I recently came across an intriguingly thoughtful article entitled “Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong” on the Atlantic. It may stimulate some critical reflections regarding how researchers should study the implications of information and communication technologies (ICTs) may influence the way people share and connect with others.
The main idea of the article is simple: the recent social media phenomenon only represents a small and observable portion of the social sharing behaviors online. This is just right on the money. A good friend of mine emailed me this Dark Social article because he doesn’t really use Facebook. If I want to share this article with friends who live in China and Taiwan, I would have to email it to them, post the link on Chinese-written forums that they frequent, or send a message via the IM clients that they use. Not all my sharing practices contain referrer data and they will be in the big myth of the Dark Social. If the sharing traffic recorded by social network sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc. can only account for less than half of the volume, then how can researchers study the social sharing behaviors not captured by the data architecture of the so-called Web 2.0 services?
One possible starting point for answering this question is to consider people and the social contexts where these ICT-mediated practices are situated. People layer various ICTs and use their capabilities to connect with their existing personal networks without adopting the structure of the current social network sites. So, it may be more straightforward for researchers to study my anecdote by asking me than obtaining the data via various sources of online analytics behind the scene.
However, informants are nowhere near perfect. Often times, people may forget what they did and may not be able to articulate and tell researchers what they did upon inquiry. Additionally, people may not commit to provide the most truthful responses to researchers’ questioning. The challenges of Dark Social actually then become: how can researchers collect robust information beyond the data architecture of ICTs? More importantly, how can researchers benefit from the Big Data potential even if they are not necessarily interested in any particular Web 2.0 sites?
My response to these questions is going back to the basics of research design. The idea is to incorporate ICTs’ capacities into existing methodologies and research designs to help research participants provide their information to researchers. For example, the Roxy, developed by Ericka Menchen-Trevino, seeks to collect participants’ online behaviors in detail and in turn allow participants to review their actual Web usage while being interviewed by researchers. For my EgoGalaxy, I incorporated many design suggestions proposed by the literature in survey methodology to help participants recall and respond to the personal network questions. These attempts are important research design practices and potential tools for investigating the Dark Social. With the aids of technologies, people are more likely to provide robust data about their social sharing online. More importantly, researchers can collect information from the people who do not use those popular social network sites for sharing or those who purposefully avoid digital traces when they share.
Ultimately, I believe thinking about how to integrate ICTs in the existing methods will help researchers to put together a good mixed-method design for their work. The Dark Social is only invisible to some methods, and researchers can and will be able to shed light into the iceberg.