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Igniting Internet Research

After a brief visit to Taipei (more on that on Mapping Online Publics soon), I’ve now made it to Seattle for the 2011 Association of Internet Researchers conference. We start with the Ignite session of very short and fast papers:

Nick Proferes, whose talk is in Dr. Seuss style, examines the origins of research ethics; he studied the content of the AoIR mailing-list to examine qualitative trends in conversations on ethics (and considered the ethics of doing so as well, of course); email traffic peaked around 2006/2007, and ethics, IRBs, and permissions were amongst the key terms, especially in the context of email and Facebook, and increasingly Twitter; questions of public and private were especially knotty. Most discussions on the AoIR list began with students asking for guidance from the community, and analogies with the analogue world still prevail.

Alex Leavitt talks about a failed research attempt: his interest is in digital subcultures, and he examined Encyclopedia Dramatica (which he describes as a satirical ‘devil’s dictionary’). How does it reflect Internet subculture? Alex’s project scraped the ED wiki, but the assumption in such work is that sites always stay where they are – ED, however, suddenly disappeared when its administrator deleted it in order to start the Oh Internet site; Alex, however, still had the archive of scraped texts (albeit without edit history), and worked with the community to restore the content – the changed his role, of course. How, generally, should researchers deal with ephemerality, then, and with the more or less explicit wishes of original authors for their content to have a limited lifespan…

Janet Salmons points to the value of visually rich research interviews online. This may involve a range of technologies, from text + images to virtual environments. How does posing interview questions in words or pictures affect the possible answers which may be given by respondents? Respectively, visual communication (through existing images), visual elicitation (by providing new images), or visual collaboration (by creating images) may take place in any one given context. Different respondents’ approaches may also be compared, of course. How much structure is needed for this? (And that’s a general question for any interview, of course…)

Susanna Haas Lyons focusses on Facebook as a space for civic participation. Can it be a useful space for this? Facebook is a very large space, of course, involving a large percentage of the population in many nations; this provides great opportunities for involving significant proportions of locals in civic discussions. Susanna explored the possibilities in a Vancouver project around transportation policies – who participates, what are their views on transport policies, and how do they engage in the process? Susanna’s Facebook app invited random locals to participate by discussing transportation issues, propose new ideas, and take them to an online forum within Facebook. 25% of invitations bounced; those who did engage generated 19 recommendations, each of which the city responded to. Respondents skewed towards females, and towards the 25+ age brackets. Can deliberative democracy benefit from digital means, then? Issues of cost and inclusion must be considered, but respondents wanted to see more of this; we need to take these approaches as experiments, and take risks.

Stuart Shulman focusses on the tweets around the death of Osama bin Laden; he begins by noting that studying politics is about studying how people organise each other – how does society accept its leaders’ positions, even when these positions go against their own wishes? The Net is changing politics – what can crowds of people achieve online? In particular, what about the difficult problems – how can the crowd be harnessed to do large-scale textual research, for example? Stuart’s DiscoverText project crowdsourced the analysis of the Osama bin Laden tweets; it offered a $25 Amazon gift card to examine tweets; in the end, they coded some 22,000 tweets for the presence of humour.

Brian Hughes is interested in creative teams. They don’t always do a great job, and positive feedback doesn’t always work to fix problems. Giving negative feedback can be useful; it can generate new energy; but such effects often don’t last very long; also, responses to negative feedback often remain offline. Constructive negative feedback is often personal (it’s about disappointment), it’s emotional, it’s hard to give and to get, it’s about reasonable expectations, and it’s thoughtful. Such feedback is delivered either to individuals or to the whole team; it’s easier to give to a team, and the recipient’s readiness must be considered. It is better delivered by mentors than by supervisors.

Richard Smith is next to present the new Master of Digital Media in Vancouver. This is a professional, vocational, graduate degree involving a diverse cohort of participants; it is owned by four universities and focussed on interactive design. Students work in teams, reflecting the nature of digital media; they learn about agile project management, and focus on critique rather than criticism. Their work is user-focussed, and students are encouraged to take a humble but courageous approach to their engagement with clients; students need to think reflexively, trust themselves and each other, and exercise their curiosity as they undertake their work. The aim is for authentic experiences. The programme will offer limited residencies and takes place in a compressed fashion, to enable more professional development.

Ericka Menchen-Trevino is interested in multi-method research methods; in particular, in the differences between self-reported and independently observed online activities. Web data companies provide general observational information, but such information is often non-specific and vague, as well as developed through unknown processes; Ericka developed her own Web activity tracking software to raise more detailed information. Such online activity logging information was further combined with in-person interviews with users. A key question in all of this was who could be recruited to such activities, as well as what they would report (and how they would respond to the logs of what they actually did); this required significant trust which was achieved also by giving participants control over the logging software. The software will now be turned into an open source service.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick focusses on the social life of scholarship. She has worked on the question of whether the book was a dying form – why do people ask this question? Scholarly monographs now sell an average of 400 copies in their lifetime, most of them to libraries which have declining money available to them. This is a problem for people (mainly in the U.S.) for whom academic tenure is linked to their book publishing activities, of course. Other scholarly forms of publishing might in fact be far more sensible for emerging researchers, but they still aren’t properly credited yet – especially if no peer review processes are in place. Peer review acts as a form of gatekeeping, creating an artificial scarcity; getting published is an achievement, then. Instead, today, we need to learn to cope with an economy of abundance in scholarship – a publish then filter mode of communication.