Research Confidential and Surveying Bloggers

In our research methods seminar this evening at the Berkman Center, we got into a spirited conversation about the challenges of surveying bloggers.  In this seminar, we’ve been working primarily from a text called Research Confidential, edited by Eszter Hargittai (who happens to be my co-teacher in this experimental class, taught concurrently, and by video-conference, between Northwestern and Harvard). The book is a great jumping-off point for conversations about problems in research methods.

The two chapters we’ve read for this week were both excellent: Gina Walejko’s “Online Survey: Instant Publication, Instant Mistake, All of the Above” and Dmitri Williams and Li Xiong’s “Herding Cats Online: Real Studies of Virtual Communities.”  Both chapters are compelling (as are the others that we’ve read for this course).  They tell useful stories about specific research projects that the authors conducted related to populations active online.  In support of our discussion about surveys in class, these two chapters tee up many of the issues that we ought to have raised in this conversation.  Gina also came to class to discuss her chapter with us, which was amazing.  (Come to think of it, I would also have liked to have met the two authors of the second chapter; they wrote some truly funny lines into the otherwise very serious text.)

In a previous class, we started with Eszter’s Introductory chapter, “Doing Empirical Social Science Research,” as well as Christian Sandvig’s “How Technical is Technology Research? Acquiring and Deploying Technical Knowledge in Social Research Projects.”  These two chapters were a terrific way to start the course; I’d recommend the pairing of the two as a possible starting point for getting into the book, even though they’re not presented in that order (with no disrespect meant for those who chose the chapter order in the book itself!).

While many of Research Confidential’s chapters bear on the special problems prompted by use of the Internet and the special opportunities that Internet-related methods present, the book strikes me as very useful read for anyone conducting research in today’s world.  I strongly recommend it.  The mode of the book renders the text very accessible and readable: unlike most methods textbooks, this book is a series of narratives by young researchers about their experiences in approaching research problems, some of them related to the Internet and others not so technical in nature.  As a researcher, I learned a great deal; as a reader, I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s stories.

Graduate Seminar on Research Methods on Internet & Society

Amid all the noise of the start of fall semester, Eszter Hargittai and I are launching a new experiment: a course taught jointly (and separately) at Northwestern University and at Harvard University on research methods in Internet & Society.  We’ll post as much of the material as makes sense to a publicly-accessible wiki.  Students can register for credit at either school.  In the Harvard version, we’ll do 6 of the 10 sessions joined by video-conference.  The other 4 sessions at Harvard will be just with HU students.  In part, we will work in these extra sessions toward planning a General Education course to be offered for undergraduates on Internet & Society in 2010-11 by Berkman Center faculty from around the university.  If you’re a Harvard or Northwestern graduate student, we’d especially love to hear from you.  The course starts later this month.  I’m sure I’ll be learning a lot myself from social scientists, computer scientists and others who are blazing new trails with methods for studying life and other phenomena on the Net.

MacArthur/MIT Press Series on Youth, Media, and Learning

Last month, the MacArthur Foundation, along with MIT Press, announced the release of a series of new books on youth and new media. The series is a treasure trove.

I have been working my way through the six books over the past several weeks as I’m simultaneously working on late drafts of the book that Urs Gasser and I are writing on a similar topic, called Born Digital (forthcoming, Basic Books, 2008).

I’d highly recommend to anyone remotely interested in the topic to read these books. They are academic in style, structure and language, but remarkably accessible in my view. I’m not a social scientist, nor an expert in most of the fields that are represented by the authors (in fact, I’m not sure if there are any lawyers at all in the list of authors!), but the editors and authors have done a lovely job of making their fields relevant broadly.

For starters, the series Foreword, by the group of “series advisors,” is wonderful. I can’t imagine how six people came to agree on such a clear text, but somehow they did. There must have been a lead author who held onto the pen; it’s far too coherent to have been written by committee. (The advisors are: Mizuko Ito, Cathy Davidson, Henry Jenkins, Carol Lee, Michael Eisenberg, and Joanne Weiss. One imagines that the voice of the program officer at the MacArthur Foundation who made it all possible, Connie Yowell, is in there somewhere too.)

The Foreword is worth reading in full, but a few key lines: “Unlike the early years in the development of computers and computer-based media, digital media are now commonplace and pervasive, having been taken up by a wide range of individuals and institutions in all walks of life. Digital Media have escaped the boundaries of professional and formal practice, and the academic, governmental, and industry homes that initially fostered their development.” Those are simple statements, clear and right on. One of the reasons to pay attention to this topic right now is the pervasiveness, the commonplace-ness of the use of these new media, especially by many young people.

Also, their working hypothesis: “those immersed in new digital tools and networks are engaged in an unprecedented exploration of language, games, social interaction, problem solving, and self-directed activity that leads to diverse forms of learning. These diverse forms of learning are reflected in expressions of identity, how individuals express independence and creativity, and in their ability to learn, exercise judgment, and think systematically.” The work of the series authors, I think, bears out this hypothesis quite convincingly.

At the same time, the series advisors make plain that they are not “uncritical of youth practices” and note that they do not claim “that digital media necessarily hold the key to empowerment.” It is this spirit of healthy skepticism that one can hear through most of the essays in the series — and which is essential to the academic enterprise they’ve undertaken.

So far, I’ve finished the book on “Youth, Identity, and Digital Media” (ed. by David Buckingham) and “The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning” (ed. by Katie Salen) and am part of the way through each of the others. Each one is excellent.

In the ID book, I found particularly helpful the first piece on “Introducing Identity” by David Buckingham, which took on the hard definitional and discipline-related questions of identity in this context. He put a huge amount of scholarship into context, with sharp critiques along the way. The essay by our colleague danah boyd (on “Why Youth (heart) Social Network Sites,” a variant of which is online) is already a key document in our understanding of identity and the shifts in conceptions of public and private (“privacy in public,” and the idea of the networked public — related to but not the same as Yochai Benkler’s similar notions of networked publics). And the notion of “Identity Production as Bricolage” — introduced in “Imaging, Keyboarding, and Posting Identities” by Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell — is evocative and helpful, I thought. The many warnings about not “exociticizing” (danah often using the word “fetishizing”) the norms and habits of young people and their use of technology, as well as echoes of Henry Jenkins’ work on convergence and his and Eszter Hargittai’s study of the participation gap came through load and clear, too. (I am pretty sure I can hear dislike of the term “digital natives” in between certain lines, as well.)

There’s much more to like in the book, and much more to work into our own understanding of ID in this environment, than I can post here. There’s an equal amount of insight in the Games book too. (The class I am co-teaching with David Hornik starts in 31 minutes and I should probably prepare a bit more than I have already.)

Digital Natives Conversation Goes International

One of the themes of Born Digital, the book Urs Gasser and I are working on, is excitement around the possibility of an emerging global culture of young people who use technology in particular ways. (We’re equally interested in the problems of those who may be left out of that emerging culture, too, as Ethan Zuckerman and Eszter Hargittai and others are quick to remind us.) It was fun, in this context, to see a few international responses to / reverberations of our post about definitions and subtleties around who is a “digital native” and who is not: one from Canada’s paper of record, the Globe and Mail; a few in Spanish; and a few in German; in Italian; and from our friend and colleague Shenja on the [email protected] (London School of Economics) blog.

(Since this is a joint research project with our colleagues at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, I suppose it’s not really surprising — the conversation actually started internationally.)

Eszter Hargittai on Digital Na(t)ives

We have the great pleasure today at the Berkman Center of hearing from Eszter Hargittai, a prof at Northwestern, on her large-scale research project on how 18 / 19-year-olds use digital technologies. She’s also worked on problems related to what she calls the “second-level digital divide” over the past decade or so. She surveyed over 1000 students at the UIC, one of the most diverse research universities.

A set of important take-aways: she’s found a correlation between gender and the likelihood of creating and sharing digital content (women were less likely to share content online that they’ve created than men). But it turns out that skill level is actually the relevant factor, not gender: if you correct for skill-level, the gender difference goes away. She is also trying to figure out what these gaps mean in terms of opportunities for life chances.

Her research hones in on the fact that what matters are skill differences, not just technology access differences, when it comes to digital inequality. We need to provide training and education for kids in addition to access to the network. These findings — good news for her — are consistent with Eszter’s extensive body of work to date. And she’s plainly right. (This is much of what Urs Gasser and I are arguing in our book, Born Digital; we have to figure out how to say it half as elegantly as Eszter does.)

Eszter has an article coming out very soon, in a volume co-edited by danah boyd and Nicole Ellison, which makes a related set of claims. Her data inform the question of who uses social-networking sites (SNS). Women, she finds, are more likely to use SNSes than men (other than in the context of Xanga, where the numbers are reversed). People of with parents with lower academic backgrounds (which apparently correlates to lower social-economic status, (SES), backgrounds) are more likely to be MySpace users, and those with parents with higher educational backgrounds are more likely to use Facebook. (These data lead to conclusions much like what danah boyd claimed recently, and which kicked up a bit of a storm. See the 297 comments on danah’s blog.)

If you missed Eszter’s talk, it’s worth catching it online at MediaBerkman.

(Separately: she’s also got thoughtful comments on her blog about our pending Cookie Crumbles video contest.)