The power of the one – the world in a grain of sand, or the internet through a single person

This came from several conversations I had before my time in Romania – Mariann Hardey, Tom Ewing and some of my digital marketing masters students must be credited even if I need to take full responsibility for the folly of the idea. Which goes something like this.

Statistics formulated for us the size and composition of a sample so that it replicated the population.

Qualitative research practice enables us to sample much smaller numbers of people but to interview them and weight their response in such a way that a dozen interviews or 4-6 groups gives us solid feedback again about the population.

So here's the question – how much data do we need in order to be able to use one subject as a basis for internet studies?  Now that people are communicating on websites, blogs and social media channels. Now we can track website visits and transactions. Then how much do we need before the diversity and detail of a single dataset of an average member of the population is enough to enable us to give an account of what everybody is thinking.   I've been amused how easily it is ruled out of court – of course no individual can ever stand for an entire population.

Why ever not? Most history is based on doing just this. Samuel Pepys is a rather useful diarist. So do we need 11 more diarist in the sample before we can quote him? So is literature. We didn't require Charles Dickens to write a given number of novels before someone started to use the word Dickensian and to propose that he gives a universal account of Victorian England. Once we accept the possibiilty that a single individual can be a reflection of the culture then the number of data sets available to us is considerable. E-ethnography is more than fiddling around looking at odd web artefacts. It could be the gateway to a whole new science of understanding human beings – combining historical and literary method to look at the inner worlds which literally millions of people are slowly unfolding online. 

The Cloud of Knowing web3 project which I am on the verge of starting might look at this but this feels like another project all by itself. So what do you think? How big the dataset. And how diverse? Or will you rule out the possibility entirely?

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