SM&Society: Final Thoughts

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So the conference I’ve been looking forward to for about a year now has drawn to a close and the daily commute on the Underground has turned back into a bike ride into Sheffield. Time then to reflect back on my impressions.

My first comment would have to be how incredibly well organised everything was; from the initial call for papers, right through to the final session. Every last ‘i’ was dotted and ‘t’ crossed. Simple things like having printed 5 and 2 minute warning cards for session moderators gives some idea of the attention to detail – lots of useful tips for me as I organise our doctoral conference for later this year. The conference team, in conjunction with the local hosts are due a great deal of praise here. That said, the atmosphere was incredibly friendly and inclusive; you always felt as though you could approach anyone and talk about anything.

I felt the structure and content worked well. Although in a couple of sessions, I found it difficult to choose an appropriate theme and perhaps didn’t always get it right, within each session there would nevertheless be one or two of the papers which provided unanticipated gems. I was grateful for the opportunity to listen to some of the foremost academics in the field and hadn’t appreciated precisely how accessible they are at events like these. I did get the sense that I attended more sessions that presented work built on quantitative methods, but that could doubtless be down to the choices I made, rather than a reflection of the overall spread. It struck me how much research into social media seems to use survey methods as the primary instrument, or of course SNA. Given the nature of the medium, it’s easy to see why that is, though each further study I listened to where a survey had been used left me wondering why digital ethnographic techniques aren’t used more.

Maybe it’s my age, but I found the days quite exhausting; from 8.30 through to 5.00 (longer on the poster day) whilst trying to keep your mind sharp proved quite fatiguing. For me, I think it was the sheer rate of metal processing needed to maintain focus in sessions where four presentations followed in rapid succession. Even during break times you invariably had to stay sharp as you discussed previous or forthcoming sessions with fellow attendees, or indeed your work or theirs. In many of the talks presenters talked incredibly quickly, attempting to squeeze in as much detail as possible, thus requiring you to maintain an incredibly high level of focus. I’m sure that on some occasions I failed, as I hurriedly tried to capture a few notes, and keep up with the barrage of fresh information. In part this was down to the brevity of the allocated time slots, but then if the number of sessions were reduced, fewer people would have the opportunity to present. I guess I just felt it was a shame that those who were presenting ‘work in progress’ and seeking feedback, had a scant couple of minutes in which to receive it; one question at best. Not an easy one to resolve, but it’s encouraged me to think carefully about how I might structure the messages I wish to convey in sessions I deliver. If I’m only given 20 minutes in total and I really want some feedback, then I need to think carefully how I divide up the time.

Presenting certainly occupied my mind in more ways than one. Now that data from my pilot has started to come in, I’ve started thinking of possible places I might present my findings. The SM&Society conference would have certainly been an option had it been somewhat later, but what other forums might also be appropriate? Clearly those which have themes dedicated to professional development or professional learning. Possibly digital methods? Social media? Or could I make a case for more general sociological events? So in addition to all the other benefits I’ve enjoyed at the Conference, it’s also encouraged me to consider exactly where my research is positioned.

I’d love to be going to Toronto next year, but I’m afraid the pockets are unlikely to be that deep.

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SM&Society Day 3: Graveyard slot

It’s never easy retaining an audience and maintaining their interest at the end of the day, let alone at the end of a three day programme. Nevertheless the group presenting the papers in the ‘Organisations and Workplaces’ session did a great job.

In the opening paper, Halvdan Haugsbakken reviewed research in social media use in organisations. Anita Greenhill and Jamie Woodcock discussed at project looking at crowdsourcing practice in ‘Zooniverse;’ clearly a very different kind of organisational practice. From the Netherlands, Anita Batenburg considered Virtual Communities of Practice created by organisations in the health care sector and Lene Pattersen looked at the ‘villages’ which formed in a globally connected organisation.

With the exception of Halvdan’s study, the online spaces we might usually recognise as social media were absent in these papers; instead the platforms were created by the organisations to provide social media functionality. Although it didn’t crop up (and I only thought about it writing this post!), I wonder how far we can claim institutional platforms as social media, when although they provide some of the social functionalities, they’re internally facing?

There were a number of elements which came together to make this one of the most successful sessions of the conference for me. First, although my research is focused more closely on individuals, the activity with which they’re involved is clearly related to their workplace, so everything I heard had relevance. Secondly, the papers covered a broad range of issues and topics, and did that through a variety of methods. We had a review of the literature, network analysis, surveys, interviews and an ethnography, all of which spoke to me multiple methods inclinations. Finally, and I’m sure this is something the conference organisers aim for, there was a clear theme which ran through all the talks and drew them together: knowledge sharing practice, motivations and value for all involved. This allowed the speakers to reference what was emerging in each other’s talks.

Most importantly for me, this package of talks suggested a number of avenues that might be fruitfully explored, including voluntaristic materialism, how and where is value being produced, self-determination theory, technol stress and key informant methodology. (I list them here so I can’t forget them!)

SM&Society Day 3: Networks

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Early in my study, I toyed with the idea of conducting social network analysis as the means to explore how people might be interconnected online and what implications different forms of connection might cause.. I attended this session to push the boundaries of my knowledge somewhat and see how researchers are using network analysis techniques; was there something I’ve missed as I’ve moved away from my original plan?

The range of topics were suitably eclectic and spanned: audience brokerage by the media in Spain; sustaining a car enthusiast online community in Thailand; what we can begin to learn from the whole Twittersphere of Australia; and the structures of online communities in Russia. Silvia Majo-Vazquez, Shih-Yun Chen, Axel Brun and Yuri Rykov took us around the world in just over an hour.

Interesting though the tools, techniques and topics were, it helped me to recognise two things about my own research. Firstly, that this isn’t a method that can easily be bolted on to my study without a major commitment to understanding the theory behind the way the tools work and the meanings of the emergent patterns in the data. I suspect I could achieve a surface understanding and capability, but I’m not entirely sure I could get to the stage where I could defend myself in a viva. Moreover, I’m not at all convinced that a network understanding would be appropriate for my study, given the turn in my thinking.

SNA sure produces entrancing pictures, but would they reveal anything about the realities of my participants?

SM&Society Day 2: Poster session

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Day 2 closed with the poster session; a wonderfully warm, welcoming and informative session, made all the more hospitable by the delightful buffet.

Many of the posters summarised talks which had already (or were about to be) presented, so it made for a useful refresher and a chance to capture some of the details which might have been missed. More importantly however, it was the chance to talk with presenters who, due to the tight schedule, weren’t provided with much time to answer questions at the close of their talk. From a personal perspective, I often need a little more time after a presentation to process what’s been said before I feel in a position to seek further clarification – if a concept or data being presented isn’t clear, my default response is that I’ve missed something (‘Imposter syndrome’ still doing its job!). So having the chance to return to an issue and discuss it under more relaxed circumstances was most welcome.

Although I talked with a number of people, the person I really wanted to catch was Claudine Bonneau who was presenting a poster summarising her research findings on ‘Working out Loud.’ I was grateful for the opportunity to discuss some of her findings at greater length, especially how ‘backstage’ work and activities normally invisible to external gaze are made more visible. I’m particularly intrigued as to what the effects of making this work visible might be, both in terms of the learning of the person making their work manifest, and on those who form the audience for it. How does this fit with professional learning? Claudine’s work is still in progress, so it will be interesting to see what arises from the forthcoming interviews.

SM&Society Day 2: Visual Social Media

I attended this session, like some of the others, to find out more about issues in areas with which I’m less familiar. I know that visual media form part of the data i encounter, but until my assignment for the Discourse Analysis module I recently completed, had given little thought to their significance. In the opening paper, Dianne Rasmussen Pennington posed the idea that sources of data other than text might offer potential, but in order to access the meaning they convey, we may need to look to methods we’re less familiar with.

Ivo Furman described the situation regarding suppression of communications media by the government in Turkey. Facebook and Twitter tend to be ‘turned off’ during times of crisis; at other times, trolls are employed by the government to create disinformation and discourage others. Instagram, for the moment, presents an unfiltered channel through which to communicate, as indicated during the Pride march last year. The use of images, memos and innovative hashtag behaviour have all been employed to circumvent tools of repression.

In a paper with plenty of amusing anecdotes, Kate Miltner and Tim Highfield presented their research into ‘reaction GIFs’ as performative tools through which to respond in online exchanges. So, if you wanted t indicate how your thesis was progressing you might respond with:

And finally, Yimin Chen answered the question that had been on all our lips ‘When does the narwhal bacon?’ by looking at memes, how they spread and how we can use them as a sort of group identity marker.

These were all well presented papers; interesting, informative … and witty. Although I couldn’t see a direct connection with my study, what they nevertheless served to do was to ensure that I keep the media they were discussing in mind. They may prove to be significant in my data, and had I not attended the session, might have missed them completely. For me, sessions like this are about reminding me to attend to detail and remain open to possibilities.

SM&Society Day 2: Academia

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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 2: Identity, Professions, Institutes and Culture

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Finola Kerrigan and Kathryn Waite opened this session with a talk on a rather different research strategy involving filmic methods in exploring online identity. Essentially a competition was launched in which participants were to produce a short film illustrating their online behaviours, but also explaining their rationale, choices and techniques to the research team. This could then be used as a reflective device for those conducting research using similar methods.

Marc Miguel-Ribé’s explanation of the differences which arise in different Wikipedias as a result of cultural differences was fascinating. Although aware that there are different language versions of Wikipedia, I’d never really considered the implications of different authorship on the knowledge that’s constructed. The knowledge regarding a particular phenomenon that’s assembled on one Wikipedia might express a completely different view from that on another. This is not only because the authors on the two pages will be different, but because they’re also likely to be from different cultures with different worldviews. This certainly hit home for me in terms of the way that’ll reflect on the ‘knowledge’ that emerges from participants in my own studies.

In the final presentation of the session, I was introduced to the concept of the ‘greedy organisation’ by Kim van Zoest and Sietske de Ruijter and the additional factors police officers are obliged to consider have when using social media. Their employers impose certain expectations, both explicitly and implicitly. This took me back to my life as an employee, where signing my contract of employment included agreeing to never conduct myself on online in a way which might embarrass my employing organisation. As Kim and Sietske pointed out, social media and digital connectivity means organisations are increasingly reaching into our personal spaces.

Although each paper was interesting in its own right, I’m not sure how well they sat together; but then it can’t be easy for conference organisers to gather all the submitted papers into coherent themes.

 

SM&Society Day 2: Challenging Social Media Analytics

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Susan Halford provided the opening keynote and reminded us that ‘data never sleeps’ and is being generated at ever increasing scales in real time and over time. Whilst this may constitute an ‘unexpected gift’, it’s meant we’re also ‘building the boats as we row’ in terms of the way we’re gathering and analysing those data.

Susan challenged us to consider three questions:

  1. What are social media data?
  2. Where are the data produced?
  3. Why does this matter?

There is genuine concern that much of the current evangelism around Big data may have done more harm than good, leading to inflated expectations about what is possible and what we can learn. If we’re not careful, our reliance on the platforms through which we access the data may unduly influence what we find, in a host of different ways, and in ways which vary over time. Demographic and geographic data especially need treating with caution, or at least with care and in full knowledge of their limitations. Perhaps we should go beyond demographics and make a virtue of the biases, limitations and specificities inherent in the data.

I hope in a sense that is what my research is doing, where I’m focusing on a particular,  self-selecting sample, engaged in a specific activity. For me, the demographics are in some senses pre-defined – teachers who using Twitter. What their gender, religion or ethnicity is, will be of no consequence since I’ll not be classifying my results using those criteria. Or at least I never intended to, until I though about location. I’ve assumed my participants will be teachers drawn from a global population, though due to my linguistic limitations, from the english-speaking world. The keynote has encouraged me to revisit my thinking; in different places (with different cultures?), might teachers have a different view of, and approach to, professional learning using Twitter?

Susan asked Les Carr, her colleague from Southampton, to join her on stage. Amongst other things, Les pointed out that vivas inevitably ask us to justify our methods and the data they generate, and how they are appropriate for the research questions we pose. I was grateful for that reminder as I begin to think about my RF2 submission. Duly noted!

SM&Society Day 1: Small data and big data controversies

This workshop session  had us split into groups to each consider one of the six ‘V’s of big data: variety, value, volume, velocity, veracity and variability. The three hours were split in two, each part session opened by a number of speakers presenting the findings of the papers they had contributed to the forthcoming Sage Handbook of of Social media Research Methods. We were asked to consider our ‘V’ (we had Variety) in the  context of any tension between Big and small data, if indeed there was any. Our table, as it transpired, consisted of social scientists rather than computational scientists, so unsurprisingly tended to focus on the positive aspects of small data.

I found the opening presentation by Claudine Bonneau and Mélanie Millette on their ‘small’ data projects spoke to my research – very much a hands-on,  immersive, participatory approach, where tweets were collected and analysed manually. The approach within the long-term observation was described as ‘agile’, following the conversations from place to place. There’s a resonance for me in the way teachers shift between Twitter, #chats on Twitter and blogs when discussing their practice. I yet to grasp how or if I can or should incorporate the offline places where these discussions occur. There are clear sites of interest where teachers gather to discuss and share practice (TeachMeets etc); my problem however, will be whether I have the scope to chase them down.

I found the topic of ‘Working out Loud’ practice on Twitter had a close fit with my own research, although I was surprised that other professions also engaged in this practice (how insular am I?!). However, the most compelling aspect was how we ‘thicken’ small data, perhaps reducing its breadth whilst enhancing its depth.

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

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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?