The Internet ≠ Progress

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(Abandoned NSA ‘listening station’, Teufelsburg, Berlin)

With the arrival of winter in Canada, there’s no better time to get books out of the library with no intention of returning them by their original due date. In an attempt to fill in my knowledge gaps relating to queer theory, LGBT studies, and feminism, I spent last weekend scouring Carleton library’s shelves and discovered that most of their literature hails from the 1990s. While my next step of attaining literature from the 2000s will likely be quite the hurdle (I refuse to believe that the work of theorizing about diverse sexualities was completed in the 90s), I’m comforted to see that the speed-reading I did for my thesis agrees with these older foundational works.

Although history usually puts me to sleep quicker than watching late-night infomercials, I’ve been flipping through Annamarie Jagose’s “Queer Theory: An Introduction” pretty quickly to get up to speed on all the different movements that have led us to today. The book starts by describing the ‘homophile movement’ that was big in the 1950s when gays and lesbians attempted to perpetuate images of homosexuals* as completely ‘normal’, upstanding citizens that could/should be embraced by the existing societal structure (e.g. Mitch and Cam from Modern Family). Then there was the ‘gay liberation movement’ that started in 1969 with the Stonewall Riots. This gave rise to a lot of the ideals that I often hear within queer circles today: discontent with the status quo, challenging gender roles, and not aspiring to form a nuclear family. In fact, it brings back memories of attending Peter Tatchell’s talk at Queen’s College last year where he asserted that LGBTQ people must fight for more than marriage equality and challenge the very institution of marriage itself in order to improve society for all people.

While I’m still a few decades off from the official development of queer theory (have to tackle the ‘lesbian feminism’ and ‘identity politics’ chapters), I’ve already been reminded why history is important: it plots a path so we can see where we’ve been. The thing is, I’m pretty sure I’ve been exposed to paradigms from the 1950s homophile movement, the gay liberation movement, the current identity chaos of what shall we call ourselves (Lady Gaga, I’m pointing at you), and many more perspectives courtesy of the Internet. Since the Internet provides a platform for every kind of idea and not just the dominant discourse of broadcast media or historical accounts as dictated by textbooks, it’s got me thinking as to whether or not ideas and paradigms can truly be ‘done with’ (as in: over, dead, dead like disco**) in our present time. It seems that without the Internet, certain ideas would fall out of use, books would become unpopular and go out of print, but with a self-archiving, enduring, easily-searchable system, a multitude of perspectives from across decades can co-exist at our fingertips.

On the one hand, this conglomeration of paradigms might lead to greater freedom of thought. Instead of having to go along with the way ‘progress’ is depicted in history books as being something that increases over time, we can properly assess past thinking and determine if the present conception is really better, worse, or just different. Conversely, the Internet’s affordances for facilitating adoption of old paradigms flies in the face of the adage that we should learn about history for the purpose of not repeating it. From the Atkins diet to neo-nazi websites, it’s not unusual to spot the resurgence of movements that already seemed like a bad idea the first time around. In fact, the lack of temporal organization on the Internet (what Castells has termed, ‘timeless time’) is the only reason that young people’s fashion and media trademarks of today can be comprised of nostalgia for a time before they were born*** (e.g. Miley Cyrus’ irrational admiration of Michael Jordan despite his rocking the NBA playoffs before she was even 10 years old).

As usual, I don’t actually think this quality of the Internet is inherently good or bad. It’s just part of the complexity that technology adds to social research. I’m starting to get the sense that thanks to the Internet, and broadcast media to a lesser extent, queer identity has started to embody paradigms across the decades so that a queer person might feel the need to be a ‘suburban dad’, a ‘fabulous drag queen’ and a ‘genderqueer activist’ all at the same time. What does this mean for how these identity expectations get expressed? Well, back to PhD applications.

*Shudder – sooo clinical sounding

**Disco isn’t even dead anymore. Just watch this documentary and you’ll want to get your jive talkin’ on.

***At a party where a remix of “No Diggity” was playing, I made the mistake of noting aloud, “I remember when this song came out” and a nearby 22-year-old who knew all the lyrics just awkwardly shuffled away from me.

Social Media & Society 2013: Five ingredients for an amazing conference

Now that I’ve got your attention, just a quick shameless plug that I’ve updated all the pages under the Research tab with the findings of studies I conducted this past year. Have a read about Facebook’s perilous governance practices, what people think their Likes indicate about them, and how LGBTQ young people deal with context collapse on Facebook.

Right, now to talk about the Social Media & Society 2013 International Conference that took place at Dalhousie University just a couple of weekends ago. Despite that this was my first time presenting at an academic conference, accompanied by much nervousness and constant slide-editing, I was still able to notice many fantastic aspects of the weekend. I’ll share my presentation slides and notes in a subsequent blog post but first I wanted to give kudos to the conference organizers for having everything come together so well.

Here are 5 ingredients from Social Media & Society 2013 that were key to such a great conference:

1. A range of fascinating topics. With themes including identity, online communities, academia, marketing, and politics, this conference had something for everyone. This was a good reflection of the diversity of areas in society affected by new information and communications technologies (ICTs). It also captured the interdisciplinary work of the academics studying this field. Presentations about mommy blogging, PR disasters on Facebook, Occupy Wall Street, and many others were interesting in their own right but also held valuable insights or methodological approaches with possibilities for application to my own work.

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 (Elizabeth Dubois on Identifying the Opinion Leader)

2. Knowledgeable speakers. This goes hand-in-hand with the first point in that the conference’s diverse speakers were very engaging as they shared about their areas of expertise. I was particularly impressed with the opening keynote by Sharad Goel, a senior researcher at Microsoft, as he talked about his cutting-edge research on virality. Everyone wants to know how something like The Fox gets over 60,400,000 views, but it’s not a simple question when both broadcast and person-to-person media play a role (papers and more papers).

SharadGoel

 (Sharad Goel on virality)

3. An exciting host institution. A tour of Dalhousie’s Social Media Lab was offered on both conference days. I jumped at the opportunity to check out their interactive screens and Big Data processing power. Even more impressive were the tools running on those screens. The lab has developed a number of tools for analyzing digital data with one of the most notable being Netlytic, an application for social network analysis. This app aids the interdisciplinary development of ICT research as it combines computer scientists’ coding expertise into a tool that researchers without a programming background can use to make sense of social interactions online.

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 (A sample visualization from Netlytic)

4. A sense of community among scholars. Throughout the weekend, there was a sense that you could freely chat with people about their research. This was fostered by little touches: name tags, suggested lunch venues, available speaker biographies, and evening mixers. Never underestimate the importance of a coffee break!

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(Post-conference dinner at the habourfront)

5. Connections beyond the conference room. Although this ingredient feeds #4, it’s significant enough to stand alone. Conferences with Internet researchers tend to do this one really well. The organizers put everything together on a fantastic sched.org site, which was integrated with Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, to connect everyone weeks before the start of the conference. This, combined with lively tweeting on the conference hashtag (#SMSociety13), meant that participants were able to find others researching similar areas of interest and connect with them over social media. Not only did these additional ways of connecting eliminate the pesky, “Uhm, what was their name again?” post-conference predicament, it also allowed attendees to share feedback, resources, and encouragement.

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 (Dr. Anatoliy Gruzd, Director of the Social Media Lab analyzing connections on the #SMSociety13 Twitter hashtag)

Now that you know this is not an event to be missed, you should probably keep an eye out for #SMSociety14 and murmurs about next year’s conference!

Academic elevator speech

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“elevator” by whatatravisty on Flickr

In evangelist circles, they always say you should have your ‘elevator speech’ ready to go. It’s a 30 second spiel designed to change minds and drive your message home in the time it takes to ride an elevator with a stranger. In (social science) academic writing, the abstract is akin to an elevator speech – ok, maybe two elevator speeches, once going up to set out the premise of the research and once heading back down to reveal the findings and key conclusions.

After slogging through the heavy lifting of research (27 transcripts and 1000+ code excerpts later), I’m finally at that point where I get to write my abstract – to really hit it home. In fact, I’m hoping it will inspire me to edit my thesis into a leaner, more coherent body of work. But before I write something really academic-y, I first need to figure out in plain terms what this research has accomplished. So here we go, are you ready? Push the button!

Going Up

This study extends previous research identifying social networking sites (SNSs) as environments that reduce spatial, temporal, and social boundaries. The resulting context collapse, which creates overlapping audiences for performances not tailored to all recipients, was examined through semi-structured interviews with 27 LGBTQ people ages 18-25. Interviews investigated their everyday experiences and biographical stories relating to the disclosure of information about sexual identity on Facebook, a SNS of personal networks containing diverse audiences, and included video-recorded walkthroughs of participants’ Facebook accounts.

Though it’s not perfect, from this section you learn:

  • The social phenomenon I am looking at: context collapse;
  • My sample: 27 LGBTQ people 18-25;
  • My methods: Semi-structured interviews and Facebook walkthroughs

Now for the tough part, what did the participants (or co-researchers) and I find?

Two main things:

  • Context collapse results from performances of personal identity where individuals did not intend to redefine relationships with certain audiences (e.g. OMG I just came out to grandma and grandpa!);
  • Participants engaged in two main strategies for preventing context collapse: Expressing themselves using ambiguity or social steganography and separating audiences using privacy settings, friending practices, or different SNSs for different performances.

And this is what they mean:

  • A more complete application of Goffman’s impression management framework along with acknowledgement of societal influences on identity (e.g. homophobia) provides a more thorough understanding of the conditions of context collapse than has been previously developed. Therefore, future research should apply these theoretical strands to other types of identity expression on SNSs to determine if they are applicable across populations. 

So…

Coming Down

Participants’ experiences of context collapse in relation to unintended disclosures of sexual identity increased their awareness of Facebook audiences, giving rise to the application of two main prevention strategies: coded identity performances and audience separation. Findings resulted in a new model of impression management for decontextualized environments that explains context collapse more thoroughly than previous research. Such a model paves the way for future studies of identity expression on various types of SNS.

WHAT?

Ok, it’s a work in progress. I’m going to use this as a starting point for getting back to the editing process but you can expect a future post in layman’s terms of what I found and what it means for LGBTQ people and SNS users altogether.

Using digital technologies to research children in time

This is a presentation I gave last week – developed entirely just based on the prescribed title topic. Feel free to skim any of it (with correct attributions) if it applies to your work!

 

WHY use digital technologies to research children in time? 

This can really be broken down into 3 questions:

  • Why research children? As Livingstone (2009) points out, children are often ignored in population-level studies but tomorrow’s adults are children today. Therefore, their current lives, activities, and influences will have an effect on the future of our society. The media also perpetuate moral panics and sensational rhetoric (Selwyn, 2003) that necessitates research in order to dispel myths and actually get to the bottom of what is happening in children’s lives. Professor Kehily explains this further in the video at the bottom of her research page.
  • Why use digital technologies? Studies continue to show that people under 18 are still the most rapid adopters of new technology (Dutton & Blank, 2011; Madden, Lenhart, Duggan, Cortesi, & Gasser, 2013). While I’ve been focusing on the ways in which social networking sites, like Facebook, are important to young people’s identity formation and participation in society (boyd, 2007, 2011), technology in general is essential to children’s learning and social development (Ito et al., 2010). As a result, any research about children will need to be digital in some way in order to investigate how their lives are interwoven with technology.
  • What does time have to do with it? Not only do longitudinal studies show us how behaviour and social interaction change over time, but they also provide more robust findings than one-time surveys and interviews because they let us know what we are seeing is an enduring pattern and not a blip in the data. Researching children over time also helps us to understand how people, activities, and behaviour feature differently throughout development and the life course (Furlong, 2013). However, in a world where funding is scarce in the social sciences and funders want to see significant findings immediately, fewer longitudinal studies are being carried out. Digital technologies can help to remedy this by providing us with records of activity over time. From individuals’ browser history to their Facebook Timeline and Tumblr posts, most technology-users have amassed a digital archive that is available if you have the right tools to access it.

Digital Tools for Research

Having taken the Oxford Internet Institute’s seminar on Digital Social Research, which helped me to develop foundational knowledge of some coding languages including python and PHP, I see lots of opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration between social scientists and computer scientists in this area. With most social platforms having readily available APIs and programming toolkits, there is no limit to the range of research-based applications that can be created. Whether it’s an app that embeds a survey into Facebook or that collects non-reactive data, such as my Like Collector project, participants simply need to grant access to the program and it does the rest of the work.

I also learned about a swath of digital tools for social network analysis in my other option course at the OII. Using a variety of programs, such as NodeXL, data about individuals’ social networks can be collected from Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail. These programs can then be used to analyse social graphs to identify clusters of contacts and important people in networks, such as those who bridge different groups. Since children’s lives are so intensely involved in their social networks, this type of analysis can provide a world of insight into cliques, isolation, and the ‘popular’ kids.

The OII-developed app NameGenWeb is a good example of both these types of digital data collection and analysis tools together.

Researching Digital Data

People like to share about what they do online. Whether this is because the Internet is an outlet for creative endeavours or because people spend so much time expressing themselves on social platforms, they seem to be open to talking about it for hours. My approach of interviewing young people about Facebook and having them walk through their social media accounts has been extremely effective at understanding the intentions, awareness, and motivations behind online activities. Their accounts also help to develop an idea of how online behaviour is connected with the rest of their lives and their social relationships. The semi-structured interview is flexible enough to uncover new and unexpected things about technology use and online demonstrations act in the same way as photo elicitation (Harper, 2002) to help people remember what they have done online and why.

Of course, this is not the only way to access mediated aspects of people’s lives. Another approach is to carry out content analysis of all the material people post. Years of status updates, tweets, and blog posts can give a world of insight into the way young people develop and change over time. Traditional methods, such as surveys and focus groups, can also be moved online to reference mediated activity while participants provide feedback about it.

Digital Dissemination

Publicising findings online increases both the reach and impact of research. When I think about who needs to know about research outcomes, three groups of stakeholders come to mind:

  1. The participants/co-researchers – First and foremost, I feel that the people who have taken time to co-create the knowledge necessary for the study deserve to know its outcomes. I am a firm believer in enhancing the credibility of research by having participants validate, dispute, or add to the findings (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Online forums, e-mail exchanges, and research websites can provide platforms for this type of dialogue. Participants can also play a key role in knowledge dissemination by creating online content, such as telling their stories through blogs or apps like Tellagami.
  2. The public – The Internet means that we no longer have to wait until policy-makers and legislators notice our research in order for it to reach people who might be affected by its outcomes. By having a presence on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media, and by encouraging discussion around findings, we can reduce the gap between academia and real-world applications of research. This can be achieved by building eye-catching, interactive spaces, such as the Making Modern Motherhood website. In turn, creating a larger buzz in public will hopefully spur bureaucrats and policy-makers to take greater heed of research findings and incorporate them sooner than later.
  3. The academic community – Research related to children and digital technologies is interdisciplinary since its outcomes could have implications for researchers in the areas of political science, sociology, youth studies, media studies, computer science, etc. Too often academic departments function as knowledge silos where research is not informed by projects at other universities or in connected disciplines. Disseminating research through webpages, webcasts, online videos, and old-fashioned listservs ensures that we can build on work that others are doing in order to make even larger strides in the generation of comprehensive knowledge about these multi-disciplinary topics.

A Note about Challenges

While research involving digital technologies opens up new opportunities, it also carries with it risks and ethical concerns, such as gaining informed consent proportional to the huge amount of data that is being gathered about participants. This, paired with the power imbalance between researchers and children (Morrow, 2008), means that research projects need to be well thought out and that extra measures need to be taken to protect children’s safety, confidentiality, and well-being (such as in projects like Livingstone et al.’s investigation of children’s encounters with risky online content, including violent or sexual material). At the same time, research about children’s lives must involve children themselves. It is essential to carry out research that is for children, not on children (Balen et al., 2006) by having them participate as active co-creators of knowledge.

Conclusion

Using digital technologies to research children in time means harnessing digital tools, investigating mediated aspects of children’s lives, and disseminating research findings through digital means that increase their impact. Through this approach, we can produce robust research outcomes that develop a deeper understanding of children’s lives over time and pave the way for future research.

References

Balen, R., Blyth, E., Calabretto, H., Fraser, C., Horrocks, C., & Manby, M. (2006). Involving children in health and social research: “Human becomings” or “active beings”? Childhood, 13(1), 29–48. doi:10.1177/0907568206059962

boyd, d. (2007). Why youth (Heart) social network sites: The role of networked publics in teenage social life. In D. Buckingham (Ed.), MacArthur Foundation series on digital learning – Youth, identity, and digital media volume (pp. 119–142). Cambridge: MIT Press.

boyd, d. (2011). Social network sites as networked publics: Affordances, dynamics, and implications. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 39–58). New York and London: Routledge.

Dutton, W. H., & Blank, G. (2011). Next Generation Users: The Internet in Britain. Oxford Internet Survey 2011. Oxford Internet Institute: University of Oxford.

Furlong, A. (2013). Youth studies: An introduction. London and New York: Routledge.

Harper, D. (2002). Talking about pictures: A case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies, 17(1), 13–26. doi:10.1080/14725860220137345

Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., boyd, d., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B., Horst, H. A., et al. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic Enquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Livingstone, S. (2009). Children and the Internet: Great expectations and challenging realities. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Görzig, A., & Olafsson, K. (2010). Risks and safety on the internet: The perspective of European children. Initial findings. LSE, London: EU Kids Online.

Madden, M., Lenhart, A., Duggan, M., Cortesi, S., & Gasser, U. (2013). Teens and technology 2013. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Teens-and-Tech.aspx

Morrow, V. (2008). Ethical dilemmas in research with children and young people about their social environments. Children’s Geographies, 6(1), 49–61. doi:10.1080/14733280701791918

Selwyn, N. (2003). “Doing IT for the kids”: Re-examining children, computers and the “Information Society”. Media, Culture & Society, 25(3), 351–378. doi:10.1177/0163443703025003004

 

Queer, Feminist and Social Media Praxis workshop: A diversity of perspectives

This past year, I’ve had trouble referring to my program as ‘Internet studies’ even though it provides a quick alternative to the mouthful that is Social Science of the InternetSure, we had to learn about Internet architecture, the actual tubes and wires connecting everything, but really we study people, politics, economics, networks, and interactions on or relating to the Internet. My thesis is about LGBTQ people using Facebook to shape their identities, not about Facebook itself. This is why I’m not worried about being branded a Facebook researcher and it’s also the reason I believe it’s important to analyze things relating to the Internet by drawing on the strong theoretical and knowledge foundations already established by so many disciplines.

With high-speed connectivity and ubiquitous access in so many parts of the world, the structures of society are reflected and sometimes transformed online. Systems of power, such as patriarchy, transfer to online spaces but may also be circumventable through the use of digital tools. Facebook can be used to organize and consolidate individuals with feminist perspectives, a topic which Keren Darmon is investigating through analysis of how well the messages of SlutWalk protesters transfer from self-produced online content to mainstream media. YouTube can be a site of strange and sometimes cruel celebrity but it can also be a way to learn more about online culture. Affordances, such as the viral nature of the Internet, can help content that challenges taboos to be encountered widely while the archiving qualities of Facebook can begin to build contemporary queer histories, as explored by Sam McBean.

These were just some of the topics discussed at the Queer, Feminist and Social Media Praxis workshop at the University of Sussex. With delegates from the digital humanities, social sciences, and the arts, it once again reminded me that all these perspectives are essential when thinking about the Internet. Here are some additional highlights from the weekend, which included two fascinating film screenings and a variety of panels on the intersection between queer and feminist topics and the use of social media:

Screening of The Owls on Thursday night. 

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Alex Juhasz speaking about YouTube.IMG_1099

Roni Guetta talking about Traumfrau Brighton.

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Gotta catch them all: Your Facebook Likes

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(What does my new mug say about me?)

Just thought I’d let everyone know what I’ve been up to since I haven’t seen the sun in about a week and it’s not even due to the British weather. I’m designing a Facebook application for a class where we are learning how to gather social data from the Internet by using ‘digital’ methods (i.e. programming for hours, surrounded by empty cans of Mountain Dew and bags of Doritos). Ideally, the completed app will ask your permission and then stuff all of your Facebook ‘Likes’ into a file so I can analyze them. Anyways, head on over to the research project page to read all about the study and how it ties into my larger thesis!

Unlike us but like me: Facebook as private corporation or public service

The Federated Web Show @ Unlike Us #3

(All conference images available here)

Here at the Unlike Us #3 conference in Amsterdam the debates run rampant. The conference has a bohemian feel, taking place in a re-purposed printing warehouse with a green wall and organic pear juice on all the tables. The lack of plug-ins, unreliable wifi, and brochure void of QR codes is enough to give off the sentiment that we have all moved beyond a reliance on technology. However, not everyone has jumped on the Facebook refusenik boat, as is evident in the lively debates.

Is a world without Facebook really better? Can decentralized services provide us with the functionality we need? What is the functionality we need and how far would it actually deviate from the Facebook template if we were to think outside the existing structures?

After a few sessions, I’m not sure I can answer any of these questions. I know I’ve expressed before that I don’t think targeted advertising is the worst inconvenience, especially since it’s only a logical way to hone in on commodity fetishism in a capitalist society. I’m not even opposed to exchanging some of my information for benefits, much the same way my Shoppers Drugmart card gives me discounts for revealing my Q-Tip brand loyalty. However, the key is in being able to control which information gets exchanged and to whom. Currently, Facebook’s data use policy is opaque with broad statements about ‘sharing information with affiliates’ and therefore does not provide the consumer with any agency. If social networking is going to function as part of the private sector, it needs to have consumer protections built in, such as transparent policies and choice of service (instead of monopolies), in order to ensure that people are not exploited.

Despite this, there are some convincing arguments for why social networking will never fit into a private sector model and therefore should be treated as a public service. The more people who use Facebook, the more value users get out of it – this is the network effect of web 2.0 platforms – Facebook is popular because everyone is on it, not because it has some inherently wonderful design. Therefore, even if data portability were built-in and even if the market included many worthy competitors, the possibility of fair competition and user choice is thwarted by the entropic implications of moving billions of people from one platform to another.

Secondly, in order to get the most out of a social networking site, I need to use it to share about my life. I need to post a bunch about myself so that others can respond in meaningful ways. Therefore, I’m sharing much more with Facebook than I would in order to get a few cents off Q-Tips. Yes, I receive benefits from this exchange but without the type of regulation and accountability that should be/is part of a democratic, public sector system, the potential risks of where my information will end up are just too great to justify this. Given numerous governmental security breeches in the past (Canada Student Loans, I’m looking at you), I know that the public sector is not infallible but at least the elected officials’ jobs and authority is on the line if they misuse my information. The same cannot be said for a private sector corporation whose management must only appease shareholders and has no obligation toward the consumer.

These concerns were raised by participants in my Facebook Site Governance research project and have been echoed here at the conference. As a left-leaning Canadian, it’s not surprising that my bias is toward the public service side (just as I believe wifi should be an essential service). However, I shudder to think of a social networking site constructed and maintained by a large, lumbering bureaucracy. I’m also not sure anyone, whether they belong to a government or private sector organization, should be given as much power as can be derived from having control over the information on my Facebook profile. At the same time, I’ve started to take the approach that if I wouldn’t want it posted to a giant billboard, I shouldn’t put it on Facebook. So while I’m not yet ready to emancipate myself from Facebook, I’ve definitely amped up the amount of personal responsibility I feel in protecting my identity on and offline – I just don’t know if this will continue to be enough.

Not ready to throw in the towel yet: Thoughts on Big Data, digital social research, and academia

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(Not the future, merely the Gladstone Link)

Full disclosure: This was written for a ‘position paper’ assignment in my Digital Social Research course at the OII.

The article by Savage and Burrows (2007) plays on an insecurity that haunts me every time I pay my tuition: what ensures that social researchers have valuable, employable skills? I agree with them that survey research is becoming overdone, tired, and obsolete in areas where we can use digital methods to obtain and analyse entire populations. I have also heard former journalists in my class echo their sentiment about qualitative research, wondering what exactly separates it from in-depth journalism. They argue that the solution to this is a “politics of method” (p. 895) that includes methodological innovation but, in true sociologist form, they cut the article short before specifying exactly what this might entail. As intended by their prompt, I began to imagine it but was confronted by a dilemma that seems to plague many employment sectors in the post-industrial era: whether to specialize or to become a generalist.

When I worked for the public sector, there was a constant debate over what type of employee training was most useful. Would it help the client better to interact with an employee who had general knowledge of all programs and services or should clients immediately be filtered to specialists in certain programs depending on their needs? The debate was never settled because sometimes people have a variety of needs and sometimes they just want to get one thing done. Such is the case for research: sometimes there are the descriptive projects as mentioned by Savage and Burrows, which can be tackled through through the application of a very specific method for the purpose of answering a tightly bounded question. For example, if I want to know who are the most influential people in my particular Facebook network, I can throw social network analysis at this question to identify the friends with the highest eigenvector centrality (or however I choose to measure influence) and come up with an answer pretty quickly. However, if we want to know the what, how, why and greater implications of social movements involving the use of Web 2.0 (e.g. the Iranian protests), then clearly an analysis of Facebook or Twitter networks is only one type of building block required to reach an overall understanding of such a complex social phenomenon.

This brings me to boyd and Crawford’s (2011) article, which I feel instils some hope for the value of academic training. Their cautions about jumping on the Big Data bandwagon are rooted in judgement and discretion that I feel is generated from the knowledge and skills included in a social research degree. Consideration of epistemology, reflexivity about research decisions, viewing data within a larger social context, understanding the limitations of conclusions, and following ethical principles are all recurring themes of my methods courses. Tying into ideas mentioned in a talk the other week by Diego Beas, this gives me optimism that there is an enduring role for social scientists even as data are more frequently digital, bigger, and not generated through traditional methods. With industry, popular media, and governments claiming a stake in digital research, academically informed research will remain distinct because it is founded upon the principles of robust, knowledge-generating research practices.

For these reasons, I am not ready to buy into Savage and Burrows’ crisis and hide in the bunker of market research. As an interdisciplinary scholar, I am aiming to generalize enough so that I can be adaptable as methodological tools and data types continue to evolve but I also believe in specializing to the point of knowing what I am doing when producing and analysing social research (hence my choice to take courses in Digital Social Research and Online Social Networks). I believe that this agility, in combination with the principles of the academic tradition, will allow me to produce meaningful research into the future, no matter the tools or types of data it may hold.

References

boyd, d., & Crawford, K. (2011). Six provocations for Big Data. A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society, 1–17. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1926431

Savage, M., & Burrows, R. (2007). The coming crisis of empirical sociology. Sociology, 41(5), 885–899. doi:10.1177/0038038507080443

Facebook’s Privacy Q&A: An image of public participation?

A really exciting project I’m working on this term is an analysis of Facebook’s Site Governance page and the voting and commenting process that takes place there. In fact, this is research YOU might be able to take part in, so head over here to check it out.

Part of my research includes looking at visual material found on this site. While there are not a lot of photos, a kick-off video featuring Mark Zuckerberg himself was posted back in 2009 and there is a recent recording of the Livestream Q&A that took place during the most recent user consultation process. These, along with an examination of the page layout and features constitute most of the visual data analysis material I’ll be using (in combination with documents, site text, and e-mail questionnaires).

Now, I won’t subject you to a full-out visual analysis session but I do want to try out some of the ideas I’ve been reading about in Rose’s (2007) book on visual methodologies. In particular, she set up a framework for approaching visual material that looks at three ‘sites’:

  1. The site of production;
  2. The site of the image itself; and,
  3. The site of the audience.

Then each of these can be examined through three different aspects or what she calls “modalities”:

  1. Technological
  2. Compositional
  3. Social

Let’s use these criteria to have a look at the visual content of the Q&A while not yet tackling any of the informational content. Here’s a screenshot of the opening scene:

fb

Some background: While it’s not present on the Site Governance page today, the copy of the site that I took a few weeks back using Evernote has the ‘status update’ explaining the situation. Rob Sherman (middle) from the Facebook privacy team and Katharine Tassi (right) from Facebook Ireland are being asked questions by Sarah Feinberg, Director of Policy Communications at Facebook (left) about proposed changes to the Data Use Policy and the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities – site policies that pretty much govern everything relating to users.

To simply give an excerpt of the larger analysis I’ll be doing, I’ll share just a few thoughts about one modality of each site:

1. The site of production – Technological Modalities

  • The decision to hold an ‘interactive webcast’ – although we are not quite sure whether the questions being read are indeed audience questions, this approach provides the most participatory feel in that essentially users should be part of the production as well;
  • The decision to provide video content instead of simply audio or textual – perhaps all the additional information that comes with video gives an impression of transparency.
  • The decision to hold it on Livestream, a site outside of Facebook – this makes me wonder if Facebook simply did not have the ability/time/resources to build their own interactive page or if they have a partnership with Livestream. Also of interest is the fact that videos cannot be downloaded and saved from this site whereas videos on Facebook can be if you have the right plug-ins for Chrome.

2. The site of the image itself – Compositional modalities

  • Where on earth are these people? Presumably somewhere in DC, since this is the “Facebook DC Talks” Livestream page but this venue has none of the slick trappings of Facebook HQ as captured by the Building Graph Search video. In fact, it looks like this set was created just for the Q&A – otherwise what office has a green drape in the background? Also, are those crates or lockers on either side of the drape? It’s nice that they have different chairs for the ‘guests’, a good visual cue of who is supposed to be answering the questions, but none of the furniture matches so it was likely just pushed together. This makes me feel like this might have been last-minute or rushed, which goes along with users only being notified about the webcast the day before.

3. The site of the audience – Social modalities

  • I’m really not sure who the audience is/was for this video. The questions are asked by people throughout the U.S. and the U.K., though we aren’t given any information except their names. The thing is, I’m not convinced that the average Facebook user would have tuned into this, even with enough notice, because it is really a whole 35 minutes of people talking in front of a camera. This is in contrast to Facebook’s visually rich promo videos. So I would guess that the people who actually got through the whole thing are likely policy-makers, leaders of organizations opposed to Facebook’s policies, rival site owners, and people like me who have an extra special interest. What gets me is that from all the other analysis I’ve done, it does seem that Facebook truly wants to dispel myths surrounding their policies (e.g. that they sell your photos) in the wider population of users so I don’t understand why they wouldn’t dole out their myth-busting information in a more accessible manner.

Whew, well that’s enough analysis for now! Clearly, I’ve got a lot to delve into, especially once I start looking at the video alongside its audio content. Once again, if you want to help lend your perspective about the way Facebook is doing participatory governance, please visit my research page!

Also, check out the book for more details about this visual analysis methodology:

Rose, G. (2012). Visual methodologies: An introduction to the interpretation of visual materials (3rd Edition). London: Sage.