Untangling, then becoming entangled with #NAT5HRUAE

Hashtag. Hash … tag. A symbol and a few characters.

I was pretty sure when I wrote this post about hashtags and how they were used, that it was unfinished business. When the following tweet popped up in my timeline, I knew it was time to pay a return visit:

An initial inspection of Malcolm’s tweet reveals it to be a quote tweet (QT), in which the original tweet is embedded in full (although not shown above), together with Malcolm’s comments. (As a separate issue, perhaps the QT is one way of sidestepping the 140 character limit whilst performing interesting additional work, and is probably worthy of a post in its own right?) In the embedded tweet, we see the original hashtag to which Malcolm was referring, plus two additional hashtags that he used in his own tweet. Apart from their structural difference, are they also performing different work? Before I begin to unpick that, let me first say a little about the exchange which unfolded when I asked Malcolm whether he knew anything more about the hashtag. Now that Twitter threads an exchange of tweets, you’ll be able to follow the whole thing for yourself by clicking through to the above tweet, but let me summarise.Read More »

Tracing the spaghetti

“Tracing the field” flickr photo by IaninSheffield https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/28898253850 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Right from the start I called this visualisation ‘Tracing the field,’ unaware of the entanglements this might draw me into. I intended to provide the reader, reviewer, examiner, with a sense of my ethnographic meanderings; a trail to show where I’d been, what and who I’d encountered, what they had been doing and the ways in which they were all interconnected. An addition or enhancement to the more traditional textual field notes; one which provides an immediate sense of the whole, but which also provides quick access to the detail – a virtual zoom button. Given the functionalities within graphical drawing packages, it would also be possible to go a step further and provide hyperlinks back to the stopping points, the forks in the road. So in a similar way to how field notes recall and reflect on one’s experiences, my ‘Tracing’ would do the same and invite a reader to explore those steps . The problem was my choice of words.Read More »

It must be a sign …

“Tracing the field” by IaninSheffield https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/28898253850 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

In my most recent doctoral supervision meeting, I briefly mentioned how I’m recording/tracking the paths I’m taking as I conduct my ethnographic observations. For me, it’s a way to visualise where I’ve been, when I was there, what I saw, what I thought; an alternative to the more traditional, textual field notes (which I’m also keeping by the way). In the meeting, I innocently referred to the process as ‘tracing the field,’ as I have done here in the past. Oh dear! I’d used one of those … ‘little words;’ in fact I’d compounded the problem by also mentioning mapping and representing. Once again I’d committed the sin of using words which may be fine to use in everyday contexts, but which in academic discourse, require much more unpicking. The upshot was that I needed to establish what I meant by these terms. To go away and read, then perhaps write a blog post. Here is the first; I suspect I may need another … or more!Read More »

Busy as a … hashtag?

“Hashtag” by Kejava https://flickr.com/photos/14296351@N00/9741003119 is licensed under CC BY-NC

The hash (#) sign may only be a symbol, but when combined with a folksonomical tagword, it becomes one of the hardest working actors within the Twitter ecosystem.

It’s generally accepted that the origin of the hashtag can be traced back to a single tweet

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Sentiment … ality?

During my pilot studies, a couple of findings suggested areas for further exploration I’d not previously considered. One of these was the degree to which people talking or writing about Twitter seemed to be ‘affected.’ Although it was not a topic I had gone looking for, nor had asked questions about, and although people rarely mentioned it explicitly, the language and terms they used implied some element of emotional response. Before I could take this much further, I needed to return to the literature and see how people have discussed and/or researched the affective side of teacher learning.

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To do is to be?

flickr photo by benwerd https://flickr.com/photos/benwerd/224640792 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Next Saturday is the 2016 Sheffield Institute of Education Doctoral Conference; I’m both co-organiser and  presenting a seminar. With my pilot study completed, and following a successful Confirmation of PhD seminar, I had a lot of potential topics from which to choose. In a weaker moment, I thought I’d talk about my preliminary findings, as revealed by the sociomaterial sensibility that Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is enabling me to bring. The tricky part is that I’ve been wrestling with conceptual approach all year. I guess that’s why I chose to use it to frame my talk; at some point I have to lay out my understanding to scrutiny so that any weaknesses are exposed and I can begin to do something about them. Unfortunately I only have 30 minutes in which to discuss my findings, AFTER having introduced a perhaps unfamiliar audience to ANT, using my only limited (current) understanding. Here then, with only the space afforded by a brief blog post, I’ll attempt to summarise what I intend to cover.

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Dissonance between teachers’ beliefs and practice … and what that might cause

I was reading an edited collection over the weekend (Teachers Learning: Professional Development and Education, McLaughlin, 2012) and a connected pair of papers particularly struck a chord. Authored by Darlene Opfer and David Pedder, they discuss observations arising from the large-scale State of the Nation review of teacher CPD, and in which they explore teachers’ likelihood of change as a consequence of their orientation to learning. In particular, whether dissonance between teachers’ values and beliefs, and their experience and practice acts to stimulate or repress the need to undertake professional learning. This was precipitated by the observation that, though we know quite well now those features associated with effective professional development, we still find occasions where even when those features are present, some people don’t learn, yet at other times, in absence of those features some people still learn.

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Tootling along

When you approach your research with an actor-network sensibility, the one thing that you’re pretty much guaranteed to have absorbed through your reading, is to ‘follow the actors’. The principles in virtual or digital ethnographies similarly encourage you to follow connections and flows; an arguably much easier proposition in the online hyperlinked world than in the offline. It was these approaches that led me to #TootlingTuesday.

Using NVivo, I was working through my first coding pass of a corpus of tweets when a particular tweet caught my eye. A single click on the url of that tweet took me out of NVivo and into my browser so I had a better chance to see it in context. The tweeter’s bio suggested this might be someone I could benefit from following, so, following my usual algorithm, I did a quick check of their last few tweets to confirm that they tweeted interesting material. In their stream I spotted a reference to #TootlingTuesday which further piqued my interest. This was a hashtag I’d not come across before, so I clicked on it to initiate the Twitter search page. A scan through the returned tweets revealed them to mainly be celebrating or praising what other’s had done or said or shared. But I was keen to know more and see whether my interpretation was correct, so #TootlingTuesday next migrated into a Google search. Although the search results didn’t provide much background, one image which was returned helped a little:

(If you know the origin of this image, please let me know in the comments)

Different search engines were even less helpful, so unfortunately on the basis of the ten minutes I spent, somewhat ironicaIly, I’m therefore unable to credit the originator … or even the designer of the image. If I desperately needed to know, my next step would be to follow it up with some of the folks who’ve been using the hashtag.

When I reflected back, what was interesting was the way in which my actions had been influenced by the materiality within the environments. Initially a tweet appropriated my interests which took me to a person’s Twitter account, where I sought out the standard elements I always draw on; in this case the bio and the twitterstream. From a tweet within there, the #TootlingTuesday hashtag mobilised me into further action to seek its origins. I now needed to employ several search engines. Most of these acted only as intermediaries, briefly taking my inputs, but failing to transform them into anything more meaningful. Google images however became a mediator, serving up further information which transformed my knowledge and understanding of the hashtag – I was changed as a result of the output of the Google search. Are the #TootlingTuesday hashtag and I now part of each other’s actor-networks?

I find myself speculating on each of the transition points where that sequence of activity might have broken down after seeing the original tweet. If the person’s bio, or subsequently their twitterstream had not satisfied my criteria for sustaining interest (perhaps I ought to lay them out at some point?), or if I had not scrolled down sufficiently far, then I would not had seen the tweet containing the hashtag. If it had not been a Wednesday (i.e. just after Tuesday) then the tweet or one similar might have been too far back in the temporal flow of the stream. If the hashtag had not been of interest, or not a hyperlink through which I could immediately access Twitter’s search page and thereby instantly form an impression. If at least one search engine had been unable to provide a significant piece of the puzzle. Is it coincidence that these elements all lined up? Or serendipity? I wondered too about the ways in which other people are enrolled by the #TootlingTuesday hashtag and different paths they take and outcomes which result. Perhaps that’s all part of the richness and variety of learning experiences on Twitter … or anywhere else?

Finally in a more methodological reflection, one might assume that when dealing with a tweet corpus, you’ve left the field and are back in ‘the office’ analysing the data. In one sense that’s of course true, but in digital ethnography, you’re never more than a click away from being back in the field.

SM&Society Day 2: Academia

flickr photo by ianguest https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/28234738596 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

In the post break session,  four papers, each a work-in-progress, on the broad topic of social media in academia were given. I couldn’t help but notice two things: how they all drew from higher education contexts (perhaps that’s simply what ‘academia’ is) and how they were oriented towards the activities which lead to the production of data.

The first looked at the individual and collective factors contributing to use of social media by/in research teams. The second considered how imagined audience influenced social media participation. Next we heard how iSchool faculty members are connected by and participate in social media. Finally Sian Joel-Edgar explained the part played by social media in engineering student design teams.

Each seemed to be concerned, to different degrees, with what data were being produced. Additionally, how the data were produced, what the reasons for that were and in some cases, what outcomes there might be for the producers. All valuable information, but I was left wondering why the subjects (apologies for that term) might engage in the activity they do, and what the effects or impact might be on the recipients or audiences of their activity. Reflecting in this way helped me recognise and acknowledge my research philosophy which leans far more towards the interpretivist paradigm and exploring why a phenomenon is as it is, rather than what is occurring or how.

I know that conference attendees are largely from higher education contexts, but again I wonder where the studies are which, whilst still from educational contexts, focus their attention on different phases. The work is out there, but clearly not coming to the conference. Given what I said earlier, I’m pondering why that is? Are the topics presented in the conference from a higher educational context because that’s where conference audiences are from, or simply that’s where the researchers are? What (or where) are the audiences for research arising in different contexts? Now it’s occurred to me, I’ll be wanting to see whether that continues throughout the remainder of the conference.

SM&Society Day 1: Conceptual Challenges in Interdisciplinary Social Media Research

flickr photo by ianguest https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/28144230192 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Following welcomes and the opening address by Evelyn Ruppert to set the scene, the first day consisted of workshops.

Although billed as a workshop, the unforeseen absence of a key player meant this session became more of a panel discussion. With such esteemed and knowledgeable panellists as Evelyn Ruppert, Susan Halford and Les Carr, and chaired by Mark Carrigan, we were nevertheless unlikely to be short-changed.
Evelyn opened the batting, providing a brief history of ‘Big Data’ and how the term became accepted by and incorporated into the academy. The field of practices which address it are still emerging, but invariably demand a range of capabilities, hence the need for interdisciplinary teams. When the data are gathered, analysed and patterns begin to emerge, it is often the social scientist who helps to provide the interpretation. Whilst the computational or algorithmic elements of this often need to be black-boxed by the social researcher, perhaps the reverse might be true for a data scientist who is unaware of the social issues (even if unwittingly?). This then encouraged us to consider whether there is too much black-boxing and what the effects of this might be on our analyses.

Susan and Les shared what they learned from their interdisciplinary experiences of setting up Web Science doctoral and other programmes. The substantive theoretical commitment required in a venture of this sort can potentially generate an initial set of hurdles to overcome; people from different disciplines inevitably bring to the table very different ontologies and epistemologies. Computational specialists for example have a much narrower theoretical base from which to draw, but in addition to the multiplicity that social scientists have to contend with, there’s also the degree to which different theories may be applied depending on the questions asked. For many computational specialists, the work often ends with the user; for the social scientist, that is where it begins.

When opened to the floor, the discussion ranged far and wide, but the difficulty of attempting interdisciplinary work was made only too clear. In particular the significance of power imbalances between disciplines and how they may be competing for cultural capital within the academy. How some disciplines are blessed with apparently greater status historically because of the research publication processes or the ease with which they’re able to draw down funding for research. The silo mentality which then arises makes interdisciplinarity so much more difficult. This left me wondering whether there might be a case for addressing this at an earlier stage in the academy? At undergraduate level perhaps? I appreciate my naivety is doubtless getting the better of me, but I can’t help being taken back to my undergraduate years at the end of the 70s. Materials Science, the subject I chose, was very much the infant (interdisciplinary) sibling to the big brothers and sisters of metallurgy, ceramics and polymer science. I get the impression that, with the decline in heavy industry the UK has experienced in the intervening time, and the extent to which new composites have become significant, interdisciplinary Materials Science may have come of age. Perhaps other disciplines might have something to learn?