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Some thoughts from Picturing the Social Conference – June 2016 #VSMLconf

I’m on my way to Sheffield to deliver a workshop on Social Media for Early Career Researchers at the first student-lead Sheffield University Doctoral Student Conference tomorrow.

I was lucky enough to be able to plan my travels around the second “Picturing the Social” conference in Manchester, hosted by the Visual Social Media Lab. It’s came at a very good time as I’m now deep into the process of concluding my methodology chapter, moving into discussion chapters (3 x case studies) having completed & passed (my first and hopefully my last!) internal annual review for the PhD.

I have a fond, yet weird displacement feels. I did most of my PhD (the first time around 2010-2012) living in England, where, although I was at a distance from my home campus, I had the benefits of living in a central location city that meant that getting to participate in events & meet folk who do Internet research was a lot more frequent – and I feel my work and how I work fits between disciplines. I don’t think I’ve found this in Scotland – yet.

It’s great to be able to touch base again – and plug myself back into the very active, emergent cross disciplinary research community that Farida and her team have managed to curate over the duration of the Lab’s initial ESRC funding. Definitely feeding me after quite the solitary writing and reading process required for getting this PhD concluded by December. A couple of things of note:

  1. The pervasive nature of images online –
    • Taken for granted, yet statistic of 750 million images uploaded a day at the start of the @ViSSocMediaLab project (2013) vs 3 billion+ a day now (2016) (@flygirltwo);
    • How industry use, manipulate and integrate the use of visual media from a branding and marketing perspective – user generated (indirectly mentioning the brands but not directly speaking to the brands), brands drawing attention to themselves (+ metrics, sentiments, privacy of data) (@setlinger) – there is also a need to continue to develop tools and approaches for understanding what is going on here;
    • picturing the everyday, photographs as signs of personal identity, intimacy, storytelling & relationship between the researcher analysing the subject and the subjects understanding of what the image means (relationships, politics, campaigns) – and the ethics of undertaking research of this nature. (@KLobinger, @annelburns, @linpro, @fatie)
  2. Agile and flexible research position for researching and understanding social media as a space, subject and dataset –
    • From ‘skepticism to case study’ (@fatie) – lead of inquiry can come from social media, through a campaign and/or the researcher interacts, comments, emotes about campaign, leading to a research project – incapable of preparing the research questions as the data is short term, contextually ephemeral, risk of being censored by the platform if consisted political or breaking terms of service (unknown what that could be), need to act fast but access to large and complex datasets;
    • “risky research” allows for rapid response to news stories, the researcher can join the news cycle and produce relevant and ‘impactful’ research that allows for the team to react and engage with the social media environment and provide research that concerns a wider audience who have been sharing the image in question e.g. The Iconic Image on Social Media: A Rapid Response to the Death of Aylan Kurdi, report from Visual Social Media Lab.
  3. Visual examples of how digital research (in particularly online ethnographies) can be carried out and presented;
    • Multi-modal approach (cross-use of different media as both focus of study and method to present) – however, same considerations as ‘non-digital’ research methods, or historical ethical debates  – we also need to consider the original context of how the image would be shared i.e. @KLobinger had permission to share participant photos in report and publication but not for audience to photograph slides and share on social media, more attention to the ethical and public/private space;
    • It is possible to demonstrate how people are using the Internet and social media through very specific ‘ethnographically informed’ case studies i.e. #imagingsheffield thick data to the big data, from the perspective of the individual, the group and the organisation.
    • What does it mean when your respondents can literally respond to your work (and work in progress), by either befriending your on social media, responding to presentations, contributing more information to the project as it happens? How do we consider this from a methodological perspective?
    • Paper: Fakes, flames and memes: Exploration on Twitter visual imagery during the no-go demonstration in Milan (Gabriele Colombo, Matteo Azzi.) Similar area of study to my own PhD research (alternative media communities, protest narratives present within major events) but taken a quantitative, big data approach. Significantly more data (involving images) expected at events – different types of media, including different forms of citizen journalists.

So much has happened in the last 3-4 years, from the initial ideas for social media method lab, to the growth of smartphone use from 65% to predicted 90% diffusion by 2017.

I can’t wait to start planning for what I want to do post-PhD hand-in (beyond a few weeks of doing nothing). My work has been focused on major events, citizen journalism and alternative media (and delivering workshops about social media as applied practice and/or educational context) for the last 7 years (bar a short break) – and I’m so very ready to move on, time to close a chapter (or 4 more, to be precise!)

I’m already excited by things like –  there are those out there who are doing SNAPCHAT research/using SNAPCHAT for dissemination. Or, being able to turn some of the ‘media for communities’ work into a more formed research-practice project.

Digital media (as a subject, platform and research method) is slowly becoming more widely recognised as a thing we should be working in and on – in its own right! – and hopefully (for me) we can start to see (or I can be involved making happen) some related projects closer to home.