7.2.2 Participant-centered data collection

Data collection approaches of the past, which are researcher-centered, are not going to work as well in the digital age. In the future, we will take a participant-centered approach.

If you want to collect data in the digital age, you need to realize that you are competing for people’s time and attention. The time and attention of your participants is incredibly valuable to you; it is the raw material of your research. Many social scientists are accustomed to designing research for relatively captive populations, such as undergraduates in campus labs. In these settings, the needs of the researcher dominate, and the enjoyment of participants is not a high priority. In digital-age research, this approach is not sustainable. Participants are often physically distant from researchers, and the interaction between the two is often mediated by a computer. This setting means that researchers are competing for participants’ attention and therefore must create a more enjoyable participant experience. That is why in each chapter that involved interacting with participants, we saw examples of studies that took a participant-centered approach to data collection.

For example, in chapter 3, we saw how Sharad Goel, Winter Mason, and Duncan Watts (2010) created a game called Friendsense that was actually a clever frame around an attitude survey. In chapter 4, we saw how you can create zero variable cost data by designing experiments that people actually want to be in, such as the music downloading experiment that I created with Peter Dodds and Duncan Watts (Salganik, Dodds, and Watts 2006). Finally, in chapter 5, we saw how Kevin Schawinski, Chris Lintott, and the Galaxy Zoo team created a mass collaboration that motivated more than 100,000 people to participate in an astronomical (in both senses of the word) image labeling task (Lintott et al. 2011). In each of these cases, researchers focused on creating a good experience for participants, and in each case, this participant-centered approach enabled new kinds of research.

I expect that in the future, researchers will continue to develop approaches to data collection that strive to create a good user experience. Remember that in the digital age, your participants are one click away from a video of a skateboarding dog.