The Story of Ethnochat: Designing an Instant Messaging Program to Conduct Semi-Structured or Unstructured Interviews

The Story of Ethnochat: Designing an Instant Messaging Program to Conduct Semi-Structured or Unstructured Interviews

Jason Zalinger (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0074-4.ch006
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Instant Messaging (IM) programs are powerful and unique tools for conducting semi-structured or unstructured online interviews. However, many unanswered questions exist surrounding the use of IM interviewing. This design chapter takes a storytelling approach to answer two specific research questions: (1) Do rich data collected via IM stand the test of time? (2) How can an IM program be built designed specifically for researchers? The chapter is organized into three parts. Part one reviews recent, related research. Part two takes a somewhat unusual approach to answer the research question regarding the long-term power of IM data by re-visiting the author’s experience from 2007 using IM to interview female participants about their feelings using online dating sites. Part three is a detailed description of a prototype IM program, Ethnochat. There are many IM clients in existence, but nothing has been made specifically for professional researchers for semi-structured or unstructured interviews. Having the best tool available will help urban planners conduct their research more efficiently and at a significantly reduced cost.
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Conducting interviews through IM is a fairly recent phenomenon. Though there is, unfortunately, very limited research on IM interviews, much of the research done has had a self-reflective quality as the authors of various papers not only use IM but reflect on the experience of using it as a methodological tool. For example, Voida, Mynatt, Erickson, and Kellogg (2004) wrote:

Pragmatic challenges of interviews include the travel that may be required to meet face-to-face with a respondent or the time necessary to transcribe the exchange. As a tool for conducting interviews, instant messaging presents some compelling potential benefits to mitigate challenges such as these. And yet, over the medium of instant messaging, the genre of the interview takes on a different character (Voida et al., 2004, p. 1344).

Voida et al., go on to write, “We have reflected on our own experiences interviewing over instant messaging, exploring the ways in which expectations about attention, timing, limited context, and persistence impact the genre of the interview” (Voida et al., 2004, p. 1347). Voida et al. identify, early on, some of the key elements in IM interviewing (timing, context, multi-tasking, etc.). They also explain that the medium of IM changes the genre. Fontes and O’Mahony (2008) chose important practical reasons for using IM interviews: It is cheap, if not free. As soon as you are done, the interview is transcribed, and you can conduct interviews with participants regardless of geography. Fontes and O’Mahony also discovered the benefits of the medium itself. For example, they write, “the lack of visual and auditory cues creates a level of detachment between the interviewers and the interviewees, which is particularly useful when conducting research on sensitive areas such as health, sexuality and so on” (Fontes & O’Mahony, 2008, p. 3). The authors also discuss the importance of the linguistic conventions (they may even be more like traditions than conventions at this point), such as, abbreviations or emoticons of which researchers should be aware. They write that if a researcher is not “au fait with these aspects, they may not find the use of IM to be as rewarding” (Fontes & O’Mahony, 2008, p. 4).

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