Memories of my dissertation

In the Fall of 2001 as I was coding and analyzing data for my dissertation on how people find content online, I realized that some Web sites had changed a few design elements after the events of 9/11. I put up a little Web page documenting some of these changes because I thought they were interesting and worth archiving. I wish I would have had time to find more.

There were some more direct links between 9/11 and my dissertation. One was logistical while the other brought it all up close and personal. I think about these issues sometimes, especially the latter, and thought today would be an appropriate day to share them.

I did the recruitment of participants for my project by sending letters and brochures to randomly selected residential addresses in Mercer County, New Jersey. It turned out that this was precisely the area where post offices were shut down due to anthrax concerns so letters that I thought had been sent out to residents were not leaving the post office and letters that may have gone out before the sending office closed down were not arriving at the other end. This led me to delay the study even further – having put it on hold right after 9/11 – in order to be able to pursue the original course of recruitment. I think a mention of anthrax thus made it into my dissertation in a footnote.

The other link is more interesting and touching. Respondents came to my university’s campus to participate in the study. First, I sat with them and orally administered a questionnaire about their general Web use patterns and some additional questions. One issue of particular interest to me is the role of social support networks in people’s Internet use. I had a question on the survey that asked about whether there were people the respondent knew to whom to turn with questions about Web use. One day a participant gave a curious response to this question: he said that there used to be someone. Since you know the context of my blog post, you may see where this is headed. But in the context of the interview this was a curious response and so I asked again to confirm that I had heard the response correctly. I looked up from the questionnaire and asked: “You used to have someone you could ask but that is no longer the case?” He looked at me and said: “It was my son. He used to work in the Twin Towers.”

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