Today’s preconference at the University of Westminster, London, brought together a range of highly inspiring scholars who had re-evaluated Erving Goffman’s work in the setting of the everyday in digital life.
Heather Pleasants, University of Alabama, presented findings related to her digital storytelling project. Her illustrations of digital forms of communication were powerful stories posted on Stories for change and the paper was based on ethnographic observations framed by the works of Michael Wesch(2008), Erving Goffman (1963), Georg Simmel (1950), G.H. Mead (1934) et al. Particular audiences, for instance in education and health care, harness the possibilities provided by digital media, in authentically co-/presenting self and other. Trust, patience and respect in these spaces depend on self-representations and are constituted by the degree of authenticity. Here is another powerful example Life N Rhyme by Relixstylz linked by the Berkeley Language Center in California.
Mark E. Nelson’s (University of Oslo, Norway) presentation focused on the Space2cre8.com project and raised interesting questions. The data analysis had been based on semiotics and appeared to be reductionist in so far as user profiles produced in South Africa had been presented to users in Singapore which were interpreted from within the a certain cultural context. In more or less global networks, though, the idea to refer to one and the same system of symbols and meanings appeared to produce results limited in validity. The social, psychological and cultural embeddedness would need to be acknowledged. Also, representations and narratives may need to be accepted as ambiguously understood. In this sense, understanding would also require the dialogue between producer and audience who, in order to ensure predictive devices such as expressive gestures are understood as intended, will need to negotiate the clues given off in a non-intentional manner.
Sonia Livingstone, LSE, applied Goffman’s concept of the participation framework, production format and participant status to new social media. Goffman’s notion of modes of participations such as co-presence, bystanding, eavesdropping etc. appear to be applicable to f2f social situations as well as to online encounters. Whether participation has to be ratified as suggested by Goffman is less clear. In spaces such as Twitter or Facebook it seems to be perfectly fine to hold endless monologues which may be picked up by automated systems in order to be re-distributed. This may count as machine ratification, an entity not exactly covered in the model of the production format (principal, emitter, animator, figure – united in one agent at times). Reception roles and production roles are not clearly defined in the complexity of online social interaction (c.f. the concept of produsage, A. Bruns – blogpost and presentation
from prosumer to produser ). Impression management in mediated communication may require to address the fact that some communication online is meant to be self-reflection and monologue ‘only’, which, in contrast to offline space, does not require any ratification at all.
An aspect also discussed in Larry Friedlander’s (Stanford University) presentation – the representation as strategic action: never spontaneous, never pragmatic. In social networks the self-presentation is accompanied by anxiety to demonstrate and create status in a careful mix of showing and disguising by applying methods of evasion.
So, is it all staged, choreographed and scripted? Only if we assume people are not able to learn and grow while engaging in online social relations (even if ‘only’ with their self in reflective encounters). Narrating the self involves the negotiation of boundaries which entails self-defence as well as the growing self-confidence resulting from practising, exploring and observing what happens at the knots of connections or interfaces. However, the construction of self involves the negotiation of other, and even if only in observing monologues, non-ratified by the observed other. This complex layer of self-representation may only surface once the process has come to the point where an author determines to express a facet of their complex self.
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:
In Coming of Age in Second Life, Tom Boellstorff argues that virtuality is actually an ‘ancient human practice and that many media have given us leave of the here and now: cave paintings, Jane Austen novels, Howard Nemerov poems’ (2008). His words in mind I went to see Inkheart in Berlin and could not have found a better illustration of the notion that virtuality is indeed ‘older than sin’ as Boellstorff quotes Plato. Assuming, we imagine our deeds first, then act – although, there is an element of awareness implied that might make all the difference.
Boellstorff’s extensive ethnographic research in Second Life provides us with a richness that won’t allow to dismiss virtual communities as less real as it would mean to miss the key point: what makes them real is our imagination. Equality of imagined and non-imagined places, communities and actions is probably what we can argue for now, having access to so much information and proof of what people imagine and how they imagine.
New social media are the places where a considerable amount of our daily interaction and non-verbal communication take place. Where happiness and depression have a lot in common and reproduce themselves. Without imagination there is little beyond routine: the future is a child of your creative imagination, imagination can destroy, combat crime or start wars. Imagine fear and the cold hand taking hold of you is not far. In this sense new social media is actually not new at all. Interacting with others, forming sustainable and healthy social relationships as well as learning from conflicts are subjects to our imaginative powers and just as Inkheart illustrates so colourfully: escaping from inside the written words into the world declared as real or being pulled inside a book – remember The Neverending Story, Peter Pan’s Neverland, Pippi Longstocking? – it all does seem to be very real. We used to be skilled in imagining whole worlds and futures before we internalised what we were told then: to be realistic, to not get lost in imagined and fantasized worlds. Imagination has become highly status-related: certain literature, music, opera and theatre are encouraged and socially rewarding whereas some popular culture, certain video-gaming and virtual interaction do not enhance our social and cultural capital, so far at least a still dominant argument brought up by many who don’t think much of virtual communities.
Whose reality is it anyway? Imagined readers and writers are closely tied together in Inkheart, escaping from outside into the other world becomes possible by reading the words to an audience, a listener. Do we imagine the other and their world when addressing someone in a letter, an electronic message, on the phone or in Second Life? Perhaps we need to ask when we do not imagine an audience and when we are not imagined as part of the visible or invisible audience…in online and offline worlds full of CCTV, cookies and user statistics leaving traces just as bold as tinkerbell’s fairy dust.
We would benefit from a more holistic approach, I believe, when it comes to understanding the real impact of our imaginations upon our manufactured ‘real worlds’. Imagine, all the people, sharing one virtual world – with many virtual sub-worlds, of course – in awareness of their imaginative powers….imagine all the people understanding the responsibility that comes with such powers…
When my handwritten diary got stolen in the course of a burglary a couple of months ago I was angered by the loss of this most personal item, which contained intimate thoughts and sequences of reflections on captured personal moments. At that time though, I concentrated more on the practical implications of the loss of research data as my laptop and digicam were stolen too and impacted negatively on progress of my studies.
Ever since that day and the subsequent start of a new Moleskine I kept taking the notebook with me whereever I would go. Frequently it seemed a bit too large to carry around – what for? the muse may strike..or not?! – yet, I wouldn’t forget the sense of disgust that stroke me the moment I had discovered the loss.
I have learnt something quite remarkable in those week since: more often than not ideas and notions may develop in seemingly inconvenient moments and situations. Then all I want to do is to jot them down, scribble, draw mindmaps and enjoy that moment of creativity. I know that some thoughts need to be thought more than once in order to settle and mature and they may evolve out of different contexts and influences – but it is important to capture them and re-read those written traces later, in other settings, under different conditions.
Note-taking, writing a fielddiary may appear a necessary requirement for ethnographic students but combined with a very personal kind of diary / notebook it becomes an invaluable and rich source of [ideally] non-edited thoughts, concepts, plans and even rough drafts of theoretical explanations.