Digital Literacies

Researching New Literacies, Learning and Everyday Life

Archive for March, 2010

Connective ethnography

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Some time back, on this blog, I talked about ‘researching both ends’. this is about the need, when researching what is going on online, to take account of people’s offline contexts when they involve themselves in online text production. It is not enough to just look at what is online if you are carrying out ethnographic work, as so much of what happens online has roots in, or is influenced by offline contexts.

Fields and Kafai (2008) talk about ‘Connective ethnography’ which sounds altogether more sensible – in Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (2009). 4:47–68 They talk about how young people share knowledge in on and off line spaces in order to progress in the virtual world Whyville.

There are those who are now beginning to reject the idea of ‘Virtual ethnography’ since off line worlds are not completely separate from online spaces – we see much evidence of the replication of off line spaces in online spaces; and we also see how online spaces are used to do the social work needed to maintain off line relationships (and I am aware here of the clumsiness of my terms offline and online lives etc.) Rybas and Gajajjala prefer the term cyberethnography – emphasising the way in which the human is behind the digital activities.

I am going to explore all this stuff as it relates not just to the importance of getting the methodology right, but also to the whole issue of identity as it relates to digital activities.

Written by DrJoolz

March 29th, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Public Displays of Connection*

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*(Title refers to a paper: PublicDisplays)

Interviewing a group of 17 – 18 year old students about their uses of Facebook yesterday reminded me of a few things. Firstly, that there are a great many ways of engaging with the same thing; secondly, that even if the activities that young people are involved in over time might change superficially, young people remain pre-occupied with the same identity and social issues as ever.

Before I explain, I think maybe I should say that I don’t think I will try to discuss anything and audio record it, with as many as eight people again! That aside, it was very useful to have done this, as it reminded me of the dynamics that exist amongst young people who are attending courses together and how they banter and tease etc etc This was a good reminder of the meatspace stuff that inevitably filters into the Facebook activities.

Number one finding – the students all told me that they did not like completing their Facebook profiles; most had only put in their name, photo, date of birth and city where they live. After that, they say they rarely update their status; they do not write on their wall, and don’t like it when others do so. They said they mainly chat on the instant messaging facility in Facebook and that they also join groups. The groups are for joining and looking at , but they rarely write anything. They spend a lot of time looking at girls’ photos, talking with each other about them and trying to get the girls to ‘add’ them as friends. So my first point is that while there is a lot of looking, & some reading happening, there is not much writing or much straying across to lots of other sites to get links etc

The boys are making lots of collections however; they have lists of which groups they belong to (automatically created by Facebook) and they can display, in their ‘friends’ section, the profile pictures of the girls they have managed to add; there is something here of the collector; the groups are about funny things and the girls are to do with sexuality. (Many of the pictures of the girls’ pix are sexually provocative etc). These are the public displays of connection the boys seemed keen to share on their Facebooks.

This was all a really fascinating wake up call for me and reminded me of stuff I had been writing about ten years ago for my PhD thesis around boys’ demonstrations of hetero-normative masculinity in school…. (Paper here: expressionsofgender)…. In the classroom, I noticed these demonstrations had to be made on a regular basis, so that they would be construed always as ‘proper’ male and as heterosexual. In the classroom, such displays were often highly disruptive, anti-academic and anti feminist. In being interviewed, in showing me the Facebook pages, the students continued to banter the whole time, licking each other into shape, making each other behave in the hetero- normative ways. I liked this group of kids; don’t get me wrong. But they are a far cry from the Facebooking people I had been envisaging for a while – who have been writerly, keen on presenting themselves in text and looking for alternative possibilities. These boys were reflecting their college selves into their Facebook selves, that’s true. But the digital revolution is not one that is transforming these essential aspects of young men.

When I have managed to transcribe the recordings, there will be more to say no doubt.

Below we have a piece from Charlieissocoollike – with his take on teenage boys. Charlie is clearly VERY middleclass and has now, I noticed, got an international following of adoring girls. These girls make video responses to his films and echo many of the techniques that he sees in his work. A fascinating cultural phenomenon – we see some memes across these videos – some of which are multimodal – but I do not see Charlieissocoollike as demoonstrating anything like what is typical in Internet use. Anyhow – have a laugh at this:

There is something very Adrian Mole and certainly very English in all this. Now a video response from a fan in Australia ….


Written by DrJoolz

March 26th, 2010 at 11:37 am

Wireless, Blogs, SNS and teen use

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Kristen Purcell from Pew Internet Research has this today:

I wonder if the statistic about using the Internet more if you are a ‘wireless’ user indicates that having wireless facility MAKES you use the Internet more .. or if it is that you get wireless as you are already mad crazy about online stuff. Prob a bit of both. We ‘went wireless’ approx seven years ago … just as we had so many people in the house using the Internet and could not afford to put routers everywhere. then we gradually all got laptops and drag them round the house with us, room to room. We take our computers with us when we go away, storing all our vital stuff and our stuff that seems vital (but probably isn’t).

I am not surprised that the SNS usage is most popular amongst the young (73% se SNS); while those going into Virtual Worlds is just 8%. I would have liked to have seen stats on gamers too… we hear often in the popular press about the huge sales of video games and about the immersive activites of gamers. But I think the gamers get attention as they are SO immersed and that involvement in game is extra to Real Life stuff … as opposed to augmentive of, RL stuff. Gamers seem to use the computer to ESCAPE, while SNS people use it to KEEP IN TOUCH.

In the February 2010 report, Social Media and Young Adults, Amanda Lenhart, Kristen Purcell, Aaron Smith, Kathryn Zickuhr explain that:

Two Pew Internet Project surveys of teens and adults reveal a decline in blogging among teens and young adults and a modest rise among adults 30 and older. In 2006, 28% of teens ages 12-17 and young adults ages 18-29 were bloggers, but by 2009 the numbers had dropped to 14% of teens and 15% of young adults. During the same period, the percentage of online adults over thirty who were bloggers rose from 7% blogging in 2006 to 11% in 2009.

Again, I am not surprised… when I was looking at young people’s uses of Diaryland and of personal websites on servers like, Web 2.0 had not really arrived in the way it now has. We can produce bite size (byte size) chunks of text, that is ephemeral and possible to generate while on the move. The early versions of blogs were hard work and actually I think were used by those who already loved writing (or would have done if digital processing were not an option). Maybe they were for the ‘writerly’ type of young person. Now, with blogs being a bit more accepted, a bit more embedded in the culture, the oldies have taken them on and they are being used by them as ways of indulging their writing desires. But also those who blogged as teens in the early millenium years may now be in their twenties and some of them will be blogging still. SNS sites allow you to drop by, do something else and then drop by again. They allow for in and out attention, as opposed to blogs which tend to ask for sustained work.

looking forward to reading the report later.

Travelling to London

Written by DrJoolz

March 22nd, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Ethical Research Methods

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A few weeks ago we had a post-graduate research day for the Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth at Sheffield. The theme was Children as Participants in Research – with an emphasis on involving young people in the research process. The idea is, that by involving participants in the research process, such as collaborating with them about what to look at, how to analyse, collecting data, and so on, it makes the whole business of research more open and respectful – therefore more ethical.

I do agree that it is good to involve research participants – and I also think that children and young people are more likely to be overlooked in the consultation process. Indeed, the theme for the day’s event was chosen by me (as co-ordinator for post graduate events in the Centre.) So while I offer some reservations in this post, I do at the same time, believe that it can be really good to collaborate with others when carrying out research and I do believe it is a good idea – but it is not essential for ethical work.

We should be cautious. It is not always going to be the case that research participants WANT to be active in gathering data, even making up research questions and so on. They may like to be involved in a research project but may not have an interest further than that. Just because we as researchers are interested in data analysis and so on, does not mean our research participants necessarily are. In this case, I think that we need to respect those people who do not want to collaborate with us, and we should respect researchers who do not always involve participants – it may be that there are good reasons not to do so. I think we can be over zealous sometimes and almost seem as if we are bludgeoning people to become involved – in order to make an ethical point for the methodology section of our articles!

Secondly, the postgrad. day seemed to involve a LOT of ethnographic research; this method has a lot to recommend it in terms of ethics alone. The method, involving multiple ways of gathering data over a long period of time, typically with the researcher getting ‘immersed in the field’ and aiming to acquire a ‘thick description’ of what is happening. Data might include, photos; video; audio recordings of events; notes jotted down; selected items from within the field – pictures drawn by people, notes made; in fact evidence may be items produced by the participants or by the researcher. Data for an ethnography could be virtually anything from within the field and which seems to be of significance to the research focus.

I have carried out a number of ethnographic studies looking at online spaces – such as Flickr and also eBay and Blogs. In doing so I have spent ages looking at the online space, tracing threads across the sites, talking to people involved in the sites and so on. The method attempts to try and eliminate that whole “researcher superiority” thing; it does not set up experiments and look at how people react. It looks at what people are doing in context and seeks to understand what happens ‘naturally’, as life goes on. Intervention is anathema to the ethnographer because it is about understanding the culture as it is. To do an experiment of some kind, or to even ask a series of questions from a list would be seen as intrusive, forcing a paradigm or values system on the data. Ethnography seeks to understand how the people of a particular culture operate and what THEIR values are; o have a list of questions brings in your own framework or way of seeing. In ethnography, researchers don’t take the moral high ground and try not to impose their values . I like doing ethnography and you can end up feeling very involved in the research project with this method. I like it as a method… but it is just one way of looking.

It is important in analysing for an ethnography that you try to understand the values of the people in the research space. To do this well, you need to be able to try and put aside your preconceived ideas of the culture and the people. You need to try and come to it without judging and this is very hard as it requires a lot of honesty from the researcher about who they are, what values they have, and what influences the way they interpret what is happening. I think the difficulty involved in being circumspect should not be underestimated.

I have therefore recently been thinking that I also like the approach where people are interviewed and where the researcher does NOT necessarily hang around all the time. This is because in interviews the research participants never forget that they are being researched and therefore can control what they let the researcher know (very important in terms of ethics); secondly that the researcher does not hang around for ages in places where people want to feel private. With interviews or questionnaires, the participants KNOW at all times what the researcher is looking at and can more easily object – unlike when the ethnographer takes notes that the participants may not be aware of, or takes a picture that the participant was not expecting, etc.

My example is my planned research on Facebook; I will only be interviewing young people. I will not look at their Facebook without them present and I will not keep going back to talk to them. I want to let them get on with their lives and not feel that they are being watched by some weirdo researcher lurker. This is a new way of researching for me and I hope it is going to be OK. (Usually I am a weirdo lurker researcher).

Here are some birds hunting for stuff too … (thanks Ahmed for sending me this picture)

Photo by Ahmed Frewan: Birds

So all in all, I think that we should not assume that participants who agree to be in our research project actually want to DO the research; secondly I would like like to say that in some instances, what might appear to be less sensitive, procedural research, (eg interviews) might sometimes be construed as more sensitive.

Written by DrJoolz

March 21st, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Shopping in Second Life…. where appearances count

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Shopping in Second Life: The point of view of an academic working in the field of New Literacy Studies

This week I have undergone a process that might be referred to as ‘blinging up my Second Life avatar’. Less than a week ago my avatar, (me?) was wandering around the University of Sheffield Education space in its (I now realize) pitiful looking ‘system’ shoes, hair, skin and clothes. I had skulked around in the safety of the education buildings where my colleagues were grown up , discrete and quiet about my lack of self-awareness.

In Infolit iSchool I have attended regular meetings and treated the space as if it were some kind of Skype facility – talking with colleagues, planning a funded seminar series and conference. I just concentrated on getting the voice facility to work; not bumping into things and on talking about the business in hand. I tried to disregard the idea of myself as a physical being in the space and just thought about what I wanted to say and making the communication work. I had noticed that others at these meetings, more experienced at SL than I am, somehow looked better than my own avatar. Fitting in to the community is to some extent, about looking the part – you show you are a insider by your physical appearance. The fact that you have shed your caterpillar skin is to show that you have been about in the world a bit and have investigated the options. You have to earn some stripes – or get your wings … (to mix my metaphors).

I was not really clear about what it was that looked so ‘system’ about DrJoolz; indeed it was just this week that I discovered from Sheila Yoshikawa this look had been inscribed in the language with the term ‘system’. The word seems to belong to the same paradigm as ‘insitutionalised’ (with all the suggestions of ineptitude) but actually identifies not just a lack of individual style, but also the idea that one is not yet an insider, someone who has not moved beyond the ‘basic rations’. The person who stays looking the same way after signing up for Second Life, is the person who has ot lurked enough; who has not looked about and tried to understand the culture. Essential, if one is to show respect, maybe?.

I have spent the last couple of days hitting the shops (and the bank balance), spending my Lindens and getting freebies to my heart’s content. Here’s me out and about, scouring for bargains. I found these freebies by Hyde Park (yes that’s right.)

Meanwhile, there are always those people jangling the can trying to get you give to charity while you are out:

A strange thing has happened, which is that in getting involved in shopping activities I have started to think about my avatar as a presentation of self within the world. My engagement with shopping activities, the act of evaluating goods, selecting and buying merchandise, has meant that I have invested time, money and thought. Whilst I have selected things that are in some way close to what I would wear in Real Life, I have also been influenced by what is available in-world and by what others are wearing. That is to say, there seems to have been some kind of accommodation process happening and I have gradually started acclimatizing to the new cultural spaces in SL. And with all this I have become further aware that Second Life is not one cultural space but many, and that different ways of behaving are expected in its different domains.

I have been pulling together ideas for a presentation at the Festival of Social Sciences this week. So maybe you’ll pop by Infolit iSchool tomorrow?

Written by DrJoolz

March 17th, 2010 at 9:19 pm