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Research Design: methodology in question

One of the blogs I follow on a regular basis is Jeffrey Keefer’s Silence and Voice which is currently concerned with some issues related to research design and formulating of research questions in the wider context of auto-ethnography as methodology and identity construction as the subject of interest. Recent posts I found very interesting and commented on are the one on broader research design questions and the one on auto-ethnography and reflexivity which are worthwhile having a think over – they provide very good ground for some reflection on dilemmas and politics entailed in the underlying epistemological questions of research-related decision-making.

I am fascinated by the way crowd-sourcing can work in academic blogging, it’s a great way of engaging broader audiences and gaining some insights from outside immediate areas. I like and do value the fact that academic bloggers, busy with studies and work, research and other things, take the time and effort to reflect publicly online, open up to questions and critiques – and respond to comments and ideas. Personally, I enjoy the challenge to think about issues and see whether I can contribute some ideas and to what extent I need to improve on gaps and communication of insights.

Jeffrey’s research made me recall some podcasts featuring Stuart Hall et al. debating questions related to identity construction. They form part of the Open University’s post-graduate course D853 Identity in Question which I studied in 2008 – the interviews cover Lacanian Theory, Language Approach, subjectivity and legal definitions of personhood as well as some comments on Michel Foucault’s genealogical perspective. They last 2 to 9 minutes and deliver some great food for thought. I also came across James Schirmer’s paper on Scribd which I recommend as thought-provoking read in this context The Personal as Public: Identity Construction/Fragmentation Online

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you’ve got power: bloggers and microbloggers set the pace

On 18 December Vietnam approved new blogging restrictions that aim at regulating bloggers’ content which the government deems sensitive or inappropriate. National providers are requested to report and remove posts which

  • undermine national security,
  • incite violence or crime,
  • disclose state secrets,
  • or include inaccurate information that could damage the reputation of individuals and organizations.

The booming blogosphere which is growing fast into an alternative newsroom has provided a wakeup call to the government which is resorting to drastic measures of censorship. State-controlled media in a communist state is no longer the only source of information with bloggers seizing power and spreading what is perceived as harmful. The language itself is subject to regulations which encourage bloggers to write in ‘clean and healthy Vietnamese’.

Outside Vietnam, traditional media is getting increasingly under pressure. The Financial Times titled on 22 December: ‘Plane crash geek Twitters from burning Denver aircraft, Philippe Naughton’. Real-time citizen journalism also played a significant role in the recent Mumbai attacks when users posted the events in 140 character messages into the online sphere. Twitter had come under attack for providing terrorists at the scene with information about the situation.

Giving away some of the power traditional or state-owned media used to hold is still widely perceived as inviting anarchism and social chaos. Societies and governments are going through the very challenging processes of getting used to listening to their people’s views – who’ve got a lot to say, it turns out. How to control this? When and what exactly is to be controlled? By whom? Currently, there are still far too many in control who are non-users of the new social media, those who neither blog, wiki, facebook or twitter. In short: those who actually do not have any expertise in the very field they want to regulate so desparately.

Successful ‘control’, i.e. such that is neither patronising nor does it trigger instant resistance but is adapted by users as enabling and empowering, may rather come from peers than in the traditional top-down manner. After all, bloggers and microbloggers are technically already able to remove messages and exercise self-moderation if required. Instilling a sense of responsible information-sharing while learning to produce quality content is the actual challenge at stake. Yet, with all the shifts in external control and regulation a review of internal mechanisms is to me the more realistic and sustainable approach: self-reflection and self-evaluation of one’s own contribution strengthen the sense of ownership and third party assessment. It is not just citizens who need to learn how to engage and publish with responsibility – it is also governments who need to learn to take their citizens seriously and work in collaboration with them on information-sharing in a globalised world.

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currency exchange: let’s pay in comments

With the British Pound being at a pitiful low rate against the Euro – it’s near parity – I think it’s a good moment to bridge finance and blogging. Comments count as currency in the blogosphere. Given the comments are useful and the reader has taken the time to read through the post, beyond the first two sentences.
In a world where time is a very scarce good, it seems commenting on someone else’s blogpost is not exactly the most rewarding thing to do. So why bother? Why engage in the tiresome – and often also emotional – labour of producing content?
Chrysten Dybenko argued in June this year that only 1% of the active population would ever produce content, no matter if blog, wiki or comments on a site. Now, in January 2008 there were 59 million Facebook users which have more than doubled within the year: according to Facebook there are currently 140 million active users. All these people (individual or collective agents) produce content and demand attention. In my online sphere I see more than 1 in 100 Facebook users commenting on each others’ activities with status updates being the easiest to spot. On Twitter the rate is certainly even higher – but on blogs? That’s indeed a different story. Because the content and comment production is also more time consuming and less spontaneous?

Comments are the one core ingredient that make blogging a lot more of a dialogical activity. There is no point in telling the invisible or imagined audiences what wonderful things you think without getting any feedback. Yet, it’s exactly what many corporations still do on their top-down style websites but if you are not one of the anxious producers you are keen on hearing what readers think.

Or what your readers ‘out there’ produce on their sites. That’s what trackbacks and pingbacks are good for. That’s what produces social capital. But the one thing I am truly keen on is cultural capital. It’s the critical question that indicates someone has thought through and beyond the stuff you offered. And spotted the weaknesses. Or the strengths. And gave you food for thought. Something to come back to and make it better. That’s the material that you take with you from your online world into the offline world. That makes you post something like an answer. Online. Or talk back, offline – and to someone who does not even know you are a blogger. Bring the thoughts and comments back into different contexts. Generate new ideas.

The hybrid places where online and offline merge and we notice that what we give and get online may have an impact on our identities much bigger than many are willing to admit. And it seems, our identities are rather merged phenomenon than fragmentations…

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the role of methodology in the blogosphere

I recently came across Mariana Goya Martinez’s and Aimee Hope Morrison’s work. The latter is a researcher in Canada and mommy-blogger, her presentation raised a number of interesting questions. Morrison argued that the diary-style blog, as sub-category of the blogosphere, constitutes a hybrid as it links the private and the public mainly by comments. These two areas are also interdependent as they nurture each other – comments provided on each other’s blogposts help to maintain and build networks and relationships. The theoretical framework was very much rooted in Goffman’s notion of the frontstage and the presentation of the self in the everyday. An everyday I would also define as a hybrid of the public and private, online and offline. The extent to which the bloggers’ narrative self-disclosure was part of an everyday life lived offline, though, was not subject to analysis.

Guilty pleasure as a concept sprang to mind as it was argued that many of those [female] bloggers ‘under investigation’ avoided tagging and categorising by purpose in order to prevent identification. It seemed, underlying the lifecycle of those blogs were also strongly correlated events and stages in offline life which forced the researchers to be either in a similar situation in order to comment and engage with the authors or to remain in an undisclosed role. Participant observation, textual analysis and auto-ethnography constituted the methodological framework.

Researching blogs without revealing one’s own identity, motives and activities might be very tempting and legitimate in ethical terms as the blogs are publicly available. Yet, when it comes to evaluation of findings the lack of participant validation as one strategy to ensure triangulation strikes me. Part of the problem may be the fragility of a blog’s lifecycle which is certainly subject to periodical crisis. Revaluation and redesign seem to be part of a blog’s coming of age with comments as currency generally providing a more or less constant flow of stimulation, positively or negatively. This may even result in its death with the role of flame wars in this context certainly not to be underestimated. Without interviewing bloggers at a more in-depth level, though, the complexity of events, complex decision-making processes and the impact of the unconscious upon all this must remain behind the public presentation and largely obscure – or subject to speculation at the researcher’s end.

This is the nexus where it becomes clear that participant observation and textual analysis are no doubt valuable methods but they may need to be reviewed as bloggers become increasingly aware of being subject to scholarly scrutiny with them being subjectified to observation and their products to textual analysis. The politics of ethnography would benefit greatly from a more sophisticated understanding of an unequal distribution of power in the blogosphere and what strategies bloggers resort to in order to prevent their blog becoming a casualty of the politics of ethnography.

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Social media, corporations and changing markets

Applying for a job in Barack Obama’s new team forced every applicant to dig deep in their own past: those who aim at high-ranking roles faced a questionnaire including 63 questions. Among many personal questions the links to blogs and Facebook pages were required. You may think this is taking things way too far. Such an intrusive approach may be detrimental to a fruitful collaboration. A German friend working in Human Resources argued similarly: they would not google applicants for “we trust people”. And of course, you will need the resources to conduct such research: personnel who are skilled and know what to look for.

It does seem many organisations are not taking social media very seriously. My friend pointed towards the age of corporate decision-makers. This might be one aspect, others may be related to power, hierarchical structures and a lack of understanding communication as a 2-way process rather than the still widespread top-down trickle. Not to forget cultural practices – some of them unconsciously practices and reproduced.

Using social media in times of financial markets in turmoil, drastic policy changes, lay offs and plenty of rumours does not seem to loom large on companies’ to-do lists. Micro-/blogging is frowned upon in circles which have not even arrived at websites that offer more than carefully choreographed content and a simple contact form: banking is certainly among the least transparent and progressive industries in this regard. Information is money, has to be money – and profit has to be quantifiable. Or?

Whistleblower Cityboy managed to shake up things a little by breaking the Code of Silence strictly enforced in London’s financial district. His blogging activites in Fear and Loathing in the City provide great entertainment, raised eyebrows and a few voices – but he did not manage to bring about change to the long established culture of scarce flows of information.

Now in the era of bailing out banks – as if they were hostages – one may think things could change and transparency would be imposed by help of governmental bodies – and the public who paid a high price for a slice of all those toxic assets. But no, this is illusionary, as some of the stakeholders may well have changed now but the corporate culture remained the same. In this context, “YES, I CAN!” is not the banker’s mantra.

Net presence and staff activism, corporate blogging in a proactive attempt to manage and control change, shape opinion-making and bring about change in a way remotely echoing Obama’s extensive use of platforms and channels in the sphere of social media is something the banking sector is not even ready to think about. Dismissing social media as lacking a sound business model seems to be right if taking the short-term perspective.

On the long run though, social media offers opportunities to manage relationships with customers as well as staff which may well pay off: the worst in times of financial crises is to leave image and status management to traditional PR campaigns and the local papers. Generation Digital Native is mobile and targeted by those who don’t sleep, they might also be much less loyal to parties, corporations and brands than widely assumed. I can hear their “yes, we can”…

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