was the community created online translated into community praxis or did users use it to learn more about the community outside of their rural location? The comment also suggested that users were more interested in using technology, not community sites, to connect with the greater world outside, not to seek to learn more about the people and conditions within the community.

Besides Thompson's methodological sloppiness, there was also a problem with Thompson's vague definition of community. On one hand, she spoke of the value of community cohesiveness, but she was also interested in seeing how technology could connect rural locations with the world outside of the town's borders, at least according to her main thesis statement. The Internet's potential to create either sense of community may differ.

Thompson's collection of quantitative data seemed equally arbitrary as her selection of the community network. Her questionnaire was posted on the web-site for three weeks where users were invited to fill it in, voluntarily, and she admitted because it was extant for such a short duration, it was not even representative of enthusiastic users and frequent users. Nor did it examine what sections of the site these individuals favored over others, if, for example, message boards, community listings, or other interactive components were favored by frequent vs. infrequent users.

The information provided by the qualitative and quantitative sections of her study might be somewhat useful for a designer and maintainer of the site. But her methods and conclusions hardly seem to justify the broad-sweeping thesis she makes that a community network creates social capital and networks of trust, friendship, and shared interests. To state such a thesis and justify it through a randomly selected community with a particularly good website and to support the thesis with a small sampling of the site's most dedicated and frequent users over a short period of time does not uphold her ambitious contention with rigorous methodology or good, common research sense. Community and emotional fulfillment is something that must be studied over time, and research must study actions, not user's endorsement of vague definitions of community.

If anything, this study demonstrated the dangers of doing market research or research in general online, and making generalizations about the respondent's off-line life, based upon their recorded information. A thesis must match a researcher's methods and her research and measure actions, not words and value statements. An eloquent thesis and a well-defended methodology mean little if the methods do not have adequate data support to justify the thesis.

Work Cited

Thomson, Laura Hamilton. "Caithness Community Network." [26 Aug 2007].


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