On 4th June I attended the 2nd Digital Cultures Workshop: Social Media Publics #digcult09 at University of Salford, U.K. A conference, rather than a workshop, it actually took place over two days, densely packed with presentations, the organisers Ben Light, Steve Sawyer at el. had managed to include speakers from a wider range of areas. Hence, the methods applied varied and delivered additional sources for debate. Ethnographic methods featured several times with auto-ethnographic research in social networking sites such as Flickr becoming an ever increasing tool. Here, the ethical issues related to reflexivity and at least some degree of critical objectivity became subject to the Q&A sessions and further conversations during coffee breaks. Yet, they strangely seem to rarely feature prominently on the agenda – given the dominance of research conducted from ‘within’ the site of investigation, I think these issues are under-investigated and require more attention.
Some papers, based on larger research projects’ findings, made use of triangulatory approaches, for instance Daniela Bogdanovic, Michael Dowd and Alison Adam, University of Salford whose presentation ‘Golden Girls and Boys: Researching the Online Privacy Concerns of Older People’ outlined the mix of methods they had been using in their micro study. As often the case, they had given preference to diversity and in-depth data against representativeness. Hence, the inductive approach combined with theoretical sampling and grounded theory which in turn provided a foundation for further data collection gathered by help of online ethnographic research, semi-structured interviews with focus groups and a larger survey that will be repeated. I also learnt that their research was embedded in a large-scale project with researchers taking a more quantitative approach which meant that continued discussions around methodologies helped increasing awareness for limitations of one’s own field of origin and taken-for-granted assumptions in terms of ethics, practices and underlying values. To me this sounded like a very dynamic project that may deliver insights beyond the scope of the actual research objectives.
Nick Breems, Dordt College at University of Illinois, presented research conducted on Facebook, his intention was to develop strategic directions for Facebook, hence, he had investigated links of motivation and interpretation of usage and kernel meaning. He raised the question whether Facebook users are training themselves to stay away from ‘true friendships’ and the work they require. Does Facebook address the problems which lead to disconnectedness in the real work or is it just tackling visible symptoms of modern life alienation? To me this echoed the wider debate around strong ties and weak ties, emotional labour and meaningful relationships versus fastfood style connectivity and networking – problems that exist and started off in the real world due to our urbanised, accelerated lifestyles, breakdowns and transformations of what the nuclear family model, working environments/arrangements and societal changes in a globalised world, entailing a huge number of moral issues. Facebook is no remedy and was never intended to be such, yet, it may have potential to offer more than one-click-instant friendship, supposed we start thinking in more meaningful ways about whose responsibility it is to educate all age groups towards respectful and sustainable social interaction and communication. If online social practices (culturally diverse as they are) are left to their ‘natural evolution’ they may simply reflect the social ills and deficits we witness in the real world.
However, we may also start using public education and campaigns in order to indicate more meaningful ways to interact. In this regard the question of another researcher addressed to Nick wanting to know whether he would also have any friends other than those on Facebook came a bit as surprise to me – it seems even those immersed in researching the field hold beliefs about the artificial boundaries of online and offline worlds that feed into myths, hence, as Ben suggested, a lot more research is required which targets more on non-users and their notions and perceptions.
Here is how public education -decades ago – attempted to change the social practices and values lived by a broad audience, in this case the topic was ‘How to say No: Moral Maturity’.
A more contemporary illustration is India’s -pretty hilarious- public health campaign, the mobile ringtone ‘condom, condom’ aimed at normalising beliefs and tackling taboos:
This week two blogposts made me wonder whether we try to fix quickly by help of technology, more precisely social media, what is actually rooted in rather complex behavioural issues.
Harvard Digital Natives‘ site discussed the celebration of shared knowledge, while ethical issues in the context of plagiarism did not remain untouched. Is it OK to make use of the teacher’s resources if found accidentally on the web? Where are the boundaries of intellectual property being copied unacknowledged into an essay and what defines a novel intellectual product? What constitutes new anyway – and who defines it? ‘Sharing is caring’ in a mark-based competition-driven world? Does the generation Digital Natives really buy into this? And if not to the extent we would hope to see, then what can we do to improve the attitude?
Neville Hobson on the other hand looked at the findings analysed by Forrester Research which state that “corporate blogs rank at the bottom of the trust scale with only 16% of online US consumers who read them saying that they trust them”. Trust building and efficiency are corporate key aims in today’s shaky markets – but is anyone still wondering why they have gone lost in the first place? And when exactly did it happen?
It is not just financial institutions and governments which need to rebuild trust and seem to have little idea as to how to manage this. Students and pupils around the world might soon be among those who need to prove that they are trustworthy – if they don’t refrain from the temptation to copy&paste their works like a patchwork blanket in ‘the old days’, then who can trust them once they are tomorrow’s employees and managers of those institutions which we have just bailed out?
The risk/reward balance needs to be restored, rethinking the tendency towards blamegaming and secrecy are key to the development of policies, educational and economic systems that are sustainable. New social media can play a major role in exactly all this. But placing all trust into these technologies without distinguishing carefully between coherent knowledge production and pouring information bits onto the public 24/7 will cause an increase in ignorance, if not even more harmful practices.
Transparency contributes to the wider social benefit. Efficiency and trust-building measures post-crises must be informed by a sense of responsibility. Ethics need to be given a much more central role in curricula, they seem to linger in a corner where they gain dust rather than attractiveness. Ethics and social responsibility must become more than nice yet halfhearted labels in corporate PR-strategies.
Isn’t it time to ask what means we have to get back on track and find knowledge production in a holistic manner more rewarding than piecemeal bits of information, no matter how efficient the latter may appear in our hectic and profit-driven days? Isn’t it time to think about trust in a more cohesive way and produce comprehensive strategies that prove sustainable in more than one field? That would include pupils as tomorrow’s voting citizens as well as corporations as collective citizens within the wider public.
This year’s AoIR conference, the IR9.0 in Copenhagen is still inspiring me – it’s been a great event with numerous encounters, plenty of food for thought thanks to the fantastic conference chair Lis Klastrup and the programme chair Brian Loader with the organising team and 430 international delegates. Here is the visual overview flickr
The keynote lecture presented by Mimi Ito focused on a large-scale project which had made use of a range of qualitative and quantitative research methods applied by 29 researchers. The descriptions of these aspects alone were fascinating and highlighted that managerial and soft skills may have played a quite significant role in the success of the venture. Mimi had resorted to currently dominant discourses around dichotomies such as the connoisseur/amateur, producer/consumer, autonomy/peer pressure in order to frame the findings of research undertaken in the area of anime/fansubbing where reciprocity of peer review is embedded in friendship-driven participation and closely intertwined with practices of status. Exploring this specific area must have been fascinating , some of her results suggest that the genres of participation – covering ID, culture, practice etc acc to her definition – might be rooted too much in traditional sociological terms, though. I thought that these categories did not seem to enable us to truly capture the complex phenomenon of capacity-building activities including the flows of social and transferrable skills which -presumably – start off in the online sphere and gain momentum and their own dynamics in the offline sphere. Mimi ‘s notions on moral panics and the scepticism as to the contrary celebrations of the no-barriers sphere remained marginal in this rather optimistic interpretation within her lecture.
The pessimistic comments were much more at the core of Stephen Graham’s keynote lecture which critically evaluated the tagging practices in the contemporary hype of securing, excluding and trajectory-tracking of mobile bodies, goods and ideas which all aim at listing of profilings including discourses of status, power, control and policing in order to make spaces governable which are perceived as prone to threats. Stephen presented a picture in stark contrast to Mimi’s: the dream of transparency in an ever more complex world chiselled into the gloomy rhetoric and practices of biometrics, militarisation and the fixing of ‘authentic’ IDs into static subjects. He raised the question how much time societies may have left at their hand before their citizens become all too accustomed to the notion of being the sum of tags. Tags defined and attached by others – also here an underlying polarity. Re-animating and re-mediating urban spaces in an attempt to un-blackbox these technocrat politics by moving away from interiorised gaming were among the ideas Stephen presented as to how to resist and appropriate at grass-root level. I felt, though that questioning the lack of questioning in these days might be the underlying issue at stake in a hybrid on/offline world where anxiety has gained true celebrity status as it actually dictates the culture of tagging in a very subtle manner – and in this sense is an even more powerful agent in a nation’s subconscious.
In July I attended the Internet Studies Festival at John Moores University in Liverpool which was a rather small but very valuable event. One issue though seemed to remain in the dark and it is still not as widely debated as it should be: ethics.
A post-grad social researcher argued that ‘one would need to find a way to work around’ – she left us in the dark about the details of her own research, i.e. how exactly she had ensured privacy and data protection in her fieldwork centred around ‘understanding student’s use of Facebook’ were secured at all times. Rather she had perceived the semi-public sphere of facebook with her friends’ contact details a rich source of data – and subsequently presented poorly disguised images and personal details of her participants as part of her findings to the delegates – assuming this would be another semi-private/exclusive space. Hence, a safe arena.
This may come across as a specifically sad case but looking at the currently available formal framework of guidelines as provided by the AoiR [Association of Internet Researchers] AoIR Research Ethics and the BSA Research Ethics the guidelines are perhaps not explicit enough and might remain vague to those students who learned to expect a larger extent or more explicit guidance. Also, the applications online available, the range of settings and practices within and around the online social networks, the micro-/blogosphere etc may change faster than academic institutions/committees are usually able to respond and amend their guidelines. Dynamic and flexibility would need to increase – or students might need to get equipped with the skills and attitude to adopt/develop guidelines themselves according to the demands of the specific environment under investigation.
Another issue in this context might be the persistence of a rather unhelpful debate: the public/private dichotomy. Certainly, the online sphere deserves just as much careful consideration of ethical issues as the offline spheres – otherwise we, i.e. the community of researchers [at all stages], may risk to loose reputation, credibility – and most importantly: the degree of influence we actually seek when we embark upon the research journey.
Apart from posting links I haven’t managed to write anything over the past few weeks since I set up this blog, my 3rd one. Partly due to lack of time and problems with reliable networks/access but mainly driven by the desire to post a bit of quality [the dichotomy of random thought vs cohesive conceptual structure?] and take the time to think first about content, then about structure and style – and finally the oh so powerful but mainly silent, passive and invisible audience. Who are you guys? Lurkers, ignorant surfers, bored office workers…? Politics of idenity and politics of representation are at stake.
As research student in the social sciences with focus on online social networks (OSNs such as facebook) blogging is not really easy, it seemed… why I am writing myself into being [echoing danah boyd’s claim] or is ‘cogito, ergo sum’ still valid – I think, therefore I am?