Prof Rachel Thomson

You notice things at festivals, at the meeting point of genres and cultural forms: music, comedy, literature, performance. One of the things I noticed this summer was how participation seems to be infusing them all. In the theatre they talk about the 4th wall, the ‘make believe’ suspension of reality that enables us to unleash our imaginations without fear of ridicule or danger. The 4th wall exists in music too.  Salt-N-Pepa’s 1991 single “Let’s Talk About Sex” says “I don’t think this song’s going to be played on the radio”. John Cage’s 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence demands we face the collaborative artifice of performance. A popular practice is to experiment along the boundaries of constructed-ness: fact, fiction, real time and the imaginative time travel. In the fabulous 12-year in-gestation ‘Boyhood’, Richard Linklater mixes up the meanings of family, friends and actors revealing the compelling and forward facing time frame within which we all exist and age, and within which culture gains audience and meaning. A space within which we build culture and community through call and response.

I am writing this on the train to London as I go to interview Lucien, whose life I have been documenting since before he was born. One of my aims today is to talk to him about what being involved in this study means, ensuring that his ‘consent’ is meaningful. His mum and I share cultural references. When I explained the nature of a longitudinal study I used the ‘7 up’ metaphor, the now-classic ongoing documentary series that seems to have become the key text of reflexive modernity: providing a vocabulary for understanding reality tv (the politics of editing), the emotional economies of public exposure (the more powerful withdrew) and the peculiar moral register of the real time voyeurism (we are implicated for good or bad). So when I asked Monica, 8-months pregnant, if she wanted to be in a longitudinal study she had this as a reference point. For Lucien things are different, especially in the early stages, but as a culture-savvy-in-no-hurry kid, he can place this experience alongside others – the homework projects that require a life story, YouTube stars who document their lives online, or just the long running tv shows like Dr Who and Top Gear where we see characters age and where real life scandal get folded into the cultural product.

But this is research…. I was tempted to write ‘research rather than entertainment’. I could also say ‘rather than documentary’ or more pertinently for Lucien ‘rather than play’, but I am not sure that research should be set up in this way. Research is defined by the presence of research questions and an interest in methodology – a plan for HOW to generate answers to these questions. But research is still part of life. It has its own fourth wall. What we are doing is ‘for research’ so, for example, we will call our interaction an ‘interview’, and this means that we do not have to follow the usual unwritten rules of conversation. Or we will call this an ‘observation’ and this means that I have license to spend the day with you, acting as a shadow, giving myself over to noticing the sounds, smells and sensations of your life.

Research ethics – as conceived through the adult subject – presume a tacit agreement to the terms of this game and the validity of the 4th wall. It is this that we ask our ‘subjects’ (the old language) or ‘participants’ (the new language) to consent to. I sign on this line to agree to take part in a conversation that is of a different order of things than usual life. This means that the researcher may have more power than is usual and I need to trust them not to hurt me or to use the knowledge that we together create as a result of our experiment in a way that might be disrespectful or damaging to me or, for that matter, others. With children who are used to slipping in and out of play mode, this ‘contract’ becomes rather ridiculous. In a healthy way it pushes us towards a different kind of gambit along the lines of ‘I am an adult who would really like to play with you. The reason for this is that I recognise that playing is a really good way of creating knowledge and understanding. Mostly you play with other kids, but also with adults, maybe parents and teachers. What is different with this is that I am going to make documents of our play together and these will be public. Which means that other people can see them. But also you can go back to them over time and they, unlike you, will not change. This might be odd. We’d like you to say yes to doing this. But given that neither of us really know what will happen in the future we are willing to negotiate over the documents. This means you can change your mind and that the records belong to both of us.’

Working with children, as actors know, has a special quality. Perhaps because the 4th wall is something that we have to be socialised into and which symbolically marks the end of an enchanted period of childhood in which the imagination is allowed full rein. The 4th wall is also a historically located phenomena – a product of a particular form of technology and associated literacies. Digital technologies change the game and new generations are taking new things for granted. Of course this poses challenges for research which relies on an analogue-ethics concerned with risk avoidance rather than participation. Working with ideas such as call and response and the power dynamics of the porous 4th wall may help us play.

December 4th, 2014

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Dr Liam Berriman

This summer the Museum of Childhood (MoC) hosted an exhibition on children and teenager’s diaries, with examples ranging from a 15-year-old teenage girl writing in 1947 about her turbulent love life, to a teenage colliery apprentice writing in 1838 about the death of a fellow miner. These diaries form part of a larger collection called ‘The Great Diary Project’ currently housed at the Bishopsgate Institute, incorporating both children’s and adults’ diaries from across the 19th and 20th centuries. According to The Great Diary Project website, the aim of the collection is to attempt to ‘rescue’ as many diaries as possible in order to preserve the highly personal accounts of everyday that they contain.

In this short piece I share some reflections on visiting this exhibition by linking together a number of themes I have been thinking through this past year. In particular, the (historical) materiality of children’s media practices, and issues around audience, privacy and authorship.

Getting up close and personal

Viewing the diaries arranged in glass cases, it’s hard not to be struck by their diverse material forms. From pocket-sized, leather-bound journals filled with minute handwriting, to sheets of ruled paper tied together and covered with black biro and carefully glued magazine clippings. The exhibition offered a carefully curated selection of diaries from as far back as 1838 and as recent as the mid-90s. Placed in juxtaposition, the diaries made visible a variety of trends in handwriting, ink and paper qualities, the use of visual images and collaging and, of course, the issues of value and significance in each of the writers’ lives.

In a recent article, Liz Moor and Emma Uprichard (2014) describe the significance of the materiality of archival objects. They propose we need to pay attention to, “how the material qualities of paper and type/script make the research process a sensory and emotive experience” (Moor and Uprichard, 2014: 6.1). By narrowly focusing on the ‘content’ of a diary or archival documents, they suggest we may miss “the sensuous ‘cues’ and ‘hints’ offered by the archive’s materiality” (2014: 1.2).

In an essay for the London Review of Books, Mark Ford similarly asserts the importance of experiencing the poems of Emily Dickinson in their original material form. According to Ford, Dickinson regularly wrote on scraps of paper and envelopes, fashioning her poems around their material form. He describes how Dickinson “razored or scissored the envelopes in a deliberative manner” (Ford, 2014) as a way of crafting the poem into a material artefact.

Individually, the diaries exhibited at the MoC offer a fleeting material and biographical trace of their authors, offering just a glimpse of the values, concerns, and aspirations that they chose to inscribe on paper at a particular moment. What remains is a material artefact, now spatially and historically separated from its author, yet still retaining the affective traces of the cares and concerns that they chose to impart on its pages.

“Who else but me is ever going to read these letters?”

All too often we read past media through a contemporary lens, judging their modalities and affordances by our own relationships with digital and online media in the present. The diary, in particular, has been subject to modern comparisons with online blogging and video diaries both of which have been described as present-day ‘confessional’ devices. Comparisons between these different forms of cultural practice are, however, highly problematic. Rather than simply seeing them as analogue/digital equivalents, each cultural practice needs to be seen as shaped through a distinct set of values and technological modalities. I briefly focus here on the significance of privacy and audiences for the diarists.

In the semi-biographical novel The Boy in the Book, Nathan Penlington recounts his attempts to locate the author of a childhood diary he finds amongst a set of second-hand Choose Your Own Adventure books. Penlington feels that he and the diary’s author shared a similarly difficult childhood and he feels compelled to discover how the diarist’s life has unfolded. During his quest, Penlington is troubled by a number of ethical questions, in particular: how the diarist will feel about the diary being ‘discovered’ and read by another person, and whether they will want to be re-confronted with the memories it contains.

A point of commonality across the diaries on display at the MoC was their often highly personal disclosure of thoughts and events significant to the writers’ lives. Looking through them I often felt an uneasy sense of prying, despite the often substantial ‘historical distance’. Occasionally the diaries were written in a way that appeared mindful of potentially uninvited and unwanted audiences. For example, one of the diaries was transcribed in an elaborate code devised by the author as a way of deterring would-be snoopers, whilst another diarist’s reference to ‘getting rabbit food’ was potentially used to hide a smoking habit. In these instances privacy might be seen as a highly localised encounter, with information specifically concealed from inquisitive friends, parents or siblings.

Our contemporary standpoint on privacy positions all forms of content production as potentially highly ‘risky’, even when not intended for wider audiences. During the recent spate of celebrity photo leaks the EU digital commissioner Günther Oettinger placed part of the blame on the victims for having been ‘stupid enough’ to create the images. Our contemporary networked world is one in which privacy is positioned as primarily the responsibility of the individual, and where personal content can rapidly circulate through wider audiences without warning or consent. Consequently, contemporary teenagers are increasingly burdened with the fear of spoiling reputations through the content they produce. This is not to say that the diarists displayed at the MoC did not have their own sets of concerns around privacy and audience, but it is nonetheless important to acknowledge the fundamental differences in the way that such concerns are actualised and played out.

Further Reading

Ford, M. (2014). ‘Pomenvylopes’, The London Review of Books, 36(12), pp. 23-28.

Franks, A. ([1952] 2011). The Diary of a Young Girl. London: Penguin.

Moor, L. & Uprichard, E. (2014). ‘The Materiality of Method: The Case of the Mass Observation Archive’, Sociological Research Online, 19(3), 10.

Penlington, N. (2014). The Boy in the Book. London: Headline.

November 19th, 2014

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Dr Sara Bragg offers her reflections on:

The Child Internet Safety Conference

In early July, I attended the Child Internet Safety conference in London. This was the second in what is billed as an annual event, with a strong industry presence in terms of sponsorship, exhibitors and speakers, and a packed audience that included local / central government and education providers ( Other contributors included Ofsted and various child protection specialists associated with the UK Council on Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS).

In a recent analysis of UK e-safety policy documents [i], Andrew Hope argues that four main themes undermine critical, informed debate about child e-safety issues: how kids online are discursively constructed (e.g. without differentiating between different kinds and ages of children); the muting of young people’s voices; constructing e-safety as the responsibility of individuals; and the ‘diagnostic inflation’ of risks. I wanted to see how far his arguments would pertain here.

The first speaker was John Carr, billed as a ‘UK Government Advisor on Online Child Safety’ (and not the only one here with an OBE: there seem to be a fair number of government gongs available for this line of work). He began by stressing that ‘children are not a homogenous group’, that 17, 11 and 3 year olds should all be carefully distinguished. This seemed promising, almost as if he had read Hope’s article himself.

Almost immediately thereafter, however, he went on to argue that ‘for some youngsters, the consequences of getting their [global digital] footprint wrong can be long lasting and catastrophic’. This is because employers are ‘routinely looking at the internet’ before appointing candidates. ‘It is unfair but it happens’. Jobs are so hard to find, imagine if you didn’t get invited to a job because of something you did online. For instance, he knows a girl who made papier-mache models of human body parts for a school project and was photographed pulling a ghoulish face whilst carrying them. ‘You might draw an inappropriate and inaccurate conclusion’. Or what about the ‘crime’ of ‘sexting’, for which a young person might get ‘five years on the sex offenders’ register’? Police in the US, he told us, have prosecuted ‘hundreds if not thousands’ of young people because of such images. ‘A lot of kids don’t know that stuff like this is illegal’.

Soon after came a representative from the organization Beat Bullying, who charged ‘industry’ of ‘failing to act’ on cyberbullying, which BB is campaigning to make a criminal offence.

It’s hard to know where to begin in response to this. How convincing is an appeal to young people as future high-flying employees in a context of recession and rising youth unemployment? – If you are in line for the kind of job envisaged here, you might also have the digital nous to clear up your online reputation first, even if it means paying one of the growing phalanx of companies offering to do just that.

As for Carr’s – entirely speculative – example of a problematic image, what conclusions, exactly, might one draw from it? That here was a teenage cannibal or murderer on the loose? Really? At what point might we start to arraign the idiocy of such putative interpretations (or even, the maliciousness of asserting them as viable ones)? Do young people have to carry responsibility not only for whatever they post but for the stupidity of all and any viewers too?

The emphasis on risk is problematic for several reasons. It is inconsistent, as Amy Hasinoff [ii] highlights in a recent article that elegantly contrasts the ‘scare’ discourse around kids and sexting with many mainstream magazines for adult readerships that advocate it as a positive way to ‘spice up your love life’.  It is adult-centric, failing to engage with what young people define as risky or why they might even need and enjoy risk (and, for instance, continue sexting even if they know it is illegal).

Despite the expressed desire to protect young people, it shades into something unpleasantly punitive and occasionally lascivious, policing young people’s behaviours and – as with Beat Bullying’s position – dividing them rather too neatly into victims (to be shielded), and bullies (to be criminalized). In this way it comes across less as an assertion of children’s rights than a backlash against them, as Allison and Adrian James have argued [iii].

Finally the ‘solutions’ to risk are privatized, individualized, and largely adult-led; a matter of understanding and selecting privacy settings, for example, which then makes the parameters of the debate about whether technology companies, schools or parents should take responsibility for leading on them.  The conference programme’s cover image shows a middle-class white boy playing on a laptop, encircled by shields, suggesting that the best we can manage is to save the world one ‘worthy’ child at a time. This is misdirected, lacking a nuanced sense of the broader social context. As LSE’s Sonia Livingstone pointed out, more privileged kids are generally having more constructive online experiences.  In Denmark 75% of children use tablets daily in schools and have no greater incidence of risk. On the other hand, the kids who are at risk online tend also to be at risk offline too; but these are also the very social groups that as a society we seem to find it harder to care about.

Focusing unduly on an abstract figure of the at-risk child is politically toothless, if not an active diversion. It may well prevent us articulating and developing more collective positions and campaigns around, for instance, the way major corporations are mining all our online lives for profitable data.

Equally significantly, however, by not engaging substantively with young people’s perspectives we may be missing out on sources of more fundamental challenge to the online safety agenda. In her research[iv], danah boyd argues that many young people consider their online lives as public by default, private by design. In other words, their understanding of the boundaries of public and private appears radically at odds with many adults’ – and certainly with the technological ‘fixes’ promised by companies exhibiting at the conference.

Several contributors referred to children as ‘digital natives’. Of course, as others commented, there is a danger in assuming too readily that children know all they need to about the technologies and how they work. Nonetheless, there is surely good reason to think that young people could indeed tell us a lot about how and why they use and manage their online worlds. Instead of positing solutions led exclusively by adults (whether parents, teachers or technology creators), perhaps we could imagine inviting young people to participate in these debates as our collaborators, our guides, even as our teachers?


This post originally appeared on the Education Research in the School of Education, University of Brighton blog and can be accessed here: 


[i] Schoolchildren, governmentality and national e-safety policy discourse, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01596306.2013.871237

[ii] Hasinoff, A. A. (2013). Sexting as media production: Rethinking social media and sexuality. New Media & Society, 15(4), 449-465. doi: 10.1177/1461444812459171

[iii] James, A., & James, A. (2008). Changing childhood in the UK:  reconstructing discourses of “risk” and “protection”. In A. James & A. James (Eds.), European childhoods: cultures, politics and childhoods in Europe (pp. 105-128). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[iv] boyd, d. (2014). It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

November 19th, 2014

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