I had a great day at a digital methods workshop run by Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, Richard Rogers, Tim Highfield and Tama Leaver this week at the Association of Internet Researchers conference in Montreal. Well, actually it was a workshop on social media research. Given the small matter of GIS as a digital research method, not to mention semiotics and political economy as part of the app walkthrough method, I might start a one-person campaign to get a bit more precision in the labelling here. However, that is my only niggle about the entire day, which was incredibly interesting and helpful and thought-provoking. Here are my take-aways:
- Tim started off by urging us to be experimental and innovative. He pointed out that much social media research has relied on API-based methods, but Twitter is really now the only platform that allows decent access via its API, and Tim’s sense is that wasn’t going to last. Richard Rogers repeated this: increasingly, there is limited or no access to data to social media data, data is being deleted and data is not being archived. Jean too urged us to go beyond the database model of research.
- another issue about social media data is that the media themselves keep changing. New features are added, old ones tweaked or removed. Instagram posts can be edited and comments added months after the original post. So how do you as a researcher keep up with those changes? (Tim and Tama have a book coming out on Instragram – and Instagram has altered hugely since they started working on it, with Stories probably being the most significant change.)
- a crucial reminder from Richard Rogers: begin with your research questions and then figure out what metrics might work – don’t start with the method! And lots of the day focussed how to generate the answers to empirical questions. But of course there are, or should be, theoretical positions driving those empirical questions. All the methods we discussed were what Richard refers to as “forensic”: the detailed analysis of clues, big and small, to identify a truth (there’s an interesting parallel with the Forensic Architecture research agency here). But forensics have to achieve particular forms of evidentiary reliability and I did wonder what sorts of questions and answers might be co-generated digitally if we worked with a different term to describe a different kind of method: symptomatic? evocative? machinic?
- there are lots of resources for learning more about these methods: the residential schools run by the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam and the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology are standouts here but there are also some QUT MOOCs here. (There are lots of other summer schools too – I know about the Digital Humanities Summer School at Oxford as well as the Oxford Internet Institute’s – please add any you recommend in the comments box below.)
- and finally, some words. “Mouse over” as a verb – as in “if you mouse over this dropdown menu…” – and the adverbs “appification” and “platformification”. (They’re what’s happening to identity, apparently.) And quantiquali, or qualiquanti – when digital methods are used to generate data that is then analysed using qualitative methods, or vice versa. Which kind of sounds like mixed methods, so perhaps another prompt for a more radical rethink about ‘digital methods’.
Finally finally, a big thanks to the presenters for a great day.