While the CelebYouth team didn’t set out thinking we were ‘digital sociologists’, the project was designed to engage with people online through the project website, Twitter and Facebook. In this second blog post on our contribution to the recent digital sociology seminar, Laura explores some of the tensions, opportunities and challenges facing the CelebYouth team in communicating about their research online.
Mark Carrigan discussed the value of digital tools in enabling a ‘backstage’ view of the craft of sociology. Colleagues have told us that it has been useful to see qualitative research unfolding – ‘live’ on our website, Twitter and Facebook pages – in ‘real time’ – sharing our thoughts, data, dilemmas. A student explained that they had found the exploration of methodology in our blog posts useful and saw this as an ethical reflective practice.
We have also used the blog post to comment on relevant areas of education policy and discourse about young people, celebrity and aspirations, bringing the team’s existing knowledge and initial observations from the project to bear on current debates as they are happening, rather than waiting until the end of the project.
The CelebYouth blog has welcomed guest posts from people working in related fields – we have had some fantastic insights from these posts, many of which have drawn on research by Masters and PhD students and early career researchers.
The collective nature of the blog challenges in some ways the increasing demand for academics to build themselves into individual brands. At the digital sociology event we discussed the fears early career researchers have of leaving a trail of messy and unpolished analysis scattered across the Internet – blogging as a community can in some ways alleviate this fear – the CelebYouth posts are often written collectively, with team members offering comments on each others writing. As an early career researcher myself, the opportunity to write regularly with feedback from colleagues has been invaluable in overcoming the fear of public writing and the associated feeling that all ideas and words need to be ‘perfect’ first time.
Our blog posts have also put us into conversation with others working in the same field, through comments, reply posts and discussion on Twitter.
Kim, Heather and I have been taking turns on Twitter. Some people have said that it feels strange not knowing who is tweeting – it seems especially unusual to do this at a time when building individual online profiles has become part of the performance of ‘being an academic’. We have used Twitter both as a way to send our blog posts out to a wider audience, but also to engage in conversations as they are happening – intervening in debates, such as Heather’s recent discussions with people on Twitter about domestic violence on UK Reality TV show Big Brother.
As we worked through our data transcripts, we did some ‘live tweeting’ of data such as anonymised quotes and initial thoughts, making the complexities of qualitative research and our own positions within the project visible in different ways.
Videos and vox pops
The CelebYouth YouTube channel so far has a few of videos about the project, including Heather’s interview on the BBC. We anticipate that we’ll be using YouTube much more as we develop our analysis and start to present at conferences. We learnt a lot about YouTube from CelebYouth participants (including discovering many YouTubers we’d never heard of!), so we hope this knowledge will feed into our use of YouTube as the project progresses.
Digital methods of communication enable us to track what happens to our posts, tweets – on Facebook, we can see which blog posts are viewed, which are shared; through google analytics, we can see how long people spend on articles (are they just searching for pictures of celebs or are they reading our posts?) and which tweets are retweeted or favourited. This can tell us something about how people are engaging with our work and our data (for example there were a lack of retweets of an article about ‘tampon girl’ compared to some of our posts about Michael Gove and education policy).
Collecting data on twitter and sending data and initial analysis back out on Twitter blurs the distinction between the production and ‘consumption’ of media and of sociology – it becomes part of the messy spaces between data collection, analysis, and communication.
While these conversations are happening in large forums, such as Twitter, the communities are quite different – for example, our discussion community on Twitter tend to be practitioners, left-leaning academics and left-leaning people involved in youth work and policy.
In communicating in this way, we are generating a collective identity as a team, individual identities as authors on posts and videos, and an identity for the project. Our online interactions are sometimes transitory, but we also see our website as developing an archive of the process of research.
Our online presence is part of our strategy for ‘impact’ – we can intervene in debates during the life of the project, as policy announcements are made, as news events happen. However, this raises challenges for us in terms of conducting interventions into the policy context. We write as critical scholars – throwing light onto the messiness of research and developing our ideas in quite a public way.
The digital sphere enables us to write commentary informed by our ongoing research process. On one occasion I came out of interviews with young people about their hopes and worries about the future to a speech from Gove in which he demonised young people yet again, and wrote this post. Our blogs sometimes document the pain and frustration of these moments – our encounters with policy and people’s everyday lives are not neat equations and strategies. But could this position us as overly critical? Are there risks in engaging with policy discourse in this way?
Are we missing something in this quick, immediate interaction that is facilitated by digital sociology? Research takes time, and all the while policy and political discourse marches on. What does ‘impact’ mean in this context? We can communicate our research to colleagues working with young people – to students conducting research, we can speak back to policymakers during the life of the project. But what impact does this have on our data and analysis? Heather explores this in the next post.
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