Trace Interview Workshop at #SMSociety15

This morning Devin Gaffney and I ran a workshop on trace interviews at the Social Media and Society Conference. Trace interviews involve collecting and visualizing trace data (in this case, social media data, like tweets or likes). The researcher brings visualizations into the interview setting and invites the interviewee to help interpret the data. Since the interviewee is the person who left the trace data in the first place, their insight is valuable for understanding the context of communication, the validity of data and the meaning behind traceable online interactions.

Heather Ford and I describe the strengths and weaknesses of this approach in our International Journal of Communication article.

You can also check out the slides we used for this workshop. I will add a full bibliography shortly.

This is a mixed-methods approach in development. We would love to hear your feedback, suggestions, questions and concerns. We’d also love to hear about other research using similar techniques. Feel free to comment below, tweet or email.

Here is a simple network graph which visualizes the relationships among some of our workshop attendees. Each node (circle) is an attendee. The edges (lines) represent times one attendee has mentioned the other.

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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.

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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.