The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

The Difficulties Of Research In The Internet Age

Posted by BigWords on July 25, 2011

Writing about doing research makes up for a large percentage of things written about writing. However clunky that sentence is, it is a reminder that there are aspects to any story which require some thought and preparation – often in areas which are, due to reasons ranging from the age of the individual to their location, rather obscure. Going into this post, I was acutely aware that there are things others have pointed out which contradict my views on research, but there’s enough room in this subject (by merit of scope) that taking a fresh approach might open up new ideas for people to consider. Which brings me to the first of my points – the strata of research.

1 Common / Everyday Knowledge

This is the easy stuff to find out, as there are multiple ways to tackle acquiring the information, but it is still going to evade your grasp if you aren’t asking the right questions. It isn’t too hard to frame some of the material in context either, as this is the preserve of the everyday. One small concern when using the regular, routine and mundane material is redundancy – how many times do we need to be told that it is not advised to walk out into traffic? Interestingly, it is often in SF that these irritating chunks of information are passed around, as if they are great insights.

2 Location / Era Specific Common Knowledge

This is the follow-on from the first category, and whilst the information is still as readily available, it may be restricted to certain areas of research. A good example of this is one of my obsessions – yes, I’m back to talking about pop culture. It may be almost unheard of today, when the young ‘uns are too fidgety to sit through a black and white film in peace, but back in the Good Old Days ™ there were cartoons, newsreels, and even a completely free of charge B-movie thrown in to the cinema experience. Music used to be (at most) three or so minutes – with certain exceptions – and there was no crime; crime having been invented in 1973. That last bit of information might be a lie…

Actually, that was put there to show just how easily a person can be led by misinformation which has crept into the historical record through incorrect assumptions being given more weight than they really deserve. There was a page on Wikipedia, for example, which had a bit about a British comic running at a loss, and as there was no way to prove the information incorrect it was kept up, despite being a lie. It may not seem like something which people should get upset about, but every piece of incorrect data in a work of reference is another problem to overcome for historical accuracy.

3 Individual / Group / Company Specific Knowledge

This is where things take a sharp incline into “difficult” – researching things which are common knowledge to a small group of individuals, though may be completely unknown outside of that area, is one of the most frustrating things I have had to do. When you find someone willing to talk, the danger of them providing unsubstantiated information gets increasingly complex. There’s going to be more on this in a later post, and I’ll throw a few of the things I use to overcome this.

4 Specialist – General Information

This is knowledge which is specific to one area (diamond-cutting, car manufacture, publishing) which can be adapted for fictional uses, or supplemented for use within another area. It’s less difficult than it used to be researching this, as there are now multiple titles which offer introductions to areas which, until very recently, might have been the preserve of those who would enter the profession to gain knowledge of the ins and outs.

5 Specialist – Secrets

This is where “difficult” enters the realms of “impossible” to all but the most dedicated of researchers. You can be guaranteed that you will come up against heavy resistance to any kind of research which is regarded (rightly or wrongly) as being a secret. Of course, having pried a few of these out of people in the past (and accidentally revealing some) I know there are ways to get around the wall of silence. You might want to think twice before you publish anything which falls under this heading, as people take a harsh view of those who would expose things they want kept under wraps.

I’m going to take a longer view of this later.

6 Undiscovered Knowledge

And we come to the highest tier of the WTFery that anyone could possibly hope to research.

For all the vaulted merits of the internet, and the mass of information on tap 24 hours a day, wherever you happen to be, there are some things I can bet you won’t be able to easily track down. I know this. I’ve already looked. If, for example, a person was to write something about Wikileaks, where do you think the narrative would have to begin? Take a moment to think about this, because the question isn’t so easy…

Do you have an answer yet?

Aaaaaand… You’re wrong. Whatever you thought there, the correct answer isn’t 2010 (when traditional news outlets got their panties in a twist), 2006 (when the site was founded), nor 1971 (Julian Assange’s birth), because that does not cover the history of an individual taking it upon himself to reveal embarrassing facts regarding a political group or movement. In fact, if you want to write about Wikileaks there seems to be a precedent buried in the history books – way back in 1767 in the letters column of the London newspaper Public Advertiser, published by Henry Woodfall.

Of course, the newspaper seems to have completely vanished from anywhere accessible via the internet (if it was ever was available, that is), and none of the usual routes seem to take me closer to a copy of the letter pages, so Junius’ scathing indictment of King George III, and his parliament must remain under the “unverified” column. My notes don’t reveal where I found that nugget of historical information – and I’m not entirely sure that the information is even correct, as the newspaper isn’t available to check, so as a fact (or lack of a fact) it sits uneasily in a netherworld of things which I have yet to get around to. Cue epic headache, and the eternal frustration of research.

I’m probably going to take an especial interest in this area, so be prepared for a massive rant dialogue on the annoyance of trying to find something which has yet to be properly documented.

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2 Responses to “The Difficulties Of Research In The Internet Age”

  1. Haggis said

    Can’t help you, Gary, but if you’re looking for any other scathing indictments of George III, my countrymen wrote quite a few a couple hundred years ago. 😉

  2. bigwords88 said

    I’ve read through a lot of that material, and it couldn’t have been funnier if Ben Elton had penned the missives for an episode of Blackadder… 😀

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