Methodology will only get you so far

I’ve been working on a post about humility as an organizational strategy. This is not that post, but it is also about humility.

I like to think of myself as a research methodologist, because I’m more interested in research methods than any specific area of study. The versatility of methodology as a concentration is actually one of the biggest draws for me. I love that I’ve been able to study everything from fMRI subjects and brain surgery patients to physics majors and teachers, taxi drivers and internet activists. I’ve written a paper on Persepolis as an object of intercultural communication and a paper on natural language processing of survey responses, and I’m currently studying migration patterns and communication strategies.

But a little dose of humility is always a good thing.

Yesterday I hosted the second in a series of online research, offline lunches that I’ve been coordinating. The lunches are intended as a way to get people from different sectors and fields who are conducting research on the internet together to talk about their work across the artificial boundaries of field and sector. These lunches change character as the field and attendees change.

I’ve been following the field of online research for many years now, and it has changed dramatically and continually before my eyes. Just a year ago Seth Grimes Sentiment Analysis Symposia were at the forefront of the field, and now I wonder if he is thinking of changing the title and focus of his events. Two years ago tagging text corpora with grammatical units was a standard midstep in text analysis, and now machine algorithms are far more common and often much more effective, demonstrating that grammar in use is far enough afield from grammar in theory to generate a good deal of error. Ten years ago qualitative research was often more focused on the description of platforms than the behaviors specific to them, and now the specific innerworkings of platform are much more of an aside to a behavioral focus.

The Association of Internet Researchers is currently having their conference in Denver (#ir14), generating more than 1000 posts per day under the conference hashtag and probably moving the field far ahead of where it was earlier this week.

My interest and focus has been on the methodology of internet research. I’ve been learning everything from qualitative methods to natural language processing and social network analysis to bayesian methods. I’ve been advocating for a world where different kinds of methodologists work together, where qualitative research informs algorithms and linguists learn from the differences between theoretical grammar and machine learned grammar, a world where computer scentists work iteratively with qualitative researchers. But all of these methods fall short because there is an elephant in the methodological room. This elephant, ladies and gentleman, is made of content. Is it enough to be a methodological specialist, swinging from project to project, grazing on the top layer of content knowledge without ever taking anything down to its root?

As a methodologist, I am free to travel from topic area to topic area, but I can’t reach the root of anything without digging deeper.

At yesterday’s lunch we spoke a lot about data. We spoke about how the notion of data means such different things to different researchers. We spoke about the form and type of data that different researchers expect to work with, how they groom data into the forms they are most comfortable with, how the analyses are shaped by the data type, how data science is an amazing term because just about anything could be data. And I was struck by the wide-openness of what I was trying to do. It is one thing to talk about methodology within the context of survey research or any other specific strategy, but what happens when you go wider? What happens when you bring a bunch of methodologists of all stripes together to discuss methodology? You lack the depth that content brings. You introduce a vast tundra of topical space to cover. But can you achieve anything that way? What holds together this wide realm of “research?”

We speak a lot about the lack of generalizable theories in internet research. Part of the hope for qualitative research is that it will create generalizable findings that can drive better theories and improve algorithmic efforts. But that partnership has been slow, and the theories have been sparse and lightweight. Is it possible that the internet is a space where theory alone just doesn’t cut it? Could it be that methodologists need to embrace content knowledge to a greater degree in order to make any of the headway we so desperately want to make?

Maybe the missing piece of the puzzle is actually the picture painted on the pieces?

comic

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Planning a second “Online Research, Offline Lunch”

In August we hosted the first Online Research, Offline Lunch for researchers involved in online research in any field, discipline or sector in the DC area. Although Washington DC is a great meeting place for specific areas of online research, there are few opportunities for interdisciplinary gatherings of professionals and academics. These lunches provide an informal opportunity for a diverse set of online researchers to listen and talk respectfully about our interests and our work and to see our endeavors from new, valuable perspectives. We kept the first gathering small. But the enthusiasm for this small event was quite large, and it was a great success! We had interesting conversations, learned a lot, made some valuable connections, and promised to meet again.

Many expressed interest in the lunches but weren’t able to attend. If you have any specific scheduling requests, please let me know now. Although I certainly can’t accommodate everyone’s preferences, I will do my best to take them into account.

Here is a form that can be used to add new people to the list. If you’re already on the list you do not need to sign up again. Please feel free to share the form with anyone else who may be interested:

 

Reflections on Digital Dualism & Social Media Research from #SMSociety13

I am frustrated by both Digital Dualism and the fight against Digital Dualism.

Digital dualism is the belief that online and offline are different worlds. It shows up relatively harmlessly when someone calls a group of people who are on their devices “antisocial,” but it is much more harmful in the way it pervades the language we use about online communication (e.g. “real” vs. “virtual”).

Many researchers have done important work countering digital dualism. For example, at the recent Social Media & Society conference, Jeffrey Keefer briefly discussed his doctoral work in which he showed that the support that doctoral students offered each other online was both very real and very helpful. I think it’s a shame that anyone ever doubted the power of a social network during such a challenging time, and I’m happy to see that argument trounced! Wooooh, go Jeffrey! (now a well-deserved Dr Keefer!)

Digital dualism is a false distinction, but it is built in part on a distinction that is also very real and very important. Online space and offline spare are different spaces. People can act in either to achieve their goals in very real ways, but, although both are very real, they are very different. The set of qualities with which the two overlap and differ and even blur into each other changes every day. For example, “real name” branding online and GPS enabled in-person gaming across college campuses continue to blur boundaries.

But the private and segmented aspects of online communication are important as well. Sometimes criticism of online space is based on this segmentation, but communities of interest are longstanding phenomena. A book club is expected to be a club for people with a shared interest in books. A workplace is a place for people with shared professional interests. A swim team is for people who want to swim together. And none of these relationships would be confused with the longstanding close personal relationships we share with friends and family. When online activities are compared with offline ones, often people are falsely comparing interest related activities online with the longstanding close personal ties we share with friends and family. In an effort to counter this, some have take moves to make online communication more unified and holistic. But they do this at the expense of one of the greatest strengths of online communication.

Let’s discuss my recent trip to Halifax for this conference as an example.

My friends and family saw this picture:

Voila! Rethinking Digital Democracy! More of a "Hey mom, here's my poster!" shot than a "Read and engage with my argument!" shot

Voila! Rethinking Digital Democracy! More of a “Hey mom, here’s my poster!” shot than a “Read and engage with my argument!” shot

My dad saw this one:

Not bad for airport fare, eh?

Not bad for airport fare, eh?

This picture showed up on Instagram:

2013-09-16 15.27.43

It’s a glass wall, but it looks like water!

People on Spotify might have followed the music I listened to, and people on Goodreads may have followed my inflight reading.

My Twitter followers and those following the conference online saw this:

Talking about remix culture! Have I landed in heaven? #SMSociety13 #heaveninhalifax #niiice

— Casey Langer Tesfaye (@FreeRangeRsrch) September 15, 2013

And you have been presented with a different account altogether

This fractioning makes sense to me, because I wouldn’t expect any one person to share this whole set of interests. I am able to freely discuss my area of interest with others who share the same interests.

Another presenter gave an example of LGBT youth on Facebook. The lack of anonymity can make it very hard for people who want to experiment or speak freely about a taboo topic to do so without it being taken out of context. Private and anonymous spaces that used to abound online are increasingly harder to find.

In my mind this harkens back a little to the early days of social media research, when research methods were deeply tied to descriptions of platforms and online activity on them. As platforms rose and fell, this research was increasingly useless. Researchers had to move their focus to online actions without trying to route them in platform or offline activity. Is social media research being hindered in similar ways, by answering old criticisms instead of focusing on current and future potential?  Social media needs to move away from these artificial roots. Instead of countering silly claims about social media being antisocial or anything more than real communication, we should focus our research activities on the ways in which people communicate online and the situated social actions and behaviors in online situations. This means, don’t try to ferret out people from usernames, or sort out who is behind a username. Don’t try to match across platforms. Don’t demand real names.

Honestly, anyone who is subjected to social feeds that contain quite a bit of posts outside their area of interest should be grateful to refocus and move on! People of abstract Instagram should be thrilled not to have seen a bowl of seafood chowder, and my family and friends should be thrilled not to have to hear me ramble on about digital dualism or context collapse!

I would love to discuss this further. If you’ve been waiting to post a comment on this blog, this is a great time for you to jump in and join the conversation!