On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog

Well, I just conducted my first interview through instant messaging (IM) over the weekend (if you’re reading this thanks again CK!). I was going to blog about how different it was from traditional interviews when I realized that I actually have little experience with doing traditional interviews. Not the Platonic ideal of traditional interviews, anyway. The first set of interviews I ever conducted were in Spanish, a language I’m not that great in. I got the meanings of the words but I didn’t have the level of fluency necessary for the true back and forth rapport that the best interviewers are supposed to get. I only interviewed two people for my second set of interviews, one of them over the phone (I was doing their life histories). And now for my third research project and third set of interviews, I’m interviewing people for this blogging thing. I was going to do some face to face interviews, but now that’s gone and it’s all phone interviews and VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol, also known as Internet phone). Anyway, I thought I’d compare the different kinds of interviews I’ve done.

Face to face interviews. With this one you get the most and the richest information. When you’re interviewing someone, you’re supposed to take notes not just on their answers but on the interview itself: your impressions of the other person, awkward pauses in the conversation, the tone in which things were said, and so on. You get the most of this kind of nonverbal information from face to face interviews. A lot of times you feel like you’re being deluged with a constant flow of information that you have to get down. And with face to face interviews, you can keep the whole thing going for a relatively long time (I think the longest I ever did was two hours).

Phone and VOIP interviews. Obviously, with this you don’t get as much nonverbal information. You can still tell a lot from voice, though. How is the participant feeling? Are they sick? How strongly do they feel about what they’re talking about? The thing is, you can’t keep this kind of interview going for very long. As a general rule, most people start getting restless if they talk on the phone longer than 30 minutes, unless it’s about a subject they’re interested in or they have a personal connection to the person they’re speaking to. So you have to keep phone interviews short and sweet. But they’re a lot more convenient for both the researcher and the participant.

Instant Messaging and Chat. Ok, so I’ve only done one so far. Still, here are my impressions:

  1. First, there’s a lot less information you can get that isn’t explicitly told to you by your participant. You can guess at how they’re feeling by their responses but it’s not a foolproof method (though it’s not foolproof in person anyway).
  2. It’s also hard to tell when someone is actually paying attention to you. The other person could be watching tv and you wouldn’t know it. It’s not so bad when they answer immediately, but when there’s a longer than normal pause, it’s impossible to tell if the participant is considering their response or have shifted their attention somewhere else. This is particularly bad because interviewers aren’t supposed to pester their participants and pressure them for answers, otherwise the person may just whip out a half-formed thought solely to satisfy the researcher.
  3. The nature of IM makes it easy for numerous conversational threads to form. The participant can type something interesting, then you think, “Aha! Better follow that up,” but then they go on to say something else entirely that’s also as interesting. Interviewers are supposed to give their participants enough leeway to explore interesting tangents, but then you have to keep in mind the interesting thing that was said several dozen lines back. And it’s even harder when there are multiple items of interest that come up.
  4. Connected to the previous point, it’s very easy to interrupt the other person when they’re in the middle of typing. When I’m using IM normally, I often interject when the other person is in the middle of typing, which adds to the number of conversational threads that come up. Often, it’ll be like two conversations are going on as I ask a question, then I ask another, and then the other person answers the first question and I respond to that while they answer the second question. It gets confusing until one thread ends. That is a definite no-no in interviewing, since you’re supposed to give your participants time to respond, and the constant appearance of more questions will make participants feel like they have to type faster to keep up. So what happened during the interview was that I kept starting to type and then deleting what I had when I saw that my participant still had something to say. I just had to keep watching out not to fall into my normal IM habits.
  5. Finally, you can keep IM and chat interviews going for a relatively long time, longer than phone interviews. This probably has to do with the fact that most people spend more time sitting around typing on computers than they do talking on the phone. And being on the computer means you can multitask, so you can keep an eye on the kettle you set to boil or play solitaire or something.

Anyway, that’s what my experience has been with interviews. Your mileage may vary.

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