In some paradigms, your hipbone may not exist: The anatomy of research design

To follow-up on my previous post, it seems that some progress has been made. The more I delve into the complexity of debates in qualitative methodology, where the researcher is continually referred to as a bricoleur, a craftsperson, a story-weaver, etc. (unfortunately never a multi-billionaire), the more it seems that one should simply approach debates by becoming educated on both sides and then taking a decision. That’s what I did with the constructivist grounded theory vs classic grounded theory battle. I decided that my theoretical framework (based on Goffman and interactionism) and my methods necessitated constructivism. I wouldn’t feel right analysing interviews without admitting the role of participants in shaping reality as well as my own role in interpreting their accounts. When looking at others’ struggles with this, I noted that some proponents (Bryant, 2009) of constructivist ground theory have added a ‘pragmatic’ emphasis that focuses on the data at hand – so that’s what I added as a caveat: I will look at my data and see what comes out of it, which is the whole purpose of grounded theory in the first place.

All that to move us along to what I’m thinking about today: It all needs to fit together. Regardless of whether you’re a postpositivist or a poststructuralist, it seems that the most important aspect of research design is making sure your decisions make sense and are warranted throughout the whole study. There should be a logical flow that epistemology lends itself to ontology, which fits with the theoretical framework, is congruent with the methods, frames the analysis, and out pops your methodologically sound conclusion. However, before you make a social science-y adaptation of the “hip bone’s connected to the ____” song, even the proponents of this thinking seem to have some trouble working it all out and coming up with the holy grail of ‘truth’ in qualitative research (aka “trustworthiness“, “validity and reliability“, “qualitative goodness“).

In some of the literature about claiming truth or quality in research, it seems the main problem comes from trying to lump together good research practices with ways to make sound analyses. I agree with Tracy (2010) that people can usually tell robust research practices when they see them:

  • Don’t burn your notes; keep an audit trail so that people can see what you collected and how you developed your ideas. Guess I’m going to need to write more legibly. 
  • Look at many data sources and types of data – whether you’re a realist and this counts for you as triangulation or you’re a poststructuralist and this is more like crystallization, the idea is similar in that you need to ensure you’re getting all the data relevant to your research question and looking at the larger picture. My current plan includes interviews, (quantitative) descriptive data, network metrics and content analysis of Facebook posts – ambitious but likely necessary!
  • Ask your participants if you’re on the right track; ask other researchers if they see the same things.

And the list goes on. Other professions have best practices, so why wouldn’t research? The issues come in when these practices are mixed with criteria that have different value judgements when evaluated from different paradigms. While Tracy argues that she has presented a ‘universal’ set of criteria for quality qualitative research, she includes items that are associated with the overall assessment and analysis of the research, which I have always found to be rooted in some paradigm or another.

For example, her first criterion is that you must have a ‘worthy topic’ – this is equivalent to the recurring question: “Is your research interesting?” My response is always, “To whom?” My research might be interesting to avid users of Facebook, it might be relevant to people on other social networking sites, it might grab the attention of site owners, it might be one day be cited by other Internet researchers, and it’s also by default interesting to my mom. However, I’m sure it’s completely boring to someone who rarely uses the Internet for anything but e-mail. It’s also completely irrelevant to someone who can’t afford food and clean water, let alone a computer.

As we skip down Tracy’s list, she talks about quality research reverberating with an audience, being transferrable to other situations, being significant, and accomplishing its goals. I understand that all these are ‘good’ in that they are signs of quality in specific paradigms or fields. However, what is significant to some researchers is hardly news to others. In general, the significance of a discovery is only relative:

higgs

 (Cartoon found here)

Perhaps this is why Hammersley’s quality criteria of truth and relevance are not given equal weight (according to Seale). Hammersley drives home all the research best practices under truth but leaves relevance as something more vague that can even develop over time as research progresses.

How does this fit in with my research and the long journey to justify my methods in a way that sets a solid foundation for future analyses? Currently my flow chart looks like this: (you may sing the song in your head as you read it)

MethodologicalChathighqual (Thanks LucidChart.com)

While following best practices, such as triangulation and developing a sound theoretical framework, I am running into paradigmatic issues. How can I use a constructivist ontology and theoretical framework when it alludes to multiple realities (or reality as a social construction) and critical realism posits that there is still just one reality? How can I have deductive aspects that look to test theory if I’m (mostly) applying constructivist grounded theory? How can I reconcile the positivist nature of quantitative data with qualitative data?

I’ve started to address these questions in my thesis but I feel the way Guba and Lincoln must have felt when they realised that most criteria for judging trustworthiness is simply relative. As Seale describes it, this seems like a hurdle that cannot be tackled except by finding a middle ground that embraces some research values (best practices) while allowing for the flexibility to debate approaches so they fit with the research questions. This brings me back to my opening resolution:

onedoes

 (Thanks Meme Generator)

But in this process of figuring out the best way to do justice to my research and the potential ‘truth’ it will uncover, I need to make a solid decision with a logical explanation and then move forward with the research itself.

Note: In full disclosure, this post is a reflection for my Advanced Qualitative Methods class and is centred upon thoughts and ideas presented in these two readings:

Seale, C. (2007). Quality in qualitative research. In C. Seale, G. Gobo, J. F. Gubrium, & D. Silverman (Eds.). Qualitative Research Practice (pp. 409-419). London: Sage.

Tracy, S. J. (2010). ‘Qualitative quality: Eight “Big-Tent” criteria for excellent qualitative research.’ 2010. Qualitative Inquiry 16(10): 837-851.

Age old debates and the perils of endless reflexivity

DSCN0930(Photo taken at the Ashmolean Museum)

Nothing like an assigned reading about the use of blogs in research (Wakeford & Cohen, 2008) to convince me that blogging is a worthwhile pursuit and not just semi-productive procrastination.

The authors reminded me that blogging is supposed to be ‘of the moment’ and so I’ll share with you what’s on my mind right now. It’s not any breaking news, since as a grad student I have no time to be on the cutting edge of anything (I’m holding out for cyborg-like newsfeeds that run in your sleep), especially due to a December-long affliction of traditional study panic dating back to the 1800s. Instead, today I am throwing textbooks around about what I perceive to be lasting conflicts within the social sciences: the value of quantitative versus qualitative research, the importance of subjectivity, and ways of developing methodological rigor. All of which are extremely important but seem to have the capacity to place giant roadblocks in the path of research.

I get it, not all questions can be solved and not all methodological battles can be settled, but at some point we, as researchers, owe it to society to get over our disagreements and produce research that matters. It seems that for decades the quantitative adherents have relentlessly badgered qualitative researchers about producing ‘real’ research until qualitative research had no choice but to become primarily about proving its worth. As a result, every paper or book spends a great deal of time unpacking the epistemology, ontology and reflexive role of the researcher, which is not what I’m complaining about – it’s definitely important! It is undoubtedly true that every social researcher approaches people from his or her subjective standpoint, situated within certain political crossroads of gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, etc. It’s also important to recognize how the study of people is different from the study of plants, animals, constellations, kittens, etc., because as people we ascribe meaning to our actions in ways that are not always observable or testable in relation to some scientific law.

In fact, it would be abhorrent to come across a published paper that does not admit these things. That being said, I can’t remember the last time I read a quantitative paper that dedicated even a paragraph in the methods section to note that they were gunning at this particular problem from a positivist epistemology assuming the existence of one, ultimate truth that can be known through science. While quantitative papers sometimes give a nod to researcher bias (often in footnotes admitting to funding partners with certain interests), there is little reflection on why certain statistical tests were run while others were omitted or why some survey questions might have caused biased responses because they reinforced a power imbalance between researcher and participant. Overall, there is very little imperative for quantitative researchers to reflexively examine every step of their research. This is certainly not right, but while qualitative researchers are filling their papers to the brim with reflexivity, they can come across as apologetically trivializing the outcomes of their research as quantitative scholars forge ahead mainly on the power of numbers alone.

Alright, I might be painting a bit of an extreme picture so I’ll bring it back to the level of my research. On this snowy day when deadlines hurtle closer despite my urge to hibernate, I want nothing more than to complete the methodology section for my thesis. As I will be collecting a myriad of data but focusing on interviews, I view my project as mainly qualitative. I’ve spent time reflecting on the way I will inevitably be the filter through which my research participants’ messages will pass in order to be analysed. So, even though we’ll be talking about ‘real’ things (like Facebook) in the ‘real world’ (the Internets), these accounts pass through our subjective understanding of such things. For me, it then makes sense to approach this research from a ‘critical realist‘ standpoint. I’m also looking at a lot of background literature about interactionism, and so I know a sort of constructivism (acknowledging that people create ‘social facts’, such as norms and social practices) will be important. From there I started looking at whether what I’m doing is inductive or deductive and although I’ve grounded my questions in the literature, it’s pretty inductive in gathering perspectives and developing concepts that haven’t been examined before. And so, as the roadmap goes (see Figure 1.1. “Shoddy MS Paint Methodology Roadmap”), I think I can apply a ‘grounded theory‘ approach in my data collection and analysis.
Take two Fig 1.1
I know at this point you’re saying, “Stef I don’t want to read your pre-thesis ramblings” – but I’m almost there with my point: as I started to look into grounded theory, I stepped on a landmine of decades of debates. I thought I would use ‘constructivist grounded theory’ because it seems to support my efforts to be reflexive about my roles as a researcher. But as I scrolled through the reams of Google Scholar results, all I could see were researchers flinging arguments back and forth. Constructivist grounded theory is too subjective and makes it all about the researcher, according to the ‘classic’ grounded theory proponents. Conversely, ‘classic’ grounded theory is too positivist for the constructivists. Both have their retorts about being ‘just right’; it makes my brain hurt. What’s supposed to happen with good, academic critique is that iron sharpens iron and, as these conversations evolve, so does a better way of doing things. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours of trying to see if the debate had any endpoint, I am still at a standstill about which toolkit I can safely apply.

So that is the point: as the cursor blinks on my dissertation paper and I imagine the examining committee asking why I chose a certain type of grounded theory approach, I really feel that reflexivity should not work us into paralysis. It is undoubtedly important: solid, honest, useful research is only borne out of our ability to trace back to the origins of claims we make and to admit the effect of our decisions in knowledge production. However, if squabbling over this task prevents actual research from being carried out, then we will never get around to actually accessing knowledge that can make a difference.

Citations and things:
Most of these thoughts came out of articles I read in Denzin & Lincoln’s (2001) Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research.
I read about classic grounded theory in Strauss & Corbin (1998) “Basics of Qualitative Research : Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory” as well as other descriptions of Glaser & Strauss’ original development of grounded theory as described by Robson (2011).
Constructivist grounded theory is discussed by Charmaz (2003)
Glaser’s (2002) response to Charmaz

Read all about it!


Many moons have passed since I mentioned Canadian media but I present to you:

Duguay, S. (2012). Review of the book The media gaze: Representations of diversities in Canada, by A. Fleras. Canadian Review of Sociology, 49(4), 433-435.

If you ever wanted to experience my writing in Times New Roman without all the unnecessary Internet memes and pop culture references, here is your chance.

I’d also like to give a special nod to Dr. Claudia Malacrida, who tipped me off to the demand for book reviewers, and my mom who proofread this one a few times.

Making the Internet Safe: Tying Tim Harford’s thoughts on catastrophic accidents to the web

I just attended a talk from economist/journalist Tim Harford where he likened the financial meltdown (a much more extreme term than governments’ beloved euphemism of ‘economic downturn’) to a catastrophic industrial accident, such as when nuclear reactors go off or oil rigs explode. Through the entire talk all I could think about was how well Harford’s industrial accident analogy could apply to the dreaded ‘future’ of the Internet when everything online explodes from lack of regulation. And so, when you have a hammer…

The end is near

First, I will be candid: all you have time to read in grad school is half books – you can’t sit around mulling over entire books, so you must get the gist of the author’s idea and move on. These perceptions are founded on my half book interpretations and I invite you to correct and supplement in the Reply box as you see fit.

My understanding of Jonathan Zittrain’s (2008) assertion in his book, “The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It” is that the very same qualities of the Internet that allow us to generate wonderful content (e.g. lolcats), develop complex code (e.g. Google Doodles), and innovate limitlessly (e.g. win at WoW), are the same qualities that allow for the production of repulsive or harmful online content, such as hate speech, child porn, and destructive code/viruses. Within this cyberpollution, there are worms that have brought down hundreds of thousands of computers at a time and, Zittrain posits, just because a total Internet meltdown hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean there is any good reason why it won’t. With hopes that inspiring widespread terror of online catastrophes will spur policy-makers to action, this Lessig (2006) uses this reasoning to call for regulation of the Internet.

Not so fast! This is where Ted Harford comes in: he spoke about how complex systems that are tightly coupled (where many things are contingent on each other) are frequently obliterated by the very safety systems that were put in place to maintain them. With wires, nodes, users, telecommunications companies, and governments all intertwined in the complex system of the Internet, we had better be extremely cautious when formulating regulations for the global staple of this century.

Safety isn’t simple

Harford discussed two aspects that make it very difficult to increase people’s safety:

  • Safety systems make people careless. They tend to take more risks when safety regulations are in place. It’s true. When I function in a locked down environment, my first inclination is to click on anything. If authoritative bodies tell me that they’ve secured my web experience, I’m more likely to put my judgment on the shelf and assume that everything I can access is simply safe by default. I bet others would do the same. However, the problem is that even with regulations, we will never reach a point where everything online will truly be ‘safe’ because the Internet is always changing and evolving.
  • Safety systems introduce new complexities and make things even more tightly coupled – which causes them to fall harder when they come crashing down. If government regulates the Internet, it unleashes into the equation the massive complexity that is a giant, multi-departmental, longstanding bureaucracy. Due to their nature, governments are slow to react and their resources are difficult to mobilize, which makes them excellent targets for hackers who could identify some weakness in mandated code (e.g. a flaw in anti-circumvention technologies, a way into identity databases) and act long before the government could developed a defense.

But we’ve got to do something!

As you can tell from previous posts, I’m not into arguments that leave us in a state of paralysis with no way out. Identifying the above concerns still doesn’t address Zittrain’s worst-case scenario and it doesn’t make us any safer. Harford concluded his talk with three things that actually do help to protect against catastrophes:

1. Build/re-build the system with safer parts; or, remove the fundamental hazard. This is a large portion of what Lessig talks about: we can alter the very code of the Internet in order to build-in regulation. We can install identity mechanisms that work with individuals’ keys or digital identifiers in order to keep children out of sites with mature content. We can make e-mail programs that spot keywords to indicate that something might be a scam (that’s my own example, but hey it could really be helpful for people who are less computer-savvy). However, that we need to be conscious of who might be favoured or disadvantaged by new types of code. Does code that prevents the copying of music stifle other artists from sampling content within reason while increasing revenues for record labels and leaving the actual band without much profit (as asserted by Benkler, 2007)? Does a special code to identify individuals also give government the means of surveillancing online activity without a warrant?

2. Provide people with better information so they can make better decisions. In my view, this is the most important point because it counteracts a concern mentioned previously: if individuals understand why they should take safety precautions, they are less likely to be careless. In teaching people the full repercussions of online actions and giving them the agency to choose safer options, they are being granted the same type of responsibility that we enjoy as democratic citizens in everyday life. In the same way that I won’t jump into a lake if I can read the sign that says the water is toxic, I won’t make my Facebook profile public if I know what that means in terms of my self-presentation to future employers. Starting in early high school, it is now appropriate to equip our population with media literacy, computer skills and Internet know-how of this type.

3. Spot trouble early – those who work in the complex system are the ones who are most likely to be first to identify flaws/weak points. However, we are very bad at protecting and compensating these people. With the crowdsourced environment of the Internet, this should be an easy one. We are already seeing vigilante groups, such as Anonymous, playing a role in ‘cleaning up the web’ by ensuring there are repercussions for people who post some horrible stuff. However, I believe this should not be relegated to fringe groups or designated to an arm of the government. Just as Wikipedia is a collaboration of experts, there could be some coordinated way to mobilize web experts to be part of a conglomeration of people who increase the safety of the Internet. Governments could subsidize the creation of means for reporting suspicious behaviour and compensate coders who stop destructive worms. In fact, I would suspect that this sort of reporting behaviour, coupled with how fast news moves on the Internet, is one of the reasons the web hasn’t yet melted down (when was the last time you didn’t hear about an e-mail virus before it hit your inbox?). This jives with the Internet’s end-to-end principle, mentioned by Zittrain, where things happen (functions and improvements get implemented) at the endpoints (by programmers, etc) of the network and are distributed instead of being centralized, which makes them more reliable.

Even if you don’t find me to be convincing, I guarantee you that Harford’s industrial accident analogy is very effective when applied to the economic crisis! However, I think it works well when reminding us to consider the multiple possibilities for making the Internet safer before we lapse into terror mode and yield all our rights to a regulating authority, which will never be infallible.

(Image courtesy of cheezburger.com)

Benkler, Y. (2007). The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Harford, T. (2011). Adapt: Why success always starts with failure. London: Little, Brown. [I assume most of Harford’s ideas from his talk come from Chapter 6: “Preventing financial meltdowns or: Decoupling”]

Lessig, L. (2006). Code: And other laws of cyberspace, version 2.0. New York: Basic Books.

Zittrain, J. (2008). The future of the Internet – And how to stop it. New Haven: Yale University Press. [Although Zittrain’s book was published after Code, Lessig refers to Zittrain’s initial ideas and even mentions that Zittrain is in the process of writing a book about them – just in case you were wondering!]

When you’re this big, they call you Big Data*

Upon stepping off the plane from Canada, I was fortunate enough to attend the Oxford Internet Institute’s latest conference: Internet, Politics, Policy 2012: Big Data, Big Challenges. 

It was a fascinating gathering of the leading experts in this small but substantially growing field. Since my background is in qualitative methods and I have yet to jump into web-specific methods, I felt it was a very good crash course on the collection and analysis of large-scale online data in application to many diverse areas. I’ve posted my conference notes for anyone who would like a gander. Also, we were promised that the presentation slides and webcasts would follow on the conference site. The papers for all the research have already been posted if you would like to access a goldmine of big data research and also fill in the gaps in my notes.

Points that stood out most to me were:

  • The difficulty of defining ‘big data’. There does not seem to be a universal definition and it is also a term that depends on the technology you are using along with the subject matter. Some studies gathered millions of tweets while others collected a couple 100 threads from discussion boards. Some drew data over months or years while others siphoned comments from intense online dialogue lasting only a few hours. So while some researchers shrugged and said, “Well, I don’t know if this is big data, but…” it seems that the definition really is context-specific and that these studies were all ‘big’ in terms of their particular areas of research.
  • The importance of forming interdisciplinary research teams to examine online phenomena. The unique nature of online data is such that the perspectives, methods and tools of computer science, the social sciences and even other ‘hard’ sciences (e.g. neural network modelling  experiment-based psychology) all come into play. If a subject is only being assessed from one discipline, it is likely the researchers will lack either the tools to carry out the study or the framework from which to examine it.
  • The utility and potential of big data. Given the nature of big data, it was often difficult for researchers to conclude any sort of causality between variables but they were still able to identify correlations and interesting patterns. This leads me to believe that big data can be a useful starting point to identify where researchers can drill down with other methods (e.g. surveys, interviews) to understand various layers of social phenomena. In this way, big data is the sort of exploratory research that helps sift through the noise of the web to signal to researchers where there may be something socially interesting for further investigation.

*The title of the post is a spin on the old Mr. Big chocolate bar slogan, “When you’re this big, they call you Mr.” However, I could not find the commercial on YouTube so I leave you with this gem:

Day-to-Day Logistics of ICTs (Or, How to Stay in Touch with a Loved One)

While perusing ye olde map store (how do these places still turn a profit?) with my long-term partner, we launched into a discussion about communication in long-distance relationships. Since I’ll be studying abroad and there will be a 5 hour time difference between us, it soon became apparent that we would need to use different information and communications technologies (ICTs) for different purposes and at varied times. Here’s what we’ve preemptively decided upon:

  •  Video Chat/Phone – This is the most costly form of long-distance communication not only in terms of phone bills or bandwidth/data limitations but also from the perspective of spending dedicated time communicating. We both understand that focused, real-time communication is important in a relationship but it’s not always possible – nor is it easy to look presentable or summon fascinating topics at 7:00am or 11:00pm without a serious jolt of caffeine. Even so, we’re determined to check in at least once a day using this form of communication though have yet to determine whether Skype, Gchat/Google Hangouts, or another tool will be best for this.
  • Texting/SMS – After staring (lovingly) at someone’s face on a screen, this is the next closest thing to real-time communication. We figure we’ll be sending a bunch of texts on the go simply to include each other in the daily minutia of life that seem to help retain rapport between people. Nothing glues two individuals together better than venting about the odd sites and smells on public transit or sending a picture of your lunch. Plus it’s fast, allows for multitasking, and can be affordable when using wifi or data with tools like What’sApp. However, we’ll need to be aware of the various pitfalls of relying on texting, such as the way that certain messages don’t go over very well without any additional cues indicating tone or emotion (once again, DO NOT tell me that emoticons will cut it – see previous rant). There’s also a bunch of complexity with texting as to expectations about responses and the burden of responding (you know, since a text is a sort of communicative ‘gift’ because I’m thinking about you and so you have to respond to show you’re thinking about me too…says Haddon, 2004).
  • Instant Messaging – My IM career died shortly after I graduated from high school and killed my whatdoyoucare_123@hotmail.com account. However, I quite enjoyed the convenience of MS Office Communicator at work when I wanted to check who was not online (read: late for work) or when walking across the floor was just too much trouble. Gchat has become a quick and easy way to integrate real-time conversations into time spent online doing other things and I think we’ll use it quite often, but generally only for short bursts between tasks. My least favourite activity is the long, meandering IM conversation:
Random Person (RP): “Hey.”
Me: “Hi, how are you?”
RP: “Good, u?”
Me: “I’m great, thanks.”
RP: “Cool” Awkward moment where I wonder WHY we are chatting…
Me: “So what’s up?”
RP: “Nothin jus wantd 2 say hi”
Imaginary me: “Stop wasting my time, I’m trying to buy UK power adapter plug-ins on Amazon.co.uk!”
  • E-mail – I still love e-mail. It will be particularly useful to send descriptions of things and encounters that are simply too detailed or nuanced than can be contained in a text. My partner, who does not like writing, will surely send responses but he particularly likes to include Gifs that make my day:
(Image courtesy of Cute Little Animal Gifs)
  • Facebook/social networking sites – It’s odd but my partner and I rarely connect on Facebook. Generally, we’re aware of what each other has posted (thanks to the mostly awful ‘star’ feature), but often Wall postings seem too public for messages intended to communicate emotion and sending private messages is similar to e-mailing. I doubt this will change with distance.
  • Blogging – I’ve opened a personal Tumblr account to record my travels (sorry, it’s with a pseudonym and a link to it will never see the light of day on this blog), which I hope I’ll have time to upkeep. I haven’t had any burning desire to post to it, though I also haven’t left yet and I’m sure the world does not need more mundane posts about “So today I’m having my last hair cut in Canada…” My partner has vowed to read this microblog and therefore it will at least have an audience of one.
  • Letters/Mail – Not an ICT, unless you’re living in the 1900s, but we’ve joked about sending care packages of maple syrup. Of course, there’s something romantic about scrawling on paper by candlelight and sending Hedwig to deliver a love letter, but this oldschool method of communication may just be too time-consuming to be very worthwhile. Any sentiments I send won’t arrive until they’re out of date and mailing packages is quite costly, I doubt either of us will be running to the post office every week.

The convenience of communication using ICTs is reliant on two emergent qualities of new technology. They are the “space of flows”* and “timeless time” as coined by Castells (2009), which I’ll attempt to explain in plain language. The space of flows refers to the fact that technology has made it possible to communicate without being in direct contact (e.g. face-to-face, or even directly connected by telephone wires). People can now communicate at the time of their choosing and at a distance, and they know the other person will receive the message even though it is not tied to a particular time or place of contact. Even so, this is not an immaterial property of communication with ICTs. It occurs in a space consisting of ‘nodes and networks’ that include people and electronic trappings of communication (e.g. wires, satellites, etc).

From understanding that the space of flows is communication without the need for direct contact, timeless time is easily understood as the way that technology now allows us to communicate without the sequence of messages mattering very much. This happens through the way that time becomes compressed when we are able to send messages in a split second. It is also due to the blurring of sequences of communication – if you friend me on Facebook, you can access information I’ve posted today alongside photos from 2006.

That’s just the Coles Notes version; I encourage you to pick up Castells’ book if you get a chance, he’s very good at articulating phenomena related to everyday communication in a way that adds vocabulary to things I had noticed but did not previously have the means of defining. In any case, it sounds like a bit of a fairytale: meeting a loved one in the space of flows and timeless time. Romantic comedy, anyone?

(Image courtesy of Soundtrack Collector)

*Although it may seem like it, the “space of flows” is not synonymous with “drainpipe”.

Castells, M. (2009). Communication power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haddon, L. (2004). Information and communication technologies in everyday life: A concise introduction and research guide. Oxford and New York: Berg.

Resistance is Futile: Facebook Timeline

Picture taken from the Timeline Sucks Facebook group

Just in case you didn’t notice all the ruckus in your news feed: all Facebook users have been switched over to the timeline profile display.

Laments that I’ve noted have include this heated conversation:

And these:

The thing is, I’m not sure how Facebook could have updated their interface in any more of a user-friendly way. They first introduced timeline in December 2011, making the switch optional and giving users a seven-day “preview period” during which you could tailor your new content without anyone else seeing it. They also provided a click-through demonstration to help you learn how to use it as well as their standard “Help” section.

I decided to switch over pretty early because a) nothing could be worse than how my profile presently functioned and, b) Facebook made it pretty clear that this was going to be the new standard eventually. After all, why would they keep up the resources to maintain the old style with its dead white space and lack of infinite scrolling? I mean, Facebook had to update its site just to keep up with the dynamic features of newer social networking rivals (hello Google+). Note how the layout of your Wall is now a lot like Pinterest with colourful features in scrolling columns – sleek. And while I’m exposing my bias in favour of the new profile display, I should mention that I find this set-up much more intuitive than the previous version when it comes to editing information, changing security settings (which you can now tailor for EVERY chunk of info) and even just adding a new profile picture.

However, liking the new display is simply a matter of opinion. Regardless of whether or not timeline is actually better than the old profile set-up, why is there so much pushback every time Facebook makes a change? People have said it’s because they’re not informed about it before it happens, well this time they were. They’ve said it’s because they don’t know how to use it, well now there’s an interactive tutorial page. They’ve also mentioned that it’s because there are still problems – yes, but how can Facebook ever hammer out the problems if they’re not even allowed to make incremental changes?

While I haven’t heard many people actually say this, I think one of the most convincing arguments for disliking changes to Facebook is that the company is changing something we consider to be “ours”. It’s YOUR profile, you’ve tailored it and it says something about you. However, the truth is that your profile belongs to Facebook; it’s a service and you’ve simply tailored your information in the boxes provided. That is literally more apparent in the newest version. Perhaps with something we’ve so intricately created to be about ourselves, it’s difficult to realize that we are not really able to colour outside the lines. These expressions of our identities are only ‘unique’ at face value when really we are all limited by the same structure and everyone’s profile is basically the same.

When providing a social networking service to the masses, I’m not really sure if this is a problem that can be remedied. I’ve heard it proposed that people should be able to code their own profiles, though it is rare to find people outside of the IT world with the skills, time and dedication to carry this through. If in some future state of the Internet, coding languages become common knowledge and we all decide to purchase servers and construct our own custom social sites, there may be profit in a service that finds a way to link all of these truly unique sites so that we can engage in networking activities through them. But that seems like an alternate online universe far from the one we presently inhabit…

For now, maybe the next step will be for Facebook to go further with the idea of user customization. It may benefit them to implement a set-up that resembles SharePoint in providing the user with the ability to pick and choose among pre-coded web parts (e.g. a calendar feature, an announcements feature). This is similar to the way Facebook users can customize their apps, except it would apply to the very foundations of one’s profile. In essence, you could have a blank profile, you could do away with any mention of “Friends”, or you could discard the cover photo space. Along these lines, users are also often partial to picking from a diversity of ‘themes’, such as the packaged designs you can pick with your WordPress or Tumblr.

So maybe that’s it Facebook, perhaps people are simply looking for a way to have greater control over something that they pour so much of their lives into. It’s a hefty demand for a free service to cater to, but maybe in light of the emerging competition it’s not too much to ask.

 

Sweat pants, pubs, and libraries: You know you’re on Campus When… (Or, How to Pick a University)

(Sadly, this post lacks current pop culture references because it was written in March while riding on a train back to Ottawa after my Epic Campus Tour. To compensate, here is the latest episode of Snooki & JWOWW)

Photo effects courtesy of Instagram: campus art.

In my hunt to set myself up for the best possible graduate studies experience, I’ve gone through a process much like they would on a very boring, academically themed reality TV show. Instead of audience voting, impromptu models, celebrity critiques or the distribution of roses, I created giant charts and visited the most viable options in person multiple times. I went on campus tours, ate free cookies at orientations, listened to graduate presentations and faculty webcasts, hopped subways, buses and trains… All in hopes that on the first day in autumn when I sharpen my pencils for morning class, I have a feeling deep down that I explored all the possibilities and this was the best decision. Even more importantly, when I have that first stress-filled, freak out moment (e.g. the sub-par grade, the impossible exam, the conflicting deadlines, the lack of savings in my bank account), I will know for sure that this is still where I want to be.

That being said, all decisions are only our best approximation of how we hope the future may unfold. And, in the timeless words of my colleague, “It’s just a Master’s.” With this in mind, I’ll share with you some lessons learned about how to become familiar with potential graduate schools.

1. Always speak to actual students, preferably without faculty nearby.

Pestering current grad students makes sense.  Keep in mind that they are often under stress, lacking sleep or enduring an existential crisis (maybe even one invoked by sociological theory – waking up in the middle of the night and wondering, what if I am a commodity fetishist?) but sometimes a school’s best and worst attributes are shared over some beers in the pub. However, invitations to chat aren’t just handed out at the beginning of the day. You must endure orientations, on-campus presentations, and networking during breaks. Don’t flake out early and go shopping no matter your proximity to the nearest H&M (even though Ottawa still doesn’t have one). Ask students about the classes, their supervisors, faculty you’re interested in working with, why they picked their current school and if they would do it again.

2. It’s not all on the website – nothing beats a walk on campus.

Appointments tend to help if you are visiting in person. When I dropped in on administrators, some of them were surprised and less than helpful. At one particular school I asked about the experience of being a grad student and was told, “I don’t know what you want me to say, it’s all on our website.” A couple of others at least humoured me and printed out copies of webpages for me to take along. However, in giving people this chance to sell the university as a tangible experience rather than just a concept, some really did drive it home. I also learned tidbits about campus safety, strikes, ongoing construction projects and other factors in student life. While it’s pretty valuable information, no one ever advertises on their website that your tranquil study time in the library will be punctuated by a jackhammer over the next two years.

For the one overseas university to which I applied and could not visit in person, I scoured the web for everything. I even took virtual walks around campus and the city using Google Street View. Whether in person or online, the whole point of this is to get to know the university well enough in order to understand what it would mean to study there. I tried to give myself the opportunity to fall in love with a school.

3. Talk to professors, in fact, talk to anyone who will take the time to chat with you.

Even though students are more likely to tell you straight up how it is, professors are the ones who will be grading and supervising you throughout your program. Understanding two things about professors helped me to approach them for appointments:

a) It’s not worthwhile to get all nervous asking to meet with a prof or even asking former professors for references. They’re totally accustomed to it, and the whole thing will be less awkward if you know this and can be casual about it.

b) Professors want you to succeed. If you succeed, the professor looks good, the university looks good, the people who fund research look good – it’s all win-win. On top of this, the professors I know really do want to help students to have the best future possible.

Here are some questions I learned to ask professors:

  • Can I speak to a graduate student who is under your supervision? See Lesson #1.
  • What kind of supervision style do you have? Eg. hands-off vs. very involved. You will want to have figured out your style of working in order to know which type of supervision best suits you.
  • How long do your graduate students generally take to complete their degree? Usually this is entirely out of the supervisor’s sphere of influence so go easy on them.
  • Is there funding available for research assistants to work on your projects? Meaning: Might you employ me for the summer so I’m not entirely broke?
  • What methods and theoretical frameworks do you usually apply to your research?
Of course, you will definitely want to be able to speak a bit about your research interests and gauge their reactions. For further questions, check out this list from YorkU.

4. Ask the questions that matter and put weight on the factors that are most important to you.

At the end of the day, no school is perfect. Since no student is perfect either, we’re all a good match. After gathering as much information about each university as is possible, you’ll have to decide what your deal-breakers are and what you are willing to compromise on. For me, it came down to needing a YES to each one of these big questions:

  • Is this program best-suited to my research interests and career aspirations? Are they offering courses that I want to take?
  • Will this set me up for the next stage in my career? Will I be able to get into the PhD program that I have my eye on?
  • Is there a professor who carries out research in my area of interest and would s/he be able to supervise me?
  • Is this going to be an adventure? After four years in a cubicle, I’m looking for excitement!
Thus has been my journey so far. While these tips may not work for everyone who is returning to school, I hope they might give you a few starting points from which to make your decision. Good luck and may the (discerning) force be with you!
 

Image courtesy of Wookieepedia 

More than a Smile: First Impressions via Facebook

 

Photo courtesy of Instagram, all my smiling pictures were much too cheesy.

A couple of weeks ago, the reading list for my graduate program was sent out – be still my heart and my 1-click purchasing finger (Amazon, you are a genius) – and to no one’s surprise one of our classmates was inspired to make a Facebook group for all of us. When you have a bunch of people willing to read/eat/breathe the web, it only makes sense that my entire Social Science of the Internet cohort was on board in less than 20 minutes (alright, it would have been 20 minutes without time zone differences).

Last week, when sharing with my dental hygienist that I was going away to study (I divulged this for the purpose of explaining that my coverage would expire soon, I don’t drop it into every conversation), she made some school-related small talk about my program of choice. Then with a mirror, many gloved fingers and the horrid scraping tool in my mouth, she asked me point blank, “So do you think Facebook is good or bad?” Swallowing some tooth polish (the Internet won’t tell me why that’s bad but I’m sure it is), I explained to her that I think it’s simply a tool and how people choose to use it is what results in positive or negative outcomes. Of course, I realize it’s more complex than this in that the way our tools are designed can hold political, economic, and gendered biases (how different would FB be without the ads and third-party apps? How about if you had to pay to access certain features?), but the hygienist was about to take some photos of my cavity so I simply left it there. I didn’t want to impede my tooth from being immortalized in the hall of fame for ‘things that could have been prevented by flossing’.

My personal bias is that I love Facebook. I feel that it simplifies and facilitates human interaction in an extremely seamless and rapid way that is necessary in my fast-paced life – see, I’ve really bought into it! While I’m aware that I spend more time lurking on my news feed than actually communicating, I feel that knowing these tidbits about people in my life (many of them long distance) actually brings me closer to them in some way. Also, as a sociologist I have a certain affinity for simply observing people and FB is much less creepy than staking out a bench at the mall all day (though when I’m 75+ you can bet that’s what I’ll be doing, no one ever suspects the seniors).

All this to say that of course I joined the Facebook group and I’m definitely glad it exists. I’ve been checking it neurotically ever since I turned off those annoying automatic e-mail updates. And I’ve already friended two of my classmates, a rare and risky move since FB’s privacy settings have changed. However, I feel that there is less to be private about in the academic world in comparison with the work world where TMI (too much info) could lead to a whole rash of awkward board meetings and lunchroom encounters. People expect you to be radical at school, right? Well, I won’t shave my head yet… At the same time, there are also some odd and surreal aspects of being able to check out my cohort three months before any of us actually meet in person. Here are some observations in bullet form:

The Good

  • We’re already making connections. People are uniting by finding similarities, such as country of origin and college (I already found another Kellogian);
  • We’re sharing information, tips and resources. I chatted with another Canadian about ways of navigating all the paperwork that needs to get done before autumn.
  • We’re all in the same boat. The best part of the page is that I can rationalize about my classmates as other people. They are people just like me who sometimes make grammatical errors in their posts and use emoticons for the heck of it :-)*

The Bad/Weird

  • Facebook is an impression management tool (says them and them): depending on how much effort you’re willing to put into it, FB allows you to create a flawless image of your life. I mean, no one posts photos of the day they sat on the couch in lululemons, eating Häagen-Dazs, watching an entire season of Pretty Little Liars (yes, there are 22 episodes in season 1). While all my classmates look like nice, friendly people, I can’t help but be a bit intimidated by the neat things they post. However, I feel like this is the price you pay for friending anyone with a remotely interesting life (there’s my bias in favour of FB again).
  • Due to the one-dimensional quality of Facebook communications (no body language and no stable context across time or audience/’collapsed contexts‘**), I feel like I need to be pretty guarded and careful in my posting. While first impressions are always tricky, if you bungle something up in real life there is sometimes the opportunity to save yourself through a smile or the other person’s ability to say “well, she was suffering from extreme culture shock so I’ll give her another chance, poor Canadian.” But generally, if you post something on the Internet, your audience receives it at face value. Therefore, if it appears that I’m not the sharpest tool in the toolshed, it will be there for all to see, plain as day and long-lasting.
From the number of bullets listed under each header, it is clear that the benefits of social networking outweigh the risks… Just kidding, but in all seriousness, Facebook and online networking is a reality of everyday life for most people. It’s not going away so the trick is to extend your media literacy in order to minimize the risks and maximize the benefits, such as being able to feel a little less alone when heading into a new school in a new city and a totally different country.

*Actually, I think there are TOO MANY EMOTICONS in the world; everyone should read this: How to Use Fewer Emoticons

**Links to an excellent article by the excellent danah boyd retrieved from her excellent website: www.danah.org