Has the online search displaced the friend as the preferred first information source?

ResearchBlogging.orgBased on this article, apparently not. There is an entire body of work talking about how scientists, engineers, people in business, etc., all consult friends (acquaintances, weak ties, strong ties, etc) first before looking at their files or consulting a reference or heaven forfend, trying the library. Even though some people do some research before asking other people (Wolek, 1972), it's a well documented thing that people like to use other people as sources of information (just a few examples not cited by the authors include Borgatti & Cross, 2003, Hertzum & Pejtersen, 2000, Constant Sproull, & Kiesler, 1996) .

Now with knowledge workers being hyperconnected with easy access to fast internet at work, I've been wondering if running a quick search in a search engine would displace asking people as the top thing. For me it's sort of a toss-up. If I can ask someone who's right here, I might do that before searching online. But what did the authors find?

  • Quick questions > internet.
  • Identifying plants or insects > internet.
  • Complex questions > people.
  • Evaluations of products > people.
  • Specific information (e.g., state-specific)> people.
  • Efficiency/cost > depends.

But that was just  one of their research questions. They also looked at weak ties/strong ties (a la Granovetter). Their participants liked to ask friends first (and do not like this one woman in the office although they are willing to ask her stuff because she's connected and knowledgeable!). The participants worry about the credibility of information online, particularly that coming from .com sites.


They did semi-structured interviews with 14 individuals working at various locations in an agricultural education and outreach organization affiliated with a large research university in the Northeastern US. They also did a social network analysis survey asking about friendship and knowledge seeking networks. They used grounded theory methods for coding.

Some minor critiques.

The whole knowledge thing. People in KM and business areas of information science - and the authors - say that knowledge includes information and data. They say that you can basically just use knowledge seeking in place of information seeking or whatever. Baloney.

There are other stylistic issues that make me think this was originally headed for an MIS journal instead of a LIS journal, but it ended up in a LIS journal so should use those conventions.

So much detail about a woman participant who everyone dislikes but asks for information anyway. Wow. That's probably pretty recognizable if you're the woman!

There are some papers about the aspects of relevance related to searching for people. It seems like some of the results are really *about* judging relevance when selecting people, but do not go in depth.

In Sum.

Not a fabulous article, but decent. I think they could have skipped a lot of what we already know, and spent more time on the electronic vs. people question - since that's what I'm interested in!


(post is about:)
Yuan, Y., Rickard, L., Xia, L., & Scherer, C. (2010). The interplay between interpersonal and electronic resources in knowledge seeking among co-located and distributed employees Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology DOI: 10.1002/asi.21472


Borgatti, S. P., & Cross, R. (2003). A relational view of information seeking and learning in social networks. Management Science, 49(4), 432.

Constant, D., Sproull, L., & Kiesler, S. (1996). The Kindness of Strangers: The Usefulness of Electronic Weak Ties for Technical Advice. Organization Science, 7(2), 119-135.

Hertzum, M., & Pejtersen, A. M. (2000). The information-seeking practices of engineers: searching for documents as well as for people. Information Processing & Management, 36(5), 761-778.

Wolek, F. W. (1972). Preparation for interpersonal communication. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 23(1), 3-10. doi:10.1002/asi.4630230104

2 responses so far

  • Thanks for the research blogging summary!

    This reference leads me to ask a not-so-related question:
    Hertzum, M., & Pejtersen, A. M. (2000). The information-seeking practices of engineers: searching for documents as well as for people. Information Processing & Management, 36(5), 761-778.

    Do you have papers to recommend on expert finding/searching for the relevant people?