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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…

Futures for Journalism

If it’s Thursday, it must be Wales: I’ve made it to the Future of Journalism conference in Cardiff, which starts with a keynote by Emily Bell. She begins by noting that discussions about the future of journalism only started in the UK with the Murdoch papers’ move to Wapping, and it has been mainly about the role of technology in the transformation of journalism; before then, there was a strong commitment to continue doing journalism as it had always been done.

Today, journalism is becoming less defined by the business models that support it, and more by the activities which it consists of – types of journalistic activity are now scattered widely across many domains. Journalism is a craft, and arguing over who might or might not be a journalism today is futile. If Julian Assange or Rebekah Brooks say they’re journalists, or a random citizen taking first-hand footage does so, who is to say they aren’t? We may gather random forms of activity, and ask whether they are journalistic, but there’s little point in doing so any more.

Making Sense of Online Media during French Presidential Elections

The next speakers at ECPR 2011 are Jean-Marc Francony and Françoise Papa, who take an information science approach. They begin by noting that their research encountered a number of major methodological difficulties – challenging problems to learn from for further research.

The Web has become more important for the communication of politics in France. TV and traditional mass media still remained the first channels of communication for political parties, and as a tool for politicians to present themselves, and Websites of political parties mainly pursued a top-down communication model in the 2007 presidential campaign, but this is slowly changing. The Web is now established as an additional channel for information; can this new media context change political communication?

Members of the European Parliament Online

The next session at ECPR 2011 is the one our paper is in, too – but we start with Darren Lilleker, whose focus is on the online communication strategies of Members of the European Parliament. One idea of this study was to examine the role which their various domestic political and media systems played in determining their communication strategies – but there was no obvious correlation at all. (Part of this might be due to the fact that all MEPs receive equal resourcing.)

So, the question becomes: what audiences are these MEPs targetting, and how? Darren and his team pursued this by examining the elements variously targetting general users, journalists, issue activists, and partisan supporters. They found that there is a sense of sophistication in using Web-based information sites; a quarter of MEPs have blogs embedded into their sites, for example, and a fair few allow comments as well (but they don’t tend to get many). Overall, the sites present a very professional picture, with very limited personal information.

Uses of the Internet in Political Campaigning in Italy

The final speaker in this ECPR 2011 session is Giovanna Mascheroni (or is it Alice Mattoni?), whose interest is in online politics in Italian regional elections during 2010. Her team developed a code book for assessing online party presence and performance during these elections, which is now also being applied to local and European elections. This included Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube as well as general online presence.

To what extent does the use of social media in Italian elections bear any traits of a convergence culture, with political debate taking on elements of transmedia storytelling involving different political actors? To what extent did candidates appropriate the interactive potential of social media?

Social Media Use by Candidates in Australian Federal Elections

The next ECPR 2011 speaker is Rachel Gibson, who focusses on online campaigning in the 2010 Australian federal election. Has the type of Web campaigning that candidates engage in changed over time, and who is using social media for their campaigning activities? And does it matter – in other words, does it convert to support?

Part of this is related to the normalisation vs. equalisation debate – does online campaigning level the playing field between larger and smaller parties, or do the larger, richer parties also spend more funds on online campaigning (and more effectively so)? Is this different again with the move from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0? And how effective are these different modes of campaigning in generating support for a party?

U.S. Political Candidates on Facebook

The next session at ECPR 2011 starts with Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, whose interest is in the performance of politicians on Facebook. There have been a few spectacular successes, of course (most obviously, Barack Obama), and social media have now become a key tool in political campaigning, but it remains unclear how widespread such successes really are. Most politicians who use social media are largely ignored, in fact.

Rasmus’s study tracked candidates in the 112 most competitive electoral districts in the U.S. House and Senate races (who might be assumed to have the most resources at their disposal, given the strong competition); however, most of them found only a relatively small audience. Engagement with candidates is concentrated on a small number of politicians; while most people (and most politicians) are online, only a few are actually successful with their online activities. These people may not be ahead of the curve as much as on top of the curve, Rasmus suggests. We should look for the implications of using online media through different lenses, therefore: by examining the institutional and indirect effects of social media in politics.

Norwegian Nationalist Parties Online

The next speaker at ECPR 2011 is Øyvind Kalnes, whose focus is on Norwegian nationalist parties online (very topical given recent events, of course). The three main nationalist parties in Norway are the Progress Party (around 16% of the votes), the Democrats, and the Coast Party (around 1% each). Local elections are coming up soon – so how are new technologies adopted by these parties?

Øyvind focussed on their online presences on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter since 2007, and also conducted interviews with key party personnel, he also engaged in some preliminary data analysis following the 22 July massacre. What is the timing and ambition of these parties’ adoption of online technologies, what interparty competition exists here, who drives these processes and what form and content does the Web presence take? How does this relate to offline politics?

Irish Parties Online in the 2011 General Election

The next presenter at ECPR 2011 is Matthew Wall, whose interest is on the 2011 Irish general election – with a specific focus on Sinn Féin. The 2011 elections reshaped the Irish party system (in response to the global financial crisis), and meant a further step for SF away from its close associations with the nationalist ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland and towards becoming a mainstream party in the Republic of Ireland.

SF has a mixed history in terms of online initiatives: they were the first Irish party to launch a Website, and had presences in Bebo and MySpace, but also still struggle to manage their message in conventional media as they’re regularly confronted with their terrorist links. Their candidates traditionally have poor individual Web presence (5% of candidates as opposed to 32% of other parties’ candidates had their own sites), and remain somewhat elusive to the media in general.

The Internet and Voting Intentions in Catalunya

The next ECPR 2011 speaker is Joan Balcells, whose interest is in the impact of the Net on voting behaviour in the 2010 Catalan elections, with a specific focus on the left, pro-independence ERC party (which was in the ruling coalition but lost substantial votes in the election: from 14% of the vote in 2006 to 7% in 2010).

The ERC is defined by its Catalan nationalism, and had a strong following amongst Internet users (in fact, pro-independence attitudes and Internet use appear to be connected). ERC competes with CiU (the mainstream Catalan nationalist party) as well as small pro-independence parties (such as SI) outside the political establishment. Where did ERC’s voters disappear to in 2010, then – to these parties, non-independence parties, or into abstention?


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