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:
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.