digital research methods at #AoIR2018

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.

cultural geography going vulgar and viral

The Open University’s OpenSpace Research Centre held an event in June 2014, its annual Doreen Massey event, which was on the theme of ‘provocations of the present: what culture for what geography?’.  You can find recordings of it here.

Several of those of us who contributed have converted our talks into short papers for the journal Social and Cultural Geography, and three of them – including mine – are online now.  You can browse them here.  Mine is called ‘Cultural geography going viral’, and it reflects again on the impact that social media – and particularly Twitter – might have on the practice of cultural geography.  Sam Kinsley’s excellent contribution – ‘Vulgar Geographies? Popular Cultural Geographies and Technology‘ – is available on his blog here.  Sam’s piece (like mine) looked at things digital, but engaged with them from a rather different angle, suggesting that popular culture is now largely mediated through digital technologies, and thus that cultural geography needs to get both more popular (or ‘vulgar’ – a nice and nuanced prod at the subdiscipline’s longstanding neglect of the mass media, let alone social media) and more digital.

I  also took a paragraph in my essay to reflect briefly on my own writing practices now that I ‘do’ social media (this blog and Twitter really, I use Facebook and Academia.edu pretty minimally).  I think of them as an ecology, a kind of balance between long, short and extremely short forms of writing, each with their own voice and rhythms of production.  (Rather irritatingly, I wrote the essay for Social and Cultural Geography fairly quickly and in my less formal ‘blogging voice’, only to find that it’s taken nearly eighteen months to get published, of course, as it’s in a journal, so now feels less spontaneous and immediate and more sloppy and casual.)  Now that I’m in the middle of trying to write a long paper again though, I’m realising that ‘ecology’ doesn’t quite cover it.  Ecology does indeed imply a sort of balance, and what I’ve learnt is that if I’m trying to think and write long form, then both my blog and my tweeting are distractions that I have to switch off.  It’s more like a zero-sum game: either I distribute my attention in lots of little bits, or I concentrate on one big thing.  Or maybe I’m just getting old…

If anyone is interested, the long piece of writing that I’m working on will be a paper (I hope) with the provisional title of ‘post/human agency in the digitally mediated city’.  The draft has some phrases that I’m quite proud of (though, in my bitter experience, they’re usually the ones that referees dislike for their overgeneralising-ness*, so they’ll probably never see the light of day).  But here’s a taste of what I’m trying to do:

 While the notion of human agency is hardly ever interrogated in scholarship focussed on digitally mediated cities, the agency of nonhuman, emergent “quasi-objects” (Bingham 1996) is described in great detail.  Dodge and Kitchin (2009), for example, catalogue various kinds of agency enacted by coded objects, infrastructures, processes and assemblages, subdividing coded objects into hard, closed, permeable and sensible ‘codejects’; Kitchin (2014) pays similar forensic attention to ‘data’; and every restatement of Thrift’s (2011, 2012, 2014)  nonrepresentationalist account of the digitalised city  is enriched by new vocabulary.  The various modalities of human agency, however, have been left unexplored.  This is inconsistent, particularly in the context of the oft-mentioned Actor Network Theory emphasis on the ‘symmetrical’ analysis of both the human and the nonhuman; as Braidotti (2013 12) says, just as we are learning to think differently about the nonhuman, “we need to learn to think differently about ourselves” too (and see Anderson 2014; Halford and Savage 2010).  In its attention to human agency in particular, this paper contributes to a genuinely symmetrical, posthuman geography of digitally mediated cities.  

(That rather overweening final sentence will probably be revised too.)  I’m  really enjoying reading so much interesting geography on things digital and urban!  And thinking about how to work with feminist, queer, postcolonial and critical race theories of the digital too, which in my view work on digitally mediated cities really needs to engage with.  Watch this space for further updates.

*not only are blogs short-form writing (for me anyway), but they also allow me to use words like overgeneralising-ness on a Friday afternoon when I’m too tired to think of anything more elegant.  But you know what I mean, right?

 

academics and visual social media

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Thanks to David Beer’s great blog, I came across this post by sociologist Deborah Lupton, called ‘Social media for academia: some things I have learnt’.  What caught my attention was her use of Pinterest and Storify to collate visual as well as written materials relevant to her research; she also uses Slideshare to make powerpoint presentations public.  Prezi doesn’t appear in her list, perhaps because it’s not a form of social media; but you can make Prezis public to share them.  I have a plan to develop a public Prezi as part of my current research project.  And, like David, Deborah’s enthusiasm has had the effect of making me seriously consider starting with Twitter…

The other aspect of Deborah’s post that I found really interesting was her sense that her use of various social media were carefully integrated in relation to each other.  Facebook does one thing, Twitter another and Pinterest a third; and she manages each to build a dispersed portfolio of online activity that gives her a rounded presence.  I’d love to experiment, as Deborah did for a year, with all these sites and more, as a way of engaging with the ‘ubiquitous photography’ that saturates all these sites (the phrase ‘ubiquitous photography’ is Martin Hand’s, from his book of the same name).