Rachel Thomson, Professor of Childhood and Youth Studies, University of Sussex

I spent a really interesting day at a University of Sussex event in the ESRC funded Digital Bubbles series exploring interdisciplinary perspectives on autism and technology enhanced learning. I was invited as a sociologist to say something about how research into young people’s digital culture can shed light on the wider question and I presented a draft version from our forthcoming book based on the Face to Face and Curating Childhoods project looking at how ‘research’ itself has become an integral part of soap-bubble-439103_1280young people’s digital cultures: be that obsessing, stalking and fan-girling a band or showing off skills in homework projects. I was given the final slot of the programme which is always a bit gruelling but meant that I had the pleasure of listening to the other contributions of the day.

First up was Yvonne Rogers, Professor of Human Computer Interaction at UCL. Whose research involves making things that might disrupt or change the individualising attention economy which she illustrated with a picture of a line of teenagers all staring into smart phones. These are the ‘digital bubbles’ that Yvonne wants to disrupt, encouraging us to ‘look up and out’ from our devices and pay attention to co-presence and face to face interaction. Her amazing projects include wiring up a forest and creating collaborative devices that incite pair collaboration in order to probe and measure the environment, collecting data that can be aggregated and reflect on by the group, revealing new ways of thinking about spaces. Her latest invention are smart cubes that can be coded to respond to movement, heat, moisture and to express sound and colour and to do so relationally via blue tooth. So for example, children could use the cubes as different instruments creating music in real time.

I loved her focus on attention (we are working with Alice Marwick’s idea of the attention economy) and her commitment to use technology deliberately to intervene, enhance and I’d say ‘re-enchant’ face to face interactions. But I did worry about the insularity of the metaphor of the digital bubble. In our research we have become interested in the ways in which technology can enable young people to access new kinds of ‘public’ which may be mediated and ephemeral but can also be networked (boyd) and live (for more see Nolas 2015). Think for example of the groups of friends playing online games together in real time aided by Skype, practicing their wit and repartee.

The intersection of fans, celebrities and ‘professional fans’ in the form of YouTubers (who begin as ordinary fan and turn into celebrities themselves) can be seen as a dynamic cultural circuit that depends on practices of search as well as the production and circulation of content and value by users. It is clearly a great deal of fun, as well as providing opportunities to travel (camping out with fellow fans to see the celebrity and to get a selfie) and to make friends with those beyond your neighbourhood. The question of whether such practices are ‘progressive or reactionary has come to dominate much academic discussion of the phenomena. Some like Jodi Dean suggest that ‘communicative capitalism’ relies on fantasies of participation, contribution and circulation. For Dean these networks are apolitical in that they are contained and literally privatised and their economic value is harvested by advertisers and corporations. Yet there is another tradition of seeing fandom in much more positive terms as a set of social practices, that may well change the world in subtle but profound ways. Synchronicity seems to be an important part of the picture (doing things in unison and in real time) as does co-presence, although whether we need to be in the same room to be co-present is another matter. One of the ideas that we have been playing with is that of ‘sonic bridges’ – the notion that sound has a privileged relationship with togetherness and with synchronicity. Building on Kate Lacey’s ideas of ‘listening’ in and ‘listening out’ perhaps we can play with musical metaphors to think through some of the affordances of the digital for live communications.

To find out more about the seminar and series see http://digitalbubbles.org.uk/?page_id=24

Our book: Researching Everyday Childhoods: Time, Technology and Documentation is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2017.

March 21st, 2016

Posted In: Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Comment

Dr Sara Bragg

A recent University of Brighton initiative, the Research Leadership Programme, involves participants shadowing a ‘research leader’ from a different institution for a day. I went to meet Matt Arnold, head of research at Face Group in London; its website describes it as ‘a global strategic insight agency’ delivering ‘socially intelligent research by combining qualitative insight, real-time data and smart thinking’.

I expected the Fatboy beanbags in the reception area on my arrival, but I was more surprised to be shown into a starkly-lit basement, where Matt and a colleague were huddled over a conference call with a client. I gained a clear impression of the speed and pace of the corporate world, observing Matt helping colleagues work out the logistics of designing and delivering research in different countries and even continents within the space of a few days. I wondered how compatible such long hours would be with ‘work-life balance’, and how far this is a young (single/childfree?) person’s world…

I was equally fascinated by their research methods, and here there were immediate similarities with ‘innovative’ social science approaches. For instance, Face Group has developed an app that prompts research participants to generate data such as a diary, photos, film, notes. As in the social sciences, ‘traditional’ focus groups are increasingly seen as limited, capturing conscious, post-hoc rationalised reconstructions of behaviour rather than contextualised feelings and actions in the moment.

Face Group also has its own ‘social media listening’ service, distinguished by a sophisticated natural language processing capacity that can help identify different kinds of consumer and what they are ‘saying’ across social media platforms. Having recently experimented with using free social media analysis packages such as Node XL to understand teachers’ professional learning networks, I am only too aware of their limitation and the desirability of more powerful tools such as these.

Similarly, ‘co-creation’ and ‘co-research’ are increasingly popular and widespread terms. Face Group can lay claim to some ownership of the concept, having developed specific, multi-layered, recursive research processes under this rubric. For instance, developing new personal care products might bring together the client with the ad agency, design agency, R&D and experts from Face Group’s own ‘black book’ (such as, a hairdresser with their own exclusive product range, fashion specialists, a sous-chef who understands smell and taste). Consumers would be carefully recruited – completing questionnaires, auditions and set tasks – to ensure they were articulate, sociable and represented ‘100%’ of different target audiences. Over the course of an intensive five-day programme, experts would give presentations; consumers provide information about themselves, how they think, what they do, their lifestyle and attitudes; diverse teams would be assembled; new product ideas would be developed with R&D keeping ‘in the parameters of what is realistic’ and using creative techniques where participants build on each others’ ideas; an artist would be on hand to capture the affective texture of the day… culminating in outcomes matching the objectives set out at the beginning.

Or to give another example, a project to develop new smart technologies involved intensive mini-ethnographies, spending a few hours with research participants at work and at home, to understand their needs and technological dilemmas in situ. Diverse findings were then grouped and condensed into vivid ‘vignettes’ when presenting findings to the client. At a procedural level, again, there are many resonances with social science methods, right down to the presence of visual artists at conferences. Certainly, the Face 2 Face project in which I have been involved has been discussing similar approaches.

Social science is often concerned with marginalized social groups, who (being poorer) are necessarily of less interest from a marketing point of view. Our audiences may also be less keen on our findings, however well-grounded, than a client seeking knowledge of a market: in education, for example, politicians consistently ignore evidence about the negative consequences of ability-labelling and streaming practices. Education researchers often speak in terms of loftier goals such as ‘social justice’. Could this be broken down into achievable goals and steps and a programme for delivering it developed through co-research? What is the place of data analysis – would a social scientist make very different use of the kinds of data gathered by market research? At a conference of the Centre for Research into Economic and Social Change (CRESC) I attended some years ago, some fascinating papers were doing just that with survey data from the 1950s. It would be very interesting to develop further dialogues about these issues across sectors, data, and interests.

February 20th, 2015

Posted In: Blog

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Comment