How to indulge my inner snoop?
February 24, 2011 7:26 PM   Subscribe

I love doing research to uncover things that are hard to figure out--or, better, that I'm not supposed to know about. The sort of thing that investigative reporters and detectives do. How can I find an outlet for this interest?

Whenever a vaguely "investigative" research task comes up in my daily life, it always reminds me of how much I enjoy it. I can wield a search engine with the best of them, and I'm good at the sort of lateral thinking required to figure out where to go next with each nugget of information I figure out. I also have a very high tolerance to boredom, so I can handle the endless sifting through records/database results/etc. that this sort of thing often requires.

So where can I find an outlet for this? Obviously it'd need to be something that's at least a little cool or interesting, and hopefully the end result would have some sort of value or interest beyond my own curiosity. I know even real P.I.s generally don't work on anything sexier than verifying insurance claims; I'd be willing to settle for about one notch above that. (Hopefully that's possible, since unlike them, I don't need to get paid ;))

I'm fairly socially/politically minded, so I wouldn't mind getting into citizen journalism, for one. But I suspect that very dedicated people with special expertise tend to snatch up all of the low hanging fruit, so it would take years of effort to uncover anything interesting at all. Am I right there?

(Anon because of the off chance that a future employer might not like hearing that I love nosing around in records that are none of my business.)
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Genealogy? Local archival work? If you have a small county-level archive nearby, they might be interested in using your skills as a volunteer. Most of them have boxes of stuff that no one has looked at in a long time. Cataloging that info can be rewarding, and who knows what sort of stuff you'll find. True, most of it is boring, but sometimes you run across something interesting that would be worth investigating more.
posted by BlooPen at 7:52 PM on February 24, 2011

IP law (think prior art searches), market research, or competitive intelligence.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:27 PM on February 24, 2011

You could be a great blogger if there's a niche you're interested in. Lots of the best blogs thrive on these skills.
posted by anildash at 8:35 PM on February 24, 2011

"I'm fairly socially/politically minded, so I wouldn't mind getting into citizen journalism, for one. But I suspect that very dedicated people with special expertise tend to snatch up all of the low hanging fruit, so it would take years of effort to uncover anything interesting at all. Am I right there?"

Not really. We have a couple of local bloggers who continually scoop the local media and pull out the most fantastic stuff. They basically pay close attention to what people are claiming at city council meetings, and then do the research. Mostly people are claiming total bullshit. And since there's constantly new stuff going on in local politics, there's constantly new stuff to get after.

I can think of plenty of low-hanging fruit locally that nobody's gone after; a nearby prosecutor has been repeatedly accused of racism (this particular low-hanging fruit is in my mind because of an incident this past week resulting in some fairly horrific name-calling being thrown around by alleged adults, making the 5 o'clock news totally unfit for family consumption), and nobody's ever bothered or had the time to go through his past cases and compare his prosecution decisions by race of the defendant.

Another option would be an "Innocence Project" type program. Some of that type of program restrict participation to students, but others are more community-based.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:02 PM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

You might want to look into Alternative Reality Games. It might not be as meaningful but it'd be much easier to get involved in.
posted by scalefree at 9:20 PM on February 24, 2011

Silly idea: write for Cracked, especially if you've got a sense of humor. They pull together entertaining articles about (often) obscure things, that are well researched.
posted by Logic Sheep at 9:43 PM on February 24, 2011

You could look into into prospect research, which is basically stalking rich people on behalf of non-profit organizations.
posted by neroli at 10:42 PM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, genealogy is great if you have an interest in history in general and your family history in particular. Challenging research, lots of fun, and a great sense of accomplishment as you fill out more and more of your family tree.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 10:44 PM on February 24, 2011

I agree with genealogy. That said, don't hope to make any money! I tried that for awhile and ended up throwing up my hands.

But it is that kind of fun, of searching for hidden connections. And you can pore through criminal court and probate records.
posted by zvs at 1:21 AM on February 25, 2011

Research librarian?
posted by majortom1981 at 4:49 AM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

On political campaigns there are people called "opposition researchers." You know how things like Bill Clinton's draft-dodger letter and George W. Bush's college transcripts always get leaked to the press in the middle of an election? It's because opposition researchers dig them up.

Obviously that kins of work is not for everybody... in order to do it professionally you have to be willing to get your hands a little dirty. But opposition research is all about the thrill of the chase and unraveling big knotty secrets... it can be a lot of fun for someone who loves digging.

The "oppo" community is, for obvious reasons, pretty insular and secretive... they just don't like to talk about their work with outsiders. But if you start volunteering for a campaign and make your research skills and interests known, eventually the campaign's research person would trust you enough to show you the ropes and give you some assignments. Usually only bigger campaigns (House/ Senate/ Governor/ Presidential) have dedicated research staffers, but campaigns all the way down to dog catcher do oppo.
posted by Sifleandollie at 11:29 AM on February 25, 2011

Seconding competitive intelligence. It's like legal corporate espionage, so no jailtime or underhanded payments: dig up public information on your competitors, compare this to known trends, and do analysis on what directions they will take for it.

There was recently an AskMe thread about this. Some companies do it in-house, but others hire consulting firms that specialize in it. It is fun! I do this as one of my jobs, and spend both a lot of time researching on-line and other times interviewing people.
posted by whatzit at 7:36 AM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

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