A discussion of online and offline observer roles in studying development, cooperation and coordination in an open source software environment
This paper addresses the application of observation to online settings with a special focus on observer roles. It draws on a study of online observation of a virtual community, i.e. an open source software (OSS) community. The paper examines general and specific advantages and disadvantages of the observer roles in online settings by relating these roles to the same roles assumed in offline settings. The study suggests that under the right circumstances online and offline observation may benefit from being combined as they complement each other well. Quality issues and factors important to elicit trustworthy observational data from online study settings, such as OSS communities, are discussed. A proposition is made concerning how threats to credibility and transferability in relation to online observation (i.e. lack of richness and detail, risk of misunderstandings) can be diminished, while maintaining the level of ependability (which is potentially high due to a greater degree of anonymity and "isolation" in online settings). The paper thus suggests that the less articipative the researcher's online observer role is, the more s/he should consider introducing offline data collection techniques rather than adopting a more participative role in the observed online setting. This methodological discussion forms the basis for making a well-considered choice of online observer role rather than passively sliding into a role assigned by the setting.
Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung, 2011, Vol 12, Issue 3