Visualising ‘what I do’ … again!

One of the questions I’ve found the toughest to answer throughout my study is ‘what do you do when you do Twitter?’ Or, more specifically, ‘what does participant observation look like in the context of your research?’ I’ve previously responded at length, and have been trying to capture  a sense of what I do within a single visualisation. I’m still not convinced I’ve quite managed it, but here’s the final version which made it into the thesis:

“What I do when I do Twitter” flickr photo by IaninSheffield shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license


Rightly or wrongly, I’ve been trying to present what I did in a form that would allow someone else to follow those steps. That’s the tricky bit. What I did might not always be a good indicator of what I (or someone else) would subsequently do. The approach needs to adapt and respond to situations as they unfold, forming as it does, one of the strands within my flanography. That said, within the visualisation, I’ve attempted to portray the five general techniques which might open a session.

Starting in the centre, the quote from Schensul et al (1999) provides an overview of what the purpose of observation might be, although I’m not entirely comfortable with some aspects of it. Some would say for example that ‘collecting data’ implies the data already exist for the researcher to sweep in and hoover them up. With the sociomaterial sensibility I’ve adopted for this study, I’d be more likely to frame it as ‘assembling’ data. The data are brought into being by my actions, working with those of the participants and those of the nonhuman actors like Twitter’s algorithms, tweets, hashtags, Likes and RTs. They do not pre-exist, and become data only when I, my notes, Treeverse, TAGS, MIndView etc enact them as such.

As a participant observer on Twitter, ‘unobtrusivity’ is inevitable for much of the time, at least until you engage with fellow participants. This should not be misunderstood as ‘covert’ research; there was never any intent to deceive or remain hidden. However, there were occasions – such as during hashtag chats – when I chose not to jump in with questions. To do so, in my opinion, would have been ethically unsound, given that I would be interrupting participants who had assembled at a particular time to be involved in a chat on a particular topic, not to be badgered by some researcher. If I needed to ask questions, I waited until the chat was over.

With the quote I chose for the centre of the visualisation providing a somewhat qualified touchstone for subsequent activity, what then unfolded could take one or more of five paths. Moving out from the centre through one of the sectors provides a snapshot of one approach I might take. For example, the cyan sector shows what was usually involved during my daily scanning routine. That would mostly be done on a tablet computer, through the Echofon app . Of the five sub-practices Postill and Pink (2012) describe as ‘everyday routines of digital ethnography practice,’ when in the cyan sector, I’d be ‘catching up, sharing, exploring, interacting,’ with ‘archiving’ taking place later when back at a desktop computer. Only with the full keyboard at my disposal would I then compose jot notes, and subsequently transfer data and notes into MindView for supplementing with annotations and memos.

Through the visualisation, I’ve attempted to provide an overview of what observation involved, but in so doing, I feel I’ve lost the messy nature of day to day activity. Participant observation was never quite that tidy. Some days I might start out in one sector, then move across into another. Having missed a ‘live’ hashtag chat, I might instead pick it up through an archive. Should that have had its own sector too?

I don’t think any single visualisation could adequately describe ‘what I do when I do Twitter,’ but together, all of my different attempts help to paint the picture more (or less) clearly. I have three audiences to which I hope the visualisation will speak. Firstly there’s the examiners of my thesis for whom the vis will act as one strand within an audit trail, hopefully showing that my research was conducted with integrity. Secondly, future researchers who might be looking to critique and extend ways in which research on Twitter has been conducted. And finally there are the good folk who constituted my research participants and willingly or often unwittingly, became involved. The visualisation helps to bring to the fore, a process of which the majority of will have been unaware, but which at least opens itself to scrutiny. Producing the vis at the outset so that it could have been incorporated into participant information would have been helpful, however, the responsive approach I chose meant that some of the most useful activities only emerged as a result of conducting the study.

As I reflect on the aspirations I had for the visualisation, I remain somewhat dissatisfied. There is so much it missed, such as the convoluted paths my experiences inevitably followed. And where on the graphic was the PLDbot? The best I can hope for is that the vis: 1) opens a dialogue with those who view it, and thereby 2) continues to be a work in progress and respond to whatever new developments emerge.

Postill, J., & Pink, S. (2012). Social media ethnography: The digital researcher in a messy web.
Schensul, S. L., Schensul, J. J., & LeCompte, M. D. (1999). Essential ethnographic methods: Observations, interviews, and questionnaires Rowman Altamira.


Thinking about workplace learning

“Women operators at Midvale Company payroll machine in Time Office, April 29, 1949” flickr photo by Kheel Center, Cornell University Library shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

This is one of those posts where I need to get something out of my head and see what it looks like ‘on paper.’ I’m trying to rewrite a section in the literature review chapter of my thesis. I’ve explored workplace learning in a rather narrow way, mainly by distinguishing it from the PD literature in the way it emphasises the informal or non-formal nature of learning. I’d like to expand that into a more rounded consideration of how the literature informs my study. In this post then, I want to explore some of the definitions and conceptualisations of workplace learning, but specifically in the context of TPD – Twitter Professional Development [footnote].

The term ‘learning is used in a number of diverse and diffuse ways, compounded by the fact that it is often deployed when referring to a process and a product. Broadly speaking, there are also two competing and largely incompatible theoretical paradigms: cognitive, and socio-cultural or situational. There is no single, general account of learning and different conceptual lenses are needed, each employing different metaphors and assumptions (Hager & Hodkinson, 2009). Learning is a contested concept, so relying on a single conceptualisation will limit understanding. In what follows, I attempt to lay out some of the ways that learning has been conceptualised, and whether they may be applicable in the context of TPD.

Table of contents
Sfard’s (1998) two learning metaphors
Beckett & Hager’s standard and emerging paradigms
Fuller & Unwin’s Restrictive-Expansive framework
Lave & Wenger’s situated learning
Jacobs and Park conceptual framework
Final thoughts

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Analytical moves

In an earlier post I discussed some of the thinking behind the analytical process I was leaning towards; much of that made it into an earlier draft of the thesis. Feedback from my supervisors pointed out that detail on how I actually proceeded through the analysis was rather thin. Any reader (examiner!) would therefore not be clear about the steps I took … and therefore my thesis fails one of the characteristics I set for its integrity – that of transparency.  I’ll now attempt to set out the analytical moves I made in a little more detail.

Analysis was a multi-stage process, although not one which proceeded linearly from start to finish. Instead it involved a series of back and forth iterations moving between and across the different data sources. As data offer themselves either as words participants deliver during interviews, tweets that appear through observation, or blog posts at the end of hyperlinks, analytical seeds begin to germinate during this period of familiarisation.Read More »


Had the great good fortune to attend the Creative Research Methods Symposium at the University of Derby today.

With the majority of participants (it seemed) coming from creative, art-influenced disciplines, I wasn’t sure whether this was the right arena to talk about my research. I needn’t have worried. Apart from the main speakers, many of us were doctoral students, so had that instant shared sense of experience. And of course we were talking about our methods, which arguably has a more universal appeal.Read More »

In just one tweet?

At the interview for entry onto the PhD programme, one of the panel asked me if I could sum up my research proposal in a tweet. Although it shouldn’t have, that question stumped me at the time, but as a result, it did stick with me. A reasonable question to ask in my viva might be ‘Can you sum up your PhD in a tweet?’ Currently I’m struggling to get it under 90 000 words, so I still have some way to go! Following the first draft of my thesis, one of the feedback points was that I needed to be able to synthesise my findings into a handful of bullet points, even if I didn’t subsequently present them as such. It’s about having a distillation that’s brief enough to fit into the abstract and encapsulate what my study found, whilst leaving room for the other bits that also need to be in the abstract like the methodology, methods, theoretical approach etc. I thought I might try to go a step further and get it down to tweet length; after all, since I started the PhD, Twitter’s generously provided double the characters to play with.Read More »


“Soho London, street after rain” flickr photo by Julie70 Joyoflife shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

In earlier posts, including this one, I’ve attempted articulate what flânerie involves. Like the urban wanderer, explorer, observer and chronicler of city life, I’ve approached my research as flâneur. Initially, that was in attempting to find an alternative way of describing my ‘ethnographic’ approach to Twitter. Initially, only somewhat playfully, I called this a ‘flanography.’ More recently, I included it within my thesis; it had become a ‘thing!’ What struck me at the time, and what was recently reinforced during a supervisory meeting, was that I need to articulate clearly what distinguishes flanography from ethnography. In this post I want to thrash around a few thoughts how that might be done.Read More »

Getting it out there

I’m in the midst of a modest attempt and first few tentative steps at getting my work out there. Over the past couple of months, the details of several symposia aimed particularly at early career researchers have dropped into my Inbox. I submitted abstracts for three and was fortunate enough to have them accepted. In each case, the theme spoke to a specific aspect of my work, thereby providing an opportunity to focus on several, small aspects of my thesis.

At the beginning of June I attended “Adaptive Ethnographies for a 21st Century Sociology” arranged by the British Sociological Association at Royal Holloway, University of London. I spoke about how I’d employed visualisation for data recording and analysis as a strand within my ethnographic approach, rather than how the vis is commonly purely a presentation device. I tried to argue that analysis was an element which receives less attention than the conducting and writing of ethnographies, and that producing visualisations can be one way of supporting the analytical and interpretive processes..

“Royal Holloway facade” flickr photo by IaninSheffield shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

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Mundane practicalities of thesis writing

Having now submitted my first full draft, it became apparent how MS Word was stepping up to the mark as a tool to make life easier.  When producing a document approaching 100k words spread over 250 pages (at the moment!), swift and efficient navigation become so important. I’ve always used the navigation pane to jump between sections, even in more modest documents, but there were other aspects which also required attention.  A ‘Table of Contents’ and a ‘Table of Figures’ will also be needed to provide navigation in the printed version, then there’s page numbers, layout, styles, and bevy of other considerations. As a Microsoft Office Specialist Master, albeit one from an earlier era, I’m at least aware of where these features can be found and how they can be applied. PhD colleagues who have preceded me through the system and asked if I knew ‘how to …’ were less fortunate. Having manually numbered chapters and subsections, or tables of contents, friends were surprised to find some of the things Word could do, and somewhat shocked how much effort they could have saved.Read More »

Further Flânerie on Twitter

In a previous post, I outlined how creating an image, initially for a competition, also illustrated how that visualisation process often became an analytical (flânalytical?) technique. Having been inspired by the @metropologeny city maps, as I began planning the vis, it always struck me that tweets seemed to naturally fit the mainly rectangular shapes of the buildings on the map. In being drawn towards the tweets however, I wondered about the other data sources which were part of my study, but temporarily parked that aspect until I’d resolved the technical aspects of producing the image. Now, with that task completed and the image submitted for the competition, I now turned back to the other data. How might blog posts or interviews also contribute to the vis?

Before delving into how I moved forward, perhaps it might help to rewind somewhat and look at how the map was built in the first place. This animation shows the different stages

“Animated composite” flickr photo by IaninSheffield shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

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Quite a week

“Stourton Junction” flickr photo by IaninSheffield shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

I knew that a week away with friends at Easter would help to recharge the batteries, but was conscious that I had impending deadlines. I’d also narrowly missed my target deadline of Easter to get the first full draft of my thesis in to my supervisors, but that was my target. Last week then was all hands on deck to get a poster for the follow-up SHU SIPS doctoral poster event handed in for printing. That was followed by a concentrated effort to complete the last few thesis sections, whilst simultaneously gathering the elements I needed to assemble the image I would be handing in for the Doctoral Research Image Competition … which brings me to this week.Read More »