Research Update 5: Sprint, sprint, submit.

When do you plan to hand in? That evil question every doctoral candidate is peppered with pretty much from day one. You fumble around and propose a date. Even the most determined candidates are only guessing. The date is years away but slowly it creeps up.

You submit a chapter at a time and you present pieces of your work here and there. Eventually it is time to string it together. If you are like me, this is a pretty invigorating but all-consuming process. I worked in three four day chunks bringing things together and writing an introduction and conclusion (the first of which would be re-written and the second scrapped entirely). Those days were long and lonely.

I submitted and sat at my desk. I had stacks of cereal bowls and days worth of water glasses. I was in my pyjamas and had not been outside save to buy lunch from Whole Foods each day (the extra 5 minutes to the student friendly priced grocery store was just too valuable). I had expected to be elated that a full draft had been submitted but I was anxious instead. I still can’t pin-point why, but my stomach was in a knot and I pretty much just wanted to curl in bed and cry. Instead I took a shower. Then I curled up in bed.

A few weeks later comments were back from my two supervisors and it was time for sprint 2. Head down and off I went. This time I was also launching a non-profit organization aimed at increasing youth voter turnout. My days were as long but a little less lonely and a little more balanced. I took about three weeks. This time my feelings were much clearer. Happiness.

My supervisors and I talked about my timeline for submission. About how much time they each needed to read my penultimate draft and about how much time I needed to make corrections. Miscommunication or miscalculation, this caused me the most stress. Suffice it to say: you all need more time than you think. References will get mangled when you compile your document, other deadlines will come up and supervisors will need more time than anticipated, people will be on vacation, etc..

Most of my revisions came back to me on Saturday. I submitted on Wednesday. My final sprint was 4.5 days and I tell you, it felt like a month (or 7). Multiple times I considered postponing submission, once I thought about never submitting (I could be happy working at a burger joint, couldn’t I?) but mostly I thought about needing to just get it done. I could have kept working on it for weeks. I could still be working on it. I think I might feel like I could always still be working on it. Ultimately I didn’t have a choice – I was fortunate enough to be invited for two campus interviews and both were imminent which meant I needed to submit.

So, I submitted.

I thought I’d submit and simply feel happy. Maybe a little relief.

I felt those things but I also felt frustrated and angry and sad and anxious and proud and hopeful and giddy and silly and smart and bewildered. I was so completely overwhelmed.

But, it is submitted.

2014-09-12 07.18.59

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.


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.


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

Research Update 2: Summer at the Social Media Lab

From being cited in an Anonymous press release and speaking live on Sun TV, to attending my first slue of conferences and giving my first public lecture, this summer certainly has been full of excitement!

Last I checked in I’d just completed my Transfer of Status, the first milestone in my PhD program. I left Oxford for the summer, sites set on home (Nova Scotia, Canada), where I took up a position as a Visiting Scholar at the Dalhousie Social Media Lab from the end of June through to the beginning of October.

While at the Lab I focused primarily on my own work including preparing for multiple conferences and identifying my list of potential interviewees. I was very fortunate to have been welcomed with open arms — I had the opportunity to present my early thesis work to faculty and students within the Computer Science Faculty, the Information Management Faculty, and to political science undergraduate students.

I also helped the Social Media Lab organize their annual conference, this year called the Social Media and Society 2013 Conference. (I presented work Devin Gaffney and I have been doing on identifying influentials in Twitter networks).

Most recently, I took the lead on the Twitter analysis of the Nova Scotia Election, at the Social Media Lab. We wrote a number of blogs (here, here, and here), and will hopefully produce an academic paper in the coming months.

If there is a single lesson to be learned from this summer, I think it is the importance of connecting with people from all over. Every time I said yes to an interview, a conference, or a speaking engagement, I met new and interesting people with new and interesting perspectives. I’ve been able to start to build a base which can be hard to do when you get stuck in the Oxford bubble.

One of the things that makes me a particularly efficient DPhil student is my focus. When I set out a list of goals for myself I commit fully to the tasks required to achieve those goals. It is easy to spend hours in the office only to be so exhausted at the end of the day I can barely drag myself to rugby training and then home to bed. The last thing I want to do is go to a lecture (however interesting it may be) or a reception (regardless of what yummy treats are on offer) where I have to look presentable and say semi-intelligent things.

Clearly those periods of intense focus are important, but connecting with others – that is a big part of what I want to do also. If I want to help bridge the gap between academic and the general public, I need to be able to find times and places that facilitate that interaction. This summer has been a wonderful step in that direction.

Up next?

I am back in Oxford running Research Methods workshops for MSc students here at the OII, working as a Research Assistant on Bill Dutton’s Fifth Estate project, and working on the literature review and methods chapters of my thesis.

I've been taking a quick picture of all the workspaces of my PhD. This is my desk at Dal.

I’ve been taking a quick picture of all the workspaces of my PhD. This is my desk at Dal.

Research Update 1: Transfer Successful!

At Oxford the first big milestone of the PhD process is called the “Transfer of Status.” When you start your PhD, called a DPhil here, you enter as a “Probationary Research Student” and are required to submit a 6000 word proposal (among other things) in order to prove you are capable completing PhD level research – you deserve the title “DPhil Candidate.”

I submitted my proposal in May, had my interview in June, and have just been told I passed (woohoo). This means I get to move forward with my research and can get working on data collection. What, you ask, was the contents of this passing proposal?

Well, I am interested in the ways in which citizens engage (or don’t) in politics and political discussions with each other. I care a lot about how we interact with each other and what that means for our political system. I am also fascinated by digital technology and how it can be used to communicate political messages.

What this boils down to, in my case, is an in-depth analysis of how 20 specific Twitter users talk about politics in their daily lives and with those in their personal networks. I am going to ask them questions about who they talk to, what tools they use to communicate (for example, Twitter, face-to-face conversation, telephone), what issues they care about, and what strategies they use to convince other people that those issues are important or of particular views on those issues.

But I am getting ahead of myself, how do I select those 20 individuals?  To solve this problem I am working with Devin Gaffney on two projects.

The first is a journal article for American Behavioral Scientist where we look at the most common ways used to identify influentials on Twitter. We show that none of the standards, like network centrality or number of re-tweets, quite do the trick. These methods all identify public influentials and not average, but politically engaged, citizens.

The next is a conference paper for the Social Media and Society conference to be held at Dalhousie University in September 2013. In this study we will compare a range of ways to identify those average citizens. A big part of this project is an online survey which we will be sending out to users of the #CDNpoli hastag over the next few weeks. Once the survey is complete we will use some social network analysis techniques and some content analysis techniques to describe the community of Twitter users talking about Canadian politics. At the end of all of that I will finally have my sampling frame!

It is quite the process, but I am excited.

Here’s hoping some of you find it interesting too!

Proposal creating 05/07/13

The Post-it Note Journal Article: Crafting an Academic Argument

So you’ve hit the wall. That spot where you have enough information that you should be able to write but you sit at your computer and every key you tap is futile. Your words are useless. Your brain is mush. You can’t remember what a clear argument sounds like.

When I get to this point I have two strategies. One is to turn on an old episode of Gilmore Girls and bask in the glory of the girls’ witty banter. The other is to clear off my desk entirely, grab a stack of different colored post-it notes and a marker, and organize my thoughts visually.

Which one is more successful you ask? Complete toss up. But, since I imagine most of you are already proficient TV watchers, I’ll focus on strategy two.

I start off with a list of 6 statements and I assign a post-it note color to each.

  • This is the problem:
  • This is how others attack the problem:
  • This is what I did:
  • These are my initial findings:
  • This is what these findings mean/why they matter:
  • This is what I can say/conclude:

The next step is to start filling in post-it notes in response to each statement. There can be as many post-it notes per statement as you like – the only rule is: One, and only one, idea per post-it. I start laying the post-its out on the table as I go, grouping them together in terms of ideas and placing them in the order in which a logical argument would require. For example, methods go before findings which go before overall conclusions.

Once I have written down everything I can think of I use a series of prompts to help me make sure I have as complete a list as possible: Do you have RQs? What is the main thing you want to say? What are you certain of? What is in my paper/notes but not on the post-its?

Again, as I add post-its I re-arrange and re-organize.

Finally I check to see if there are unnecessary post-its or missing bits of information by asking: Can you get from any given post it to the top and to the bottom logically?

The process can take me anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. The end result looks like this:

Post-it Note Plan

This particular post-it note plan contains all the information I needed to write an article that looked at identifying influential users on Twitter. I helped a friend use post-it notes to plan a paper that examined wikipedia as a news source, and in the past I’ve used the method to sort out my thoughts on topics ranging from youth engagement in democracy to strategies for composting in a city.

Taking the time to respond to each of the six prompts and to ensure you are connecting all the pieces of your puzzle together coherently makes it easier to sit back down at the computer to write. The visual aspect and ability to physically move post-it notes around, for me, is particularly important because it lets me manipulate the information in new ways.

Here is a short presentation on post-it planning.