Time for some Research Zen

As the new semester kicks into gear and work deadlines loom, I find myself ready for a moment of research zen.

2012-12-16 14.18.00

Let’s take a minute to stand in a stream and think about the water. Feel the flow of the water over your feet and by your calves. Feel the pull of constant motion. Feel yourself sink against the current, rooting deeper to keep steady. Breathe the clean outdoor air. Observe the clouds and watch the way the sky reflects in the water in the stream. The stream is not constant. The water passing now is not the water that passed when you started, and the water that passes when you leave will be still different. And yet we call this a stream.

As I observe sources of social media, thinking about sampling, I’m faced with some of the same questions that the stream gives rise to. Although I would define my sources consistently from day to day, their content shifts constantly. The stream is not constant, but rather constantly forming and reforming at my feet.

For a moment, I saw the tide of social media start to turn in favor of taxi drivers. In that moment, I felt both a strong sense of relief from the negativity and a need to revisit my research methods. Today I see that the stream has again turned against the drivers. I could ignore the momentary shift, or I could use this as a moment to again revisit the wisdom of sampling.

If I sample the river at a given point, what should I collect and what does it represent? How, when the water is constantly moving around me, can I represent what I observe within a sample? Could my sampling ever represent a single point in the stream, the stream as a whole, or streams in general? Or will it always be moments in the life of a stream?

In the words of Henry Miller, “The world is not to be put in order. The world is in order. It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order.” In order to understand this stream, I need to understand what lies beneath it, what gives it its shape and flow, and how it works within its ecosystem.

The ecosystem of public opinion around the taxi system in DC is not one that can be understood purely online. When I see the reflection of clouds on the stream, I need to find the sky. When I see phrases repeated over and over, I need to understand where they come from and how they came to be repeated. In the words of Blaise Pascal “contradiction is not a sign of falsity, nor the lack of contradiction a sign of truth.” No elements in this ecosystem exist independent of context. Each element has its base.

Good research involves a good deal of reflection. It involves digging in against currents and close observation. It involves finding a moment of stillness in the flow of the stream.

Breathe in. Observe carefully. Breathe out. Repeat, continue, focus, research.

Fertile soil from dry dirt. Thank you, Netherlands!

The mood workshop (microanalysis of online data) in Nijmegen last week was immensely helpful for me. In two short days, my research lost some branches and grew some deeper roots. Definitely worth 21+ hours of travel!

Aerial shot of Greenland. Can't tell where the clouds end and the snow and ice begin!

Aerial shot of Greenland. Can’t tell where the clouds end and the snow and ice begin!

The retooling began early on the first day. My first, burning question for the group was about choosing representative data. The shocking first answer: why? To someone with a quantitative background, this question was mind blowing. The sky is up, the ground is down, and data should be representative. But representative of what?

Here we return to the nature of the data. What data are you looking at? What kind of motivated behavior does it represent? Essentially, I am looking at online conversation. We know that counting conversational topics is fruitless- that’s the first truth of conversation analysis. And we know that counting conversational participation is usually misguided. So what was I trying to represent?

My goal is to track a silence that happens across site types, largely independent of stimulus. No matter what kind of news article about taxis in Washington DC, no matter the source, the driver perspective is almost completely absent, and if it is represented the responses are noticeably different or marked. I had thought that if I could find a way to count this underrepresentation I could launch a systematic, grounded critique of the notion of participatory media and pose the question of which values were being maintained from the ground up. What is social capital in online news discourse, who speaks, and which speakers are ratified?

But this is not a question of representative sampling alone. Although sampling could offer a sense of context to the data, the meat and potatoes of the analysis are in fact fodder for conversation analysis. A more useful and interesting research question emerged: how are these online conversations constructed so as to make a pro taxi response dispreferred or marked? This question invokes pronoun usage, intertextuality, conversational reach, crowd based sanctioning, conversational structure and pair parts, register, and more. It provides grounding for a rich, layered analysis. Fertile soil from dry dirt. Thank you, Netherlands.

Canal in Amsterdam (note: the workshop was in Nijmegen, not Amsterdam. Also note: the dangers of parallel parking next to a canal. You'd be safer living in one of these houseboats!

Canal in Amsterdam (note: the workshop was in Nijmegen, not Amsterdam. Also note: the dangers of parallel parking next to a canal. You’d be safer living in one of these houseboats!

Turns out Ethnography happens one slice at a time

Some of you may have noticed that I promised to report some research and then didn’t.

Last semester, for my Ethnography of Communication class, I did an Ethnography of DC taxi drivers. The theme of the Ethnography was “the voice of the drivers.” It was multilayered, and it involved data from a great variety of sources. I had hoped to share my final paper for the class here, but that won’t work for three reasons.

1.) The nature of Ethnography. Ethnography involves collecting a great deal of data and then choosing what to report, in what way, and in what context. The goal of the final paper was to reflect on the methodology. This was an important exercise, but I really wanted to share more of my findings and less of my methodology here.

2.) The particular aspect of my findings that I most want to share here has to do with online discourse. Specifically, I want to examine the lack of representation of the drivers perspective online. There are quite a few different ways to accomplish this. I have tried to do it a number of ways, using different slices of data and using different analytic strategies. But I haven’t decided which is the best set of data or method of analysis. But I am a very lucky researcher. Next week I’m headed to a workshop at Radbound University in Nijmegen, Netherlands. The workshop is on the Microanalysis of Online Discourse. I am eager to bring my data and methodological questions and to recieve insight from such an amazing array of researchers. I am also very eager to see what they bring!

Much of the discussion in the analysis of online discourse either excludes the issue of representation altogether or focuses on it entirely. Social media is often hailed as the great democratizer of communication. Internet access was long seen as the biggest obstacle to this new democracy . From this starting point, much of the research has evolved to consider more of nuances of differential use, including the complicated nature of internet access as well as behavior and goals of internet users. This part of my findings is an example of differential use and of different styles of participation. Working with this data has changed the way I see social media and the way I understand the democratization of news.

3.) Scope. The other major reason why I haven’t shared my findings is because of the sheer scope of this project. I was fortunate enough to only have taken one class last semester, which left me the freedom to work much harder on it. Also, as a working/student mom, I chose a project that involved my whole family in an auto-ethnographic way, so much of my work brought me closer to my family, rather than farther apart (spending time away from family to study is one of the hardest parts of working student motherhood!)

I have amassed quite a bit of data at this point, and I plan to write a few different papers using it.

Stay tuned, because I will release slices of it. But have some patience, because each slice will only be released in its own good time.


At this point, I feel the need to reference the Hutzler Banana Slicer

Turns out, Ethnography is more like this:


than like this: