What does privacy mean?

From Beyond Google, 2015, Dalhousie University. In Beyond Google, a third year information management course, we explored how data and information is stored, social and mobile. We started the course talking about media as an extension of the self and ended it with a look at protecting ourselves from privacy infringements.

“Private” is, as most people will define it, the opposite of “public.” Something that is private is often personal, it is for me and not for you, it is information I’ve put limits on. Though privacy is a thing we hear about on a daily basis and all seem to know about intuitively, it is not a simple concept.

When we say we want to maintain our privacy what we are really saying is we want to control information about us and about what we do. More precisely, we want to control the audience of that information. We don’t want everyone to know our health records, we want our doctor to know and our close family to know, but not the guy sitting beside us on the bus.

How much we value other people not knowing things about us is a social norm. What I mean here is that in different cultures and at different points in time people’s desire for privacy is varied. Your expectation for how much control you get over information about you and what you do is socially constructed.

You may remember Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook infamously claiming privacy is dead – the social norm no longer exists. This normative view of privacy is where he was coming from, since people are happy to give up control of their personal information now. That is what online social networking sites do. This is, of course, a huge over simplification.

While people do give up a lot of personal information online, they still don’t want the stranger next to them on the bus to know about their health issues. Even information people are willing to relinquish control over on Facebook is not necessarily information they want to have spread via other channels of communication. For example, you may be fine posting a crazy St. Patty’s day photo on Facebook but it is not exactly the ideal conversation starter around the board table at work. So privacy, as a social norm does persist.

Zuckerberg’s comments about privacy being dead are in line with a stream of thinking that says youth in particular do not know or are unaware of privacy risks online. The assumption is that since youth are regular users of social media and mobile apps which heavily rely on personal data, they do not care about their privacy. In reality, however, research has shown that youth are actually more likely than their older counterparts to check or change their privacy settings (among others, Grant Blank, Gillian Bolsover and I have argued this).

Helen Nissenbaum, a well known scholar and privacy expert, talks about privacy in context. Her work argues for that view of privacy where what we really want is to control when and where our information is shared with others. Privacy infringements can be thought of as use and sharing of information in improper settings or for unintended purposes. So, if I post my address to a closed Facebook event because I am inviting friends over and then that address is given to a company who starts sending me junk mail, that is probably going to feel like violation of privacy to me.

A lot of people talking about privacy and the Internet focus on privacy in terms of controlling how much information advertisers and marketers get or how much access governments have to citizens’ online histories. But, privacy is also more personal, it is also what the people you talk to everyday have or do not have access to.

To that point, Marwick and boyd do an excellent job of considering the implications of online spaces and privacy in context in their work on context collapse. Thinking about how privacy is contextual — In one context you are happy to share information about your new romantic interest, for example chatting with friends. In another context you would not want that information shared, say, at a family dinner where nosey relatives can all have their say. The problem is many online social networking sites cause those two contexts (and others) to overlap or collapse. Mom, uncle Bob, your childhood bff and former boss are all on Facebook. Mitigating context collapse is an issue of maintaining privacy.

And so, for a range of reasons, I want to be able to control the audience and the context. That is privacy.

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Research update 4: Confirmed, I am not down a rabbit hole.

At Oxford the last step before you submit your final doctoral thesis is called “Confirmation of Status.” Essentially it means: you think you have collected all your data and made a solid plan for writing, we are going to check you haven’t completely gone off the rails. You submit two full chapters, abstracts for all the rest and a plan for when you are going to finish writing. The experience has the potential to be fundamentally crushing. This is normally the first time anyone other than you and your supervisor reads your work as a (soon to be) whole.  While the fear of having turned down the wrong path is heavy, the experience can also be invigorating. They read your work and try to see the full story you have been dedicated to telling!

For me, Confirmation was just that, invigorating. I had exceptional assessors who had clearly not only read but taken time to think about what I had written. They were motivational even in their critiques and concerns. They were open to my explanations and treated the interview as a conversation about how this work could become as meaningful as possible.

I am looking at how political opinion leaders in Canada source and share political information. In particular I focus on what motivates these opinion leaders to choose different channels of communication for sharing facts and discussing politics (e.g. why Facebook over face-to-face conversation, or text message over Twitter). These opinion leaders are thought to be important political players because they help keep the non-engaged citizenry politically aware through personal influence. Since opinion leaders have a lot more channels of communication to choose from, the mechanism of influence is in question.

My assessors and I left the interview most excited about the strategic approach my interviewees take when it comes to communicating about politics. I am also pretty excited about the “trace interviewing” approach Heather Ford and I developed which helps contextualize social media trace data and gives a voice to the creator of those traces/acts of communication. We bring visualizations of a person’s social media data into an interview setting and jointly interpret those data which means we can explain things like why a person tweeted what they did and what that person thinks a Facebook like actually means. (Note: our paper is in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of International Communication but you can email me for a draft copy.)

Since passing confirmation at the start of February I’ve been busy writing back in Toronto where I am living for the year. I work out of the iSchool at the University of Toronto most days but also spend time at Ryerson’s School of Professional Communication.  I’ve also had the opportunity to present parts of my methods and discussion chapters and am headed to a doctoral workshop for late stage candidates at Princeton next month. It never ceases to amaze me how much easier it is to write once I have presented to an audience.

Desk at U of T

Internet School Podcast!

Last week I got to chat with two future Masters of the Internet (they are in the MSc in the Social Sciences of the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute aka OII). They are starting up an awesome new podcast called the Internet School Podcast, or ISP for short (get it?). Here it is!

Why is this podcast so awesome? These two (brilliant and articulate) women are taking a look at the impact of the Internet of social life is a really interesting way. They have a perspective that you just can’t get elsewhere. They are young and eager. They are living and studying in the heart of Internet studies (ok, ok, I may be a little bias towards the OII…) but instead of burrowing down into the depths of academic study they are opening up and looking out at the world. They are connecting academia, news, and their own experiences as Internet users to reflect on what this all means.

Check it out.

ISP

How the Party Leaders Use Twitter: Digital Diplomacy and E-Democracy

From September 15, 2014 to January 19, 2015 I collected all tweets from @PMHarper (the English language account of Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Steven Harper), @ThomasMulcair (NDP leader Thomas Mulcair) and @JustinTrudeau (Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau). I wanted to know what topics these accounts covered and whether they had more of an internal or external focus (looking in at Canada and issues facing Canadians or looking out at the world and Canada’s place internationally).

I found that @PMHarper focuses on international issues while @ThomasMulcair and @JustinTrudeau focus on local, provincial and federal policy issues. I reported these findings in a Globe and Mail article published on Feb. 5, 2015.

Notes on methods and other comments

Silly girl, posting tweets is for staff.

Having worked for a Member of Parliament in her Ottawa office I know that politicians and their staff each take different approaches to dealing with social media. Some MPs make all their own tweets, others work with their staff to create a pre-determined schedule and others rely on staff to make tweets on their behalf. I didn’t ask the party leaders what they do, and while I have personal hunches about how it plays out that is not the point of this analysis.

I was interested in the messages that get sent to followers of specific accounts, regardless of who crafts those messages. If I were studying press releases or even speeches there would be value in understanding the content of the messages that get sent out attached to the names/titles of those leaders. The same is true with Twitter. This is content coming from their offices which makes it (in my mind) interesting. Sure, knowing who wrote the tweet, who came up with the tweeting strategy, and who has final say on what goes out are also interesting questions but I think they are interesting for different reasons.

Why not Green Party leader Elizabeth May (@ElizabethMay)?

I did a small sample of May’s many many tweets (she made nearly 3000 in the same amount of time the others made 200-300 each) and the vast majority are replies to other people which means that topically they are often pretty ambiguous. In other words, had I done the full set, the results would not have been as insightful for her because she uses it so differently from the other party leaders. It would end up not being a fair comparison.

How did you collect and analyse the tweets?

I used Twitter’s public API (specifically GET statuses/user_timeline). This means that I did not collect any tweets that were made but later deleted. I created a coding schedule which is essentially a list of the things I was looking for and the categories tweets could fall in (for example, international, national or provincial/local focus). Next I read each and every tweet and “coded” them which means I decided which categories they fell into. If I were to publish these findings in an academic journal I would probably want to have someone else also code each tweet so we could compare our answers and calculate the reliability of this approach. But for now, I am asking you to trust my interpretation of what constitutes “national” and what does not. Once I’d done that I had a nice spreadsheet containing all my data, I used that to create a series of graphs which I used to interpret the data. You can see some Globe and Mail versions in the article.

Why does this even matter? This isn’t particularly newsworthy or profoundly deep analysis.

Journalists and others in the media industry tend to focus on the now, the new and the exciting. This is very important for informing the citizenry on the issues of the day and making sure the public has access to the most important political information at that time. Us academics, particularly social scientists, often focus on abstract and/or fundamental social trends over a much longer term (and most of our work rarely goes beyond the boundaries of academia).

What is missing is a reflection on that middle ground. Everyday politics is actually a huge portion of where public opinion is developed and where citizens get to interact (even if it is one-way) with their political representatives. Yes, elections and scandals and policy announcements matter. But so does the more subtle framing of what issues should be talked about and what issues a leader and their party want to engage with or promote. And yes, understanding what makes the leaders act as they do (i.e. a much deeper analysis) is intriguing and potentially very valuable. But that doesn’t mean mapping out the contours of social media use isn’t.

Here is the text of the article (you’ll need to follow the link above to check out the graphs):

In an era of digital diplomacy and e-democracy, politicians are expected to play their political role both online and offline. Twitter is one tool which politicians around the world have embraced as a way to connect with those they represent and broadcast information to the public. Canada’s major political party leaders are no different – and the leaders’ different approaches say a lot about how they communicate in the months ahead of a federal election.

A political party leader is expected to be vocal on any and all political issues facing their constituents. The leader is looked to to set their party’s agenda, to communicate issues to the public, to garner a following, and to understand the needs of that following and of Canadians more broadly. Of course the leader has many other responsibilities, these are just some of the main ones which Twitter is particularly good at facilitating.

Canada’s political party leaders are all active on Twitter but their patterns of use are not the same. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May is known for her prolific Twitter account. Her 20,600 tweets since joining Twitter in September 2008 is nearly seven times as many as either the Prime Minister’s English-language account (@PMHarper) or NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s (@ThomasMulcair) all-time totals, and over three times as many as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau). But even among the three party leaders who tweet considerably less, there are telling differences.

By the numbers

From Sept. 18, 2014, when members returned to Parliament after the summer break, to Jan. 17, 2015, @PMHarper has made 283 tweets. Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau both have only one account which posts both English and French tweets, with 288 and 574 tweets made respectively. Notably both leaders often opt to post direct translations of tweets, so the following analysis considers unique tweets only (193 for Mr. Mulcair and 319 for Mr. Trudeau).

Over the course of the fall there are some expected ebbs and flows. (See chart above.) The start of the session prompted all three accounts to post multiple tweets a day which slowed as the weeks passed. On the week following Christmas, all three accounts refrained from posting and on weekends there were often, but not always, fewer tweets made. Mr. Trudeau’s account was the only one from a leader to consistently tweet at relatively stable levels throughout most of the sampling period. For example, Mr. Trudeau’s account made many tweets about the by-elections in November when the accounts of Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair were both relatively inactive on Twitter.

The differences in topics of tweets highlight the biggest differences in the leaders’ approach to Twitter (see above chart). About 25 per cent of Mr. Harper’s tweets had an international focus, for example, the threat of the Islamic State, or United Nations and G20 meetings, while only 3 per cent of his posts had a provincial or local community focus. Issues facing Canadians broadly such as economic, social and other issues together make up only 19 per cent of Mr. Harper’s tweets. In contrast, 34 per cent of Mr. Mulcair’s and 41 per cent of Mr. Trudeau’s tweets focused on economic, social and other issues facing Canadians with only 11 per cent each focusing on international issues.

Mr. Trudeau matches this focus on international issues with equal numbers of tweets about provincial or community issues. Mr. Trudeau’s tweets span a wider range of policy issues and are more evenly spread across areas as compared to either other leader.

Finally, for all three leaders a large proportion (between 34 and 39 per cent) of tweets make reference to no specific policy issue but instead to meetings they attended and events of the day. For Mr. Harper these tweets often include condolence messages, greetings for a given holiday and references to sporting events. Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau also include some of these messages but also tend to post photos from events and thank you notes to those they meet with.

Digital diplomacy vs. e-democracy

Mr. Harper’s use of Twitter can be thought of as in line with digital diplomacy. Digital diplomacy on a very basic level is the use of the Internet to solve foreign policy issues. @PMHarper is an account with an international focus and which tends to opt toward non-partisan statements. Expressing policy positions or promoting a policy agenda to the Canadian public does not appear to be a goal of the account. Instead, the aim seems to be more about establishing a presence online as a world leader and digitally demonstrating Canada’s connection to other nations.

Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau, to varying degrees, appear to use Twitter more in line with e-democracy which is more about advancing a democracy than foreign affairs. Both accounts attempt to connect with Canadian citizens explicitly, for example by reminding them to vote, providing shareable content and sending thank you messages. Neither account maintains as large a focus on international issues at Mr. Harper, instead both put increased focus on social and other issues facing Canadians. Expressing views on policy and generating interest in, and engagement with, their respective parties are likely aims of these accounts.

Ultimately, Mr. Harper, Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau are all active social media users with something to gain from Twitter. The different strategies which drives their use can help others understand what they are signing up for when they click “follow.”

Globe and Mail

Mediated existence (and the failure of ‘no more Facebook’ resolutions)

Note: modified from lecture 2, MGMT 3603, Winter 2015.

It is rather pedestrian to say the Internet matters. It impacts our lives in countless ways. From how we bank to how we procrastinate to how we find love. We use the Internet to connect with colleagues around the world, to share pieces of our lives with friends and family via social media, to learn about new things, to entertain ourselves – the list goes on.

Thinking about the ways the Internet impacts our daily lives, one can imagine that the invention of the printing press similarly invaded most corners of human existence. Newspapers for information, books for entertainment, posters for marketing and passbooks for banking. Again, the list goes on. But that is not necessarily how print media were perceived.

For many, books and other media were long thought of as being on the outskirts of existence. They were tools that could be used or could be ignored. They were not crucial to life, at the heart of existence or the core of social interaction. In a CBC interview with the well known Canadian sociologist Marshall McLuhan, this very point is underlined. McLuhan is asked about the seemingly obvious fact that media are quite separate from human life. He rejects the accusation and instead asserts: “The media are at the heart of our lives because they work through our senses.”

What he means is this, without media we interact with the world around us via sight and sound and touch and taste and smell. Media allow us to extend those senses beyond our immediate surroundings. Like a ladder making us taller, or a car making us faster, media technology modifies our ability to connect with the world in important ways. The printed word allows us to speak permanently and hear the past. The television allows us to see into cities from far away and the living rooms and lives of others. We can see what is happening across the ocean because we can turn on a television (or, today, stream BBC World).

Assuming you can get behind the idea that interacting with the world is pretty core to human existence, media have to be seen as at the heart of our lives because media let us interact. Media are not simply found on the edges of life, at least not for those who want to be connected to society.

Thinking about it in the context of current media availability and in the cultural context of a western democracy like Canada, there are a lot of technologies we might like to think are disposable but in practice we can’t seem to shake.

The somehow classic, ‘I will spend less time on Facebook’ New Years resolution is a prime example. Sure, you can say I’ll spend less time on it but then a Professor assigns group work and you need an easy way to connect. You either need to use Facebook or find some other tool that is likely rather Facebook-like in order to ensure all group members stay connected consistently.

Similarly, you may say you want to protect your privacy and put less information online, but then you are job hunting and every company you apply to expects a LinkedIn profile and links to your blog.

Now, there is certainly a debate to be had about what media are central and which are not, how that differs for people cross-culturally and over time – the point is that much of our lives are mediated and will always be mediated.

From the business perspective, being tuned in and central to social life is invaluable. A business needs to be situated in such away that many people can find it and interact with it — that is whether it be finding new funders, maintaining relationships with suppliers, attracting customers or, quite frankly, most any other step in a business’ life cycle. For a time that meant an add in the Yellow Pages and good recommendations through customers. Then TV and radio spots were added to print advertisement and now online visibility has become crucial. We can’t escape a mediated life. 

In a course I teach called Beyond Google at Dalhousie University’s School of Information Management we are exploring these themes and taking it a step further. We are interested in understanding the various ways the Internet impacts and can be used within information management. The majority of this online class happens in a closed Blackboard Learning environment but periodically I’ll post some of the content here. Feedback welcome!

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee Lifetime Achievement Award

On November 7th 2014 I had the great pleasure of presenting Sir Tim Berners-Lee the OII Lifetime Achievement Award. Below is a copy of my remarks:

Good evening, my name is Elizabeth Dubois and I am a doctoral candidate at the OII. I am delighted to present the final award of this evening to the creator of the world wide web. Fun fact, I just so happen to be the same age as the world wide web.

Despite what a recent Twitter photo and t-shirt suggest, the inventor is Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

In 1989 Sir Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN and proposed a project that would allow users of the Internet to share documents and information in a globally-standardized and open fashion.

By 1994, the world wide web and I were both five. I was busy trying to convince my mom to bring my pesky baby sister back to the hospital she came from, because, quite frankly, the shouting was bothersome. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, on the other hand, was making it possible for the world to bring new information and ideas into their homes to an unprecedented degree. 1994 is the year Professor Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium which keeps the web we know and love running in a standardized way.

Over the ensuing two decades Sir Tim Berners-Lee articulated a vision of a World Wide Web which is open and free. He has directed the World Wide Web Foundation, been deeply engaged in open government data initiatives, advocated for a semantic web, taught, researched, and written – spending time most recently at MIT and the University of Southampton.

He has explained to us what it means to be connected.

He has equipped us with the tools we need to exchange information and communicate freely.

And, he has demonstrated to us that sharing information can be more valuable than controlling it.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, knighted in 2004 and a recipient of countless other awards and honours, has exhibited a commitment to making our lives better through the development of technology.

On Twitter he states, or perhaps implores, “let the web serve humanity.”

And so, in awe, we honour him tonight. Please join me in thanking Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee for his service to humanity as one of the most transformative figures, certainly in my lifetime if not everyone’s here, in the realm of information and communication technologies.

Thank you.

OII Awards

Of Terror and Twitter: Shootings in Ottawa and Media Coverage

I have been glued to my computer screen, CBC live coverage on as I scroll through tweets and Facebook posts. If I had another screen CTV would be on too, as would CNN and anyone else reporting on the shootings today in Ottawa at the War Memorial and on Parliament Hill. It hits too close to home, I walked by that memorial at least twice a day for nearly four years working on the Hill.

As I grasp desperately for meaning in a flood of speculation from traditional and social media alike, I can’t help but notice stark differences in the way today’s horrible events are being portrayed in Canada, the US and on Twitter. I want to preface this post by stating that I have not conducted a full fledged media analysis, if you want to hear about my rather rudimentary methods let me know and I’ll write it up.

Terrorism wasn’t the story. But it might be soon.

Canada’s mainstream media outlets have worked to present up-to-the-minute reporting. Every briefing from every possible political player, it seems, has been covered. Journalists have worked to inform citizens, they have not speculated about terror attacks or the “islamic threat” as US media outlets have.

On Twitter the chatter started out very much in line with the reports coming from CBC, CTV, and other Canadian outlets. The hashtags #OttawaShooting, #StaySafeOttawa and #PrayForOttawa jumped into action with the first serving as a venue for news sharing and the second and third for offering messages of support. Overlap exists and other kinds of messages were certainly sprinkled in, but these were the dominate themes.

Trends

Mid-afternoon, as the dust settled and buildings began to be cleared the chatter started to change. The RCMP held a press conference and wherein little concrete knowledge was shared. The panel was asked about the possibility of continued threat and if anything was known about the shooter who was killed in Parliament. For the first time I’d heard, a journalist eluded to the possibility that this might be an act of terrorism related to ISIS. Coverage following the press conference did not follow this line of questioning, presumably because there was, and currently is, no reason to believe it is the case. We just don’t know.

Next, CNN and Fox News started to join CBC and CTV as dominate message senders in the Ottawa shootings Twittersphere. At the same time #ISIS is becoming an increasingly popular hashtag in Canada, in Twitter terms it was “trending.” And Twitter’s algorithms which are designed to help you find information better start suggesting you search ISIS when you search “Ottawa,” “#OttawaStrong,” and “PrayForOttawa.” This suggests that people are posting on these topics simultaneously and/or they are searching for these topics in conjunction. Either way, the general Twitter public is exhibiting a new concern which Canada’s traditional media are neither instigating nor fuelling at this point. For one 30 minute sample, 1 in 5 tweets containing the hashtag #OttawaShooting had some reference to ISIS, terror, islamic threat or related concept.

Related Searches: ISIS

Search Fill

Not only is the threat of terror becoming an increasingly dominant theme, but the classical response to a national threat is also emerging. The hashtag #CanadaStrong which is dominated by photos of the Canadian flag and messages of Canadian pride became the second highest trending hashtag in Canada by 4:00pm EDT. While this hashtag is dominated by positive messages increasingly there is a sense of “us versus them” being established and many racial slurs and references to terror have been evoked. At this point I have yet to conduct any formal content analysis on this hashtag.

Twitter and the traditional media

Now, Twitter loves to comment on traditional media and traditional media seem to like to reference Twitter now and then. There are a lot of different approaches journalists and media outlets have taken to incorporating social media into their reporting. All major outlets have active Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, many news programs also have specialized hashtags they promote, some solicit input from viewers and scroll tweet responses across the screen. And sometimes, a journalist is pushed a piece of paper that says something along the lines of, ‘it seems Twitter cares too! For example, there is debate as to what the Prime Minister is drinking in the photo his office released while he was getting a security briefing.’

It was probably juice. But hey, if it was whiskey I don’t know that I’d blame him. Simply, not the story.

Security Briefing

The anchor, rightly so, told viewers that was not the story as he was reporting it and that was the last of Twitter time.

The problem is, there is a lot of interesting information about what citizens care about and what they think that can be drawn from Twitter if done properly. Talk about the fact that terror threats are concerning people across the nation or that citizens are also calling on each other to be calm and collected and to wait until we know more details. Explain that Canadians are turing to social media to share stories and words of hope and support. Describe how people are reacting so those of us far away can feel connected. That is what Twitter offers, you can too.

Obviously there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to Twitter use by traditional media and obviously mid-breaking news story is not the ideal time to sit and ponder the best use. But breaking news stories are also the moment at which activity is at its highest and payout is greatest in terms of generating discussion, informing the public, and broadening your audience.

Confession time: I forgot about email!

In my research I am trying to understand the political communication patterns of digitally enabled citizens. I sampled from the #CDNpoli Twitter network but my interest goes beyond Twitter. I have gone to great lengths to include a wide range of social media and non-digital channels of communication in my list of tools I always ask about. What I didn’t include was email.

Of course email consistently came up in interviews and once I realized my mistake I added it into the list of things I wanted to hear about. To be fair, I also hadn’t included Vine but I think it is safe to say, given usage rates, that one is a bit more understandable.

Now, forgetting about email could be written off as a silly error of a young researcher, but I like to think I am pretty rigorous when it comes to methods. I looked at multiple nationally representative surveys, I did a deep dive into the literature, I sought out advice from many experienced researchers — yet I still did not realize the channel was missing until I got into the field.

I think the problem is that I bought into the idea of “new” and “old” forms of communication. Of course, we don’t use those words anymore. “New” is taboo, the cool term is “social.” But the result is the same, we categorize types of communication tools/channels in specific ways so a given term broadly includes a certain range of tools. These categories are useful because they allow us to reduce complexity and to compare across types.

But there are a few issues. “Social,” is a pretty limited subset of digital communication technologies, and for most, email is not one of those. Further, email isn’t all that new anymore. From my small sample alone, multiple interviewees got their first email accounts in the 1980’s, over a quarter of a century ago!

Unfortunately email is without a home in the most common dichotomous (two options, this or that) categorization schemes. Email is not an “old” channel of communication either. “Old” is reserved for paint on slabs of rock and fireside stories, right? Ok, ok, maybe the printing press, radio, television and telephone count too.

Clearly I’ve only glossed over these categorizations and there are a lot of factors (like acts the technology affords its users, or integration of technology into domestic life) that I’ve not discussed. Maybe I did just make a silly grad student mistake, but for me there is an important lesson here: categorization is a moving target and when we compare the newest to the “old” we risk forgetting about the middle ground. That middle ground, in the case of email, just so happens to be a potentially important site of communication, an indicator of technology adoption, and/or an intervening variable in other communicative processes.

mail_icon

A note on mistakes.

I was told recently that, particularly as a grad student, having a blog like this is “brave.” I am opening up my process to you all. You get to judge me based on my incomplete projects. Perhaps more pointedly, employers get to judge me on incomplete thoughts and ideas which is a risk. That said, I think the benefit to me, my study participants and potentially (read: hopefully one day) others outweighs the risks.

I think working out my ideas in a non-journal article or thesis chapter format makes my ideas clearer and arguments stronger.

I think writing for a non-academic audience makes my work more accessible to my participants and the broader population I am interested in which has positive implications for both informed consent and ensuring validity.

I think opening up the black box of the academic process can be valuable for academics, particular us newbies, trying to sort out the next steps and for potential employers looking for people who’s workflow fits with the values of their institution.

Research Update 3: To the field!

I did it. This spring I went out and spoke to people. Real, actual, breathing human beings. In the flesh.

I am really interested in how people are (or are not) making use of social media tools in their everyday political lives. I am particularly interested in those politicos who can’t seem to get enough information about current affairs and always seem to be in the know – but – who are not professional political players. I am talking about opinion leaders. They are the ones always telling you about what the next important policy decision is, how Canada should be dealing with climate change, whether a gun registry is good or bad, etc..

So, this spring I left my cozy (read: overly hot and poorly ventilated) Oxford workspace and headed home. I traveled across Canada to speak to 23 opinion leaders from four different cities/areas: Halifax, Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver/Victoria. Here are some things I learned:

  • Fieldwork is exhausting, possibly more exhausting than the other kind of work on fields I do (which is really saying something if you have ever played 80 minutes of rugby). I made the mistake of thinking, oh, my interviews should take about 1.5-2 hours, I’ll book off 2.25 hours and be fine. No. I needed 3 hours in the room and then a good long run (or Netflix marathon) to recuperate after each.
  • People like to tell stories, even when they have nothing to do with your questions. Some times these stories are really interesting. Some times you inadvertently find out that a person’s everyday political chat has been digital since the 80s and that your interviewee is part of a discussion group that transitioned from BBS to listserv to private Facebook group. Other times you learn a person recently lost their main weed supplier.
  • Prepare to be flexible. Times change right up to the last minute, technology fails right before you are about to start the interview, people just can’t wrap their head around what you are trying to get them to do – there are a lot of reasons to be very prepared for the interview to take a very different path than originally planned. Rather than an interview schedule and notes sheet I thought of the paper on my clipboard as a data container. The pages were partitioned according to the information I needed to gather so that if things went off track I knew exactly which holes I needed to go back and fill before time ran out.

With the interviews complete I am now diving into data analysis. I’ve got NVivo for Mac set up and the first of my interviews have been coded. The schedule is, of course, a bit of a mess at this point – but the initial themes are intriguing and everyday there is very tangible progress to be chronicled.

It is a very different feeling than days of familiarizing your self with the literature. It is exhilarating.

Interview Materials

The Multiple Facets of Influence [new article available online]

In March 2013 Devin Gaffney and I collected 2 weeks of #CPC and #NDP (the Twitter hashtags associated with the Conservative Party of Canada and the New Democratic Party of Canada). We wanted to know who was most influential. The problem is, there are a lot of ways to measure influence and they don’t all line up!

In this paper we talk about some of the most basic ways researchers identify “influence” on Twitter, we consider the theoretical underpinnings, and we compare them using the #cpc and #ndp datasets we created. We explain how different measures tend to cater to different facets of influence. We go on to argue that to measure influence in the Katz and Lazarsfeld – opinion leader – sense, we need to incorporate measures of social connectedness locally. We make a preliminary case for making use of the clustering coefficient.

The Multiple Facets of Influence