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Some Thoughts about Internet Research and Networked Publics

Also in connection with the AoIR 2017 conference last week, I answered a few questions about the field of Internet research, and the conference, for the University of Tartu magazine. Here is what I had to say:

What are the major challenges in Internet research?

The central challenge is the object of research itself. The nature of the platforms, content, communities, and practices that constitute 'the' Internet is constantly and rapidly in flux – we are dealing with platforms like Snapchat that didn't exist ten years ago, and with practices like 'fake news' that were nowhere near as prominent even two years ago as they are now. This necessarily means that research methods, approaches, frameworks, and concepts must change with them, and that the toolkits we used to understand a particular phenomenon a few years ago may no longer produce meaningful results today. But at the same time we must beware a sense of ahistoricity: 'fake news', for example, does have precedents that reach back to way before the digital age, and we can certainly still learn a lot from the research that studied propaganda and misinformation in past decades and centuries.

And yes, with these constant changes there is also a need to constantly consider the ethics of the research. For example, even if a good part of Internet research deals with readily available, ostensibly public content – for instance from social media platforms –, we cannot necessarily assume that this content was meant to be so public; even if (or perhaps even because) we can now observe the activities of users without their becoming aware of it, we also have a profound responsibility to ensure that how we study and report on their activities in turn does not cause them harm. AoIR as a community has had a strong focus on the development of sensible Internet research ethics guidelines right since it started, almost twenty years ago, and we have just started a new cycle of reviewing and revising these guidelines for the current online environment.

Are we able to keep up with all of these changes?

I hope so! And I am thoroughly encouraged in that hope by the excellent, inspiring research that I see every year in our annual conferences, not least also from graduate students and junior researchers. Much of this work is inventive, innovative, experimental where it needs to be, and groundbreaking in its consideration of yet more new platforms and practices. It is also increasingly interdisciplinary, drawing on various methodological and conceptual traditions and developing new mixed-methods approaches to the study of its subjects – perhaps also thanks to the considerable digital methods training and resources that are now available to the current generation of Internet scholars. And at the same time I think we are also mature enough not just to fall for current buzzwords: the recent excitement about 'big data', for example, has been the focus of some very critical examination just as much as it has been a reason for many of us to further explore and develop computational social science research methods.

What digital methods training is available for researchers in the field?

Thanks to the efforts of a number of research groups and centres around the world, digital research methods have developed rapidly over the past ten years or so; the development of such methods in Internet studies is part of a wider trend towards the digital humanities, and in fact towards the development of greater connections between the humanities and social sciences on the one hand, and computational and network sciences on the other. But these methods still remain very unevenly distributed: people in our field don't necessarily have the computational, statistical, or mathematical knowledge to make full use of emerging quantitative methods, or a sufficient awareness of the complexities of digital and social media to effectively apply more qualitative methods. So, there's a great need for workshops that present key methods and provide participants with some ideas on how to utilise them in their own research. This workshop is part of this effort, as are standalone events such as the annual summer schools run by the University of Amsterdam's Digital Methods Initiative or QUT's Digital Media Research Centre.

In the workshop the QUT DMRC presented on the AoIR 2017 pre-conference day, we covered a number of selected methodological approaches, ranging from quantitative approaches that extract key activity metrics from big data drawn from social media platforms to qualitative walkthrough methods that observe and document how different apps are guiding new users through the account sign-up process and thereby shape how these users develop their online identities. We also address the often underresearched visual aspects of social media content, and tackle issues of data security and encryption.

The theme of AoIR 2017 is 'Networked Publics'? What might such publics look like in five years' time?

Five years are an eternity in Internet time; some of the platforms we now take for granted were hardly on the horizon back then, while others were riding high that have by now all but disappeared. My sense is that there is a certain contraction at the moment: a handful of major providers are growing in power (including online platform providers like Facebook, but also hardware ecosystem designers like Apple), while others are struggling. But this could easily change again in a few years' time, as a new generation of users rejects the existing platforms because they don't want to hang out in the same spaces as their parents and siblings, or because the next generation offers fresh new features. And amidst the focus on what platforms are dominant in western nations, we should not forget that for a range of reasons platforms like Weibo in China or VKontakte in Russia are offering yet other environments, without receiving nearly the same amount of attention in the scholarly literature.

Each of these platforms provides different parameters for what publics are possible here, and how such publics may gather, engage with each other, and disperse again. Some are very flat in structure, open to anyone, and fast-moving, like Twitter; others are much more hierarchical, semi-private, and slower-paced (like Facebook). Some are centred around particular types of content (images, videos, shared URLs). Some are highly selective in whom they allow to participate; some are overrun with bots. My overall sense of the future is that there are now some archetypical forms of publics that Internet users are familiar with and seek out for particular purposes, including the small-group network of friends and family; the large and fast-moving breaking news dissemination network; the self-assembling public of sports fans watching a game, or of TV audiences working out the plot of a show together. This list is by no means exhaustive, of course – I'm sure there are a number of others, too. The way I see it, the combination of the specific platforms we use for these different purposes might change – eventually, if Twitter is overrun by bots and trolls it may no longer be an effective breaking news platform, for example –, but these archetypes remain, and users will seek out an alternative platform if their current one is no longer fit for the task.

And how does journalism dea with such publics?

The most innovative and forward-looking news outlets have by now realised that they must now work with their audiences – or more correctly, their users – rather than just for them. There's been a lot of interesting work aimed at integrating social media into journalistic processes; this ranges from the embrace of journalistic liveblogging on mainstream news sites (drawing on conventional news content just as much as on tweets, Facebook posts, and other materials) to the curation of news materials directly on Twitter or Facebook (the most famous example here remains NPR journalist Andy Carvin's curation of information during the Arab Spring). But again, developments here are still very unevenly distributed: the major outlets as well as key public broadcasters have been better able to explore these possibilities than struggling newspaper publishers, while at the same time there's also a great deal of innovation from below, by new 'born digital' commercial outlets and non-profit and amateur initiatives.

And yes, this also includes controversial outlets including Buzzfeed, which has used its viral clickbait content to fund some genuine political journalism in recent times, and even Breitbart, which has certainly been successful in building a substantial, influential public around the far-right propaganda content it peddles. And there's the challenge for traditional journalism: how can it learn from and build on the models developed by these new entrants, without sacrificing the journalistic ideals it holds dear, and while generating enough revenue to remain financially viable? Does this necessarily result in a loss of content quality, as outlets pursue engagement metrics by publishing more listicles and sensationalist coverage – or is it possible to build strong publics around quality content? The rallying of audiences around outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post, but also newer entrants like Politico or Axios, in the United States under the Trump administration gives me some hope here. Even CNN has moderated its relentless parade of talking heads and holographic displays, and is now doing some actual journalism again.

But the challenge remains immense – mainstream journalism faces a now well-established network of propaganda and disinformation sites, and clearly some foreign state actors are also interfering, in the U.S. as much as in Europe and elsewhere. The problem is that strong publics have now developed around that network and its alternative, warped representations of reality, and while by all evidence that public still continues to come into contact with the news published by mainstream media outlets – I am strongly sceptical of concepts like 'echo chambers' and 'filter bubbles' –, it is now so firm in its belief that all mainstream media represent 'fake news' that it will be very difficult to convince them otherwise. What journalism can do to address this critical issue, other than to keep chipping away at the coalface, is not clear to me, especially in countries that are now so deeply and apparently irretrievably polarised as the United States – but for the rest of us, as scholars as well as citizens who live in societies where that polarisation has not yet reached such an acute point of permanent crisis, the U.S. example should serve as an urgent warning to do what we can to avoid a similar fate.

And what about scholarly publishing in this digital environment?

There is a real problem with the speed of academic publishing. Some of this is for good reason (proper peer reviewing takes some time), but some is driven instead by the fact that journal and book publishers are still working to print timelines, in a digital world. Additionally, of course, especially in our field there is also a strong interest to better utilise the interactive and visual capabilities of the online medium, rather than produce work that continues to look like print, even if it circulates primarily in PDF form. There are a number of excellent online journals that publish relatively quickly and offer open-access content (First Monday and Social Media + Society come to mind), and alternative online repositories like SSRN and arXiv are also gaining in prominence, but many of us are of course also sharing our research findings through blogs, social media, The Conversation, and Medium well ahead of the eventual peer-reviewed publications. And AoIR itself publishes the extended abstracts of the papers presented at its annual conferences in Selected Papers of Internet Research (SPIR). But there's certainly still room to do a great deal more, too.