Tracing the field

In the preceding post, I was casting around for a tool to trace and display the paths I take through ‘the field.’ My search came up short and it became apparent I would need one tool to record the places travelled and another to display those traversals. In my search for contenders, and looking for mind/concept mapping tools, I came across Although there are other similar more fully featured applications, they are often desktop-located or limited (in the free versions). seemed to suit my needs, so I thought I’d give it a try with a few of short visits to the field to see how it functioned in context.

The field configures itself in different ways depending on the approach you take, so I elected to use a couple of Twitter searches as springboards, then to simply follow the twitterstream I normally see, but using the TweetDeck application. In the latter case, I also hoped to see whether the different material environment of TweetDeck (compared with the standard interface) might influence what I see, or how I see it. With raw, tweets entering the timeline are put in a queue and await your click to release them. As I found during one of my pilot studies, if it’s taken a few minutes to read and process a few tweets, there can be a substantial number in the awaiting queue. These all then drop in on your click and processing this next batch can be a challenge. In contrast, TweetDeck is a more dynamic interface, allowing tweets to appear in your stream at the moment they have been posted. The effects are twofold: firstly it makes the task of processing them at least appear to be more manageable; and secondly you get a better sense of the flow of the ‘stream. TweetDeck also has the additional feature of allowing you to view filtered versions of the ’stream in different columns – these could be your notifications, a person’s posts, general hashtags or other search terms.


On three separate occasions then, I spent about an hour ‘in the field’ and followed interesting threads by recording them on a canvas. The features of Draw that proved useful in representing those threads included symbols to indicate the nature of the point of interest (tweet, blog post, website, article etc); being able to add the url of each point to the symbol as a hyperlink, so I or anyone else could revisit in the future; and being able to add a ‘tooltip’ with either the tweet or a brief summary, to give a flavour of the content. Importantly, each of the points of interest on the growing map could be joined by a connector – a dynamic line which moves with the graphic if it is moved. This makes the process of  editing and appending to the map so much easier. The following image will give you an idea of what the map looks like, though doesn’t provide the interactivity. However, also also allows files to be downloaded as html files, so I’ve posted the full-fat, interactive version here.

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

If you hover over the interactive online version, you can follow the links to the places I visited. In addition, you should also see (depending on your browser) a menu at the top which, for simplicity, allows the three different visits to be shown individually. You can also zoom in and out should you need to. (You might find the visualisation of the connections in a #chat in the bottom right quite interesting).


The perennial question we then always pose is ‘so what?’ We need to first bear in mind that these were only relatively brief sessions, simply as a proof of concept. However we are immediately aware of the visual element the graphic brings and the capability to quickly see the complexity of the paths traced and what led to what. We can also compare the depth of exploration with the breadth – was this a single topic being pursued relentlessly, or a skim to capture the zeitgeist? Were the stopping-off points similar or varied? How is the materiality expressing itself? These are some of the elements the map is telling me, but how does it stand as an artefact to represent my journeys to someone else?

I found myself inexorably drawn to attempting to use the map as an analytical tool to assist in interpreting the data. But is this fair? That wasn’t the purpose behind its creation, and anyway the points of interest weren’t chosen with analysis in mind. What that did make me wonder though was how useful a similar map might be of the activity of a potential participant. As a researcher, the process of analysis and interpretation might then take on much greater significance. The map you see above is unique; no-one else would have produced an identical one and at a different time, the map I would have produced would have been completely different. It transpires that this is a research method that is already, if not widely, used (Emmel, 2008) – maps are drawn by participants, usually during an interview where they narrate the map as they produce it. To do this in my online context would need some adjustment I feel, and because potential participants would be remote, there would be greater technical overhead for them. Since they would also be flicking back and forth (as I did) between different spaces, might that interfere with the paths they would usually have taken as part of their natural activity? So perhaps I inadvertently stumbled on an appropriate technique for capturing participants’ journeys when I discussed the audio method in an earlier post? Maybe I can learn something from the literature on Participatory mapping that will help me firm up my technique. I’ll add it to my ‘to do’ list.


Emmel, N. (2008). Participatory mapping: An innovative sociological method.

4 thoughts on “Tracing the field

  1. […] I was also aware that this wasn’t precisely participant observation. Although I was active in the way I normally would be in Twitter, I didn’t ask the searching questions that an ethnography in a community might do … but I’m OK with that for the pilot. Ethnographers do need time to orient themselves before leaping in. In the full study however, I will need to remedy that and attempt to engage people who are tweeting things pertinent to the study. (I also need to ensure that I do not lose the context of those encounters) […]


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