In following up my previous post, I now need to outline what the actual steps are which constitute my ethnographic approach on Twitter. My supervisor suggested I might produce it in the form of a summary which another researcher could use to conduct a similar study, however, I feel the need to set things out long-form in the first instance.
The first thing to say is that an awful lot of groundwork had already been done prior to my research proper commencing. I had already been a Twitter user for around six years and during that time I had built up a wide range of connections through the people I follow and those who follow me. There’s probably a whole post just in how those connections evolved, but perhaps a quick mention of the demographics is in order (A more detailed summary can be found here). I mainly follow educators who are mostly teachers and leaders in the primary and secondary phases of education. I suspect more of them are from the UK, though not exclusively so, however, they are almost entirely from English-speaking countries. In the last couple of years, I have begun to follow more people in higher education, especially those with a research interest in education and the social sciences more generally.
All of this earlier work has resulted in a range of connections and relationships, some stronger than others. There are some people with whom you communicate more often and whose activity you follow more closely, in just the same way you would do in a secondary school environment with over a hundred colleagues. All of those connections are in the context of education generally, but some of the closest arose as a result of my (then) responsibilities for digital technologies; that’s the area which I needed to develop and was also the area where I felt I could offer something to others. Had I still been teaching physics when I started on Twitter, then connections with science teachers might have formed more strongly.
During that time, and even now, I’ve been building a repertoire of activity: sharing things I’ve seen and done that I think others might be interested in, following similar links that others provide, asking questions, discussing issues, plain ‘hanging out,’ and in a (hopefully) limited way, engaging in what Leisa Reichelt calls ‘ambient intimacy.’ All of this needs to be accounted for and might be said to contribute to a more emic standpoint in which the norms and values of the ‘community’ become understood.
During my time on Twitter, my activity has become somewhat routinised and I do ‘visit’ daily. This generally consists of a single visit of around 15 minutes duration, usually in the evening (UK time) on weekdays, although often at other times at the weekend. If there is a specific ‘event’ that I want to participate in, like a hashtag chat, then I aim to have that in my calendar and attend at the arranged time.
To access Twitter, I have found that a medium sized (7”) tablet is my preferred method, using an app (Echofon) and seated on the couch in my living room, following my evening meal and with a cup of tea. There’s much more detail here:
As a researcher of Twitter, that activity has now been supplemented with additional practice; I guess I’ve become more … attentive and thoughtful. I tend to follow a similar routine to that of John Postill in Pink and Postill (2012), who identifies five subpractices of “catching up, sharing, exploring, interacting and archiving.” Some of this is done as IaninSheffield, the long time member of Twitter, and some of it is as IaninSheffield, the researcher.
As a Researcher
As I scan Twitter, I’m constantly looking for tweets which attract my ethnographic gaze. I’m not seeking examples of activity that might constitute professional learning; to do that would require me to have a preconceived idea of what professional learning is. That’s certainly not a problem, but I feel others have covered that ground already (Carpenter & Krutka, 2014; Davis, 2015; Skyring, 2014). Furthermore, this would presuppose that what teachers do on Twitter fits into the models we already have which describe professional learning, but it’s possible that what they do on Twitter might be different.
I decided therefore to seek examples of people discussing their professional learning in general, and specifically what they talk about regarding Twitter. So for example, this would be a tweet which caught my attention:
At the heart of this tweet is a link to somewhere else where the issue is discussed more fully, so I’d follow the link, which in this case is an article, but could easily be a blog post, video or podcast. If what I found there had something more to say about Twitter and PD/PL, I might want to simply take a note of what it said, or if I felt I needed more clarification and commenting was available, I might pose a question with a view to entering a discussion. In some cases, that one article or post might have links to other sources, so I’d follow them until the trail ran cold (no further mention of Twitter PD/PL). In the above example, I took things no further, since the article itself didn’t really help me answer my research questions.
Often, if people mentioned mentioned Twitter and PD/PL in the tweet itself, I might want to follow that up with a question. For example:
Attracted my attention and I sought to explore what Jessica meant by ‘an integral part of everyone’s CPD.’ This led to a brief exchange and Jessica providing a link to a blog post she wrote, where I followed up at greater length. This is what I’d call an informal interview (Hallett and Barber, 2014); not prearranged in the way a conventional interview might be, but clearly a research activity when compared with a casual conversational exchange.
Every so often, I’d spot a tweet pointing a more extended discussion on the topic of professional learning, like this one:
If possible, I’d then ‘attend’ the event live as both participant and researcher, contributing to the discussion and asking my own questions where appropriate. I see this as akin to an ethnographer being keen to attend an event at which people were discussing a practice or interest in which they were interested, rather than watching them engaging in the practice.
In conventional ethnographic observation, it is usual to make mental notes, or jot notes if appropriate, then work them up into more detailed field notes soon after. The digital world tends to be more ‘sticky’ than real life and traces of exchanges and events are left behind. By keeping a record of the url of tweets, posts, articles etc, I was at liberty to return to them later. I always felt there was less need to be there and record what was happening ‘in the moment,’ since many of the exchanges took place over a number of hours or even days. This asynchronicity was the accepted way that things worked, so the imperative to make rapid, accurate observations, followed up swiftly in more depth so that details didn’t become forgotten just wasn’t required. My initial notes at the time would look like this:
URLs, a brief description of the background, plus any immediate reflections. When any extended exchanges were complete, I’d then transfer the details across to MindManager to add a visual element, rather than purely textual, set of notes. Here I could expand on the preliminary notes I’d begun to write, but also add reflective comments. I’ve written more about this here.
Some exchanges involved a good number of people or went on for longer. Hashtag chats could sometimes have over a thousand contributions, so rather than record each individual tweet url manually, I would switch to automatic techniques using tools like DataMiner or TAGs which would capture all the tweets and metadata into a spreadsheet. This was never to enable a more quantitative analysis, but it did allow rudimentary social network analysis and potentially fresh insights. In essence though, it was what was being discussed through the tweets that was of more interest to me.
Point of entry
Just to backtrack slightly for a moment and to extend what I said in Daily routine. When conducting research, I’d often also use a desktop computer for more focused research episodes. If I was to attend a hashtag chat for example, this is easier when you have more screen real estate. A desktop computer also allowed me to conduct Twitter searches more easily; this meant I could extend the range of people and tweets to which I had access beyond those I followed. Typically I could conduct searches using terms like “professional development AND twitter” which would then return lists of recent tweets containing those terms. Rather than having to set up that search each time I wanted to conduct it, instead I used Tweetdeck and set up columns which returned tweets with different search terms:
Since tweets with these terms are not rolling out at the rate of hundreds per second, I could return to Tweetdeck every so often and check through to see whether there were any new tweets that might be worth recording or exploring further. This also meant that observations of a sort could be taking place during my absence; I didn’t have to ‘be there’ to see everything, yet could still follow up interesting points with the tweet authors should I need to. For example:
Another way in which lines of enquiry sometimes opened up is when people on Twitter who know me and know of my research interests, would bring something to my attention. This might be in the form of an @mention, or I’d be cc’d in a tweet. It might be a tweet or blog post specifically on the topic of Twitter and PD/PL, or related to a blog post I’d recently written:
I don’t think ‘key informant’ is the right term in this context; those who provided these nuggets of information are more like co-researchers. They also help to extend the range of my ethnographic gaze, since they will have access to different followers and will have different opinions about what might be significant and help me to see things I might otherwise overlook.
Another source which also occasionally yielded data I might not otherwise have come across was my RSS feeder, Feedly. I don’t use this specifically for research, but to monitor websites and blogs that I find interesting e.g. OLDaily, Data Stories and Edutalk. In the course of scanning these dozens of feeds or listening to the podcasts, stories might sometimes yield information relevant to my study like this discussion of Pedagoo, “a growing community of teachers collaboratively supporting, encouraging and sharing innovative and effective approaches to education” who use Twitter as one of the tools to achieve what they do.
Responding to the questions ‘what is the field in your study’ or ‘how are you bounding your study’ are not easy for me. As I’ve outlined above, there may be specific points of entry, but links in tweets and posts can quickly take me elsewhere on the web. My ethnographic approach needs to be responsive to what arises; ‘adaptive’ as Hine (2000, 2015) might term it. Observation is not bounded so much by geography or chronology, but the field is constructed through the actions of the ethnographer (Hine, 2008). You can’t tell a digital ethnographer in advance where to go, you can only provide possible jumping off points.
What I now need to do is to condense this into a single page summary. I’m thinking infographic …
Many internet ethnographers follow the practice of their participants offline; the online-offline distinction is increasingly blurred and the internet has become an integral part of everyday lives. Some would say that it no longer makes sense to study it in isolation. I guess that depends on what activity has attracted your attention though. If it’s ‘Twilight’ fandom or political activism, then participants are likely to be active in a way which integrates the online and offline. If on the other hand, your interest is in blogging or professional learning on Twitter, then you need to decide whether to follow up activity which diffuses offline. I made the decision not to follow the links to offline activity like TeachMeets or ResearchEd for two reasons: 1) pragmatic – I only have so much time and resource available. Incorporating an offline element to my study would have proven too demanding; and 2) fit – when the activity moves offline, it also moves away from the focus of my research questions, which are specific to activity on Twitter. The role that Twitter plays in offline activity is reduced more to that of facilitation, which is worthy of mention in it’s own right, but not, in my opinion, of detailed study
Carpenter, J. P., & Krutka, D. G. (2014). How and why educators use Twitter: A survey of the field. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 46(4), 414-434.
Davis, K. (2015). Teachers’ perceptions of Twitter for professional development. Disability and rehabilitation, 37(17), 1551-1558.
Hallett, R. E., & Barber, K. (2014). Ethnographic research in a cyber era. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 43(3), 306-330.
Hine, C. (2000). Virtual ethnography. Sage.
Hine, Christine. “How can qualitative internet researchers define the boundaries of their projects?.” (2008).
Hine, C. (2015). Ethnography for the internet: Embedded, embodied and everyday. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Postill, J., & Pink, S. (2012). Social media ethnography: The digital researcher in a messy web. Media International Australia, 145(1), 123-134.
Skyring, C. (2014). Professional learning in 140 characters. In Conference Proceedings of the Australian Computers in Education Conference 2014 (pp. 422-429). Australian Council for Computers in Education (ACCE).