Archive | March, 2016

Trace ethnography: a retrospective


Stuart GeigerStuart Geiger @staeiou continues our edition of ‘The Person in the (Big) Data‘ with a reflection on his practice of ‘trace ethnography’ that focuses on the trace-making techniques that render users’ activities and intentions legible to each other. Importantly, Stuart argues, we as researchers need to see these traces in the context of our active socialization within the community in question, rather than passively reading traces through lurking. 

When I was an M.A. student back in 2009, I was trying to explain various things about how Wikipedia worked to my then-advisor David Ribes. I had been ethnographically studying the cultures of collaboration in the encyclopedia project, and I had gotten to the point where I could look through the metadata documenting changes to Wikipedia and know quite a bit about the context of whatever activity was taking place. I was able to do this because Wikipedians do this: they leave publicly accessible trace data in particular ways, in order to make their actions and intentions visible to other Wikipedians. However, this was practically illegible to David, who had not done this kind of participant-observation in Wikipedia and had therefore not gained this kind of socio-technical competency. 

For example, if I added “{{db-a7}}” to the top an article, a big red notice would be automatically added to the page, saying that the page has been nominated for “speedy deletion.” Tagging the article in this way would also put it into various information flows where Wikipedia administrators would review it. If any of Wikipedia’s administrators agreed that the article met speedy deletion criteria A7, then they would be empowered to unilaterally delete it without further discussion. If I was not the article’s creator, I could remove the {{db-a7}} trace from the article to take it out of the speedy deletion process, which means the person who nominated it for deletion would have to go through the standard deletion process. However, if I was the article’s creator, it would not be proper for me to remove that tag — and if I did, others would find out and put it back. If someone added the “{{db-a7}}” trace to an article I created, I could add “{{hangon}}” below it in order to inhibit this process a bit — although a hangon is a just a request, it does not prevent an administrator from deleting the article.

File:Wiki Women's Edit-a-thon-1.jpg

Wikipedians at an in-person edit-a-thon (the Women’s History Month edit-a-thon in 2012). However, most of the time, Wikipedians don’t get to do their work sitting right next to each other, which is why they rely extensively on trace data to coordinate render their activities accountable to each other. Photo by Matthew Roth, CC-BY-SA 3.0

I knew all of this both because Wikipedians told me and because this was something I experienced again and again as a participant observer. Wikipedians had documented this documentary practice in many different places on Wikipedia’s meta pages. I had first-hand experience with these trace data, first on the receiving end with one of my own articles. Then later, I became someone who nominated others’ articles for deletion. When I was learning how to participate in the project as a Wikipedian (which I now consider myself to be), I started to use these kinds of trace data practices and conventions to signify my own actions and intentions to others. This made things far easier for me as a Wikipedian, in the same way that learning my university’s arcane budgeting and human resource codes helps me navigate that bureaucracy far easier.Read More… Trace ethnography: a retrospective

Datalogical Systems and Us


Helen ThornhamIn this post for ‘The Person in the (Big) Data‘ edition of EM, Helen Thornham
@Thornhambot
talks about how her research into data and the everyday has made her think critically about the power relations that surround “datalogical systems”, particularly in how we as researchers are implicated in the systems we aim to critique.   

Data, big data, open data and datalogical systems (Clough et al. 2015) are already, as David Beer has noted, ‘an established presence in our everyday cultural lives’ (2015:2) and this means that the material and embodied configurations of data are already normative and quotidian and novel and innovative. Much of my research over the last 4 years, supported by a range of ESRC [i], EPSRC [ii] and British Academy grants, has engaged with normative and everyday configurations of data – whether that is in terms of routine and mundane mediations, lived subjective experiences framed by datalogical systems and their obscure decision making processes, the relationship between the promises of data for infrastructural change and the realisation of this, or human interrogations of machines. While the scope and breadth of my research into data and datalogical systems is broad and diverse, what connects all of my research is a continued concern with how data and datalogical systems are not just reconceptualising epistemology and ontology more widely (see also Burrows and Savage 2014), but how they implicate us as researchers and  reveal to us that our long-term methods of research are equally and always already subject to, and framed by, the very issues we purport, in the digital era, to be critiquing.

To rehash a familiar argument: if we conceive of technology in relation to social media, big data and data flow, the subsequent methods that epistemologically frame this are defined by that initial conception: web analytics, scraping and mining tools, mapping – tools that seek to make visible the power relations of the digital infrastructures but that actually generate those power relations in the act of making them visible (boyd and Crawford 2012). For the ESRC project where we have investigated risks and opportunities of social media for the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), web analytic methods show us very clearly mundane and dull, repetitive mass media management of content. News headlines are retweeted effectively and broadly with limited discussion that is capturable by the scraping tools we use.Read More… Datalogical Systems and Us

The Person in the (Big) Data


FullSizeRender This edition of EM is jam-packed with methods for doing people-centred digital research and is edited by EM co-founder Heather Ford (@hfordsa)
newly-appointed Fellow in Digital Methods at the University of Leeds and thus super excited to understand her role as an ethnographer who (also) does digital methods.

Today we launch the next edition of Ethnography Matters entitled: ‘Methods for uncovering the Person in the (Big) Data’. The aim of the edition is to document some of the innovative methods that are being used to explore online communities, cultures and politics in ways that connect people to the data created about/by them. By ‘method’, we mean both the things that researchers do (interviews, memo-ing, member checking, participant observation) as well as the principles that underpin what many of us do (serving communities, enabling people-centred research, advocating for change). In this introductory post, I outline the current debate around the risks of data-centric research methods and introduce two principles of people-centric research methods that are common to the methods that we’ll be showcasing in the coming weeks.

As researchers involved in studying life in an environment suffused by data, we are all (to at least some extent) asking and answering questions about how we employ digital methods in our research practice. The increasing reliance on natively digital methods is part of what David Berry calls the “computational turn” in the social sciences, and what industry researchers recognize as moves towards Big Data and the rise of Data Science.

digitalmethods

Digital Methods‘ by Richard Rogers (2013)

First, a word on digital methods. In his groundbreaking work on digital methods, Richard Rogers argued for a move towards natively digital methods. In doing so, Rogers distinguishes between methods that have been digitized (e.g. online surveys) vs. those that are “born digital” (e.g. recommender systems), arguing that the Internet should not only be seen as an object for studying online communities but as a source for studying modern life that is now suffused by data. “Digital methods,” writes Rogers, “strives to follow the evolving methods of the medium” by the researcher becoming a “native” speaker of online vocabulary and practices.

The risks of going natively digital

There are, however, risks associated with going native. As ethnographers, we recognize the important critical role that we play of bridging different communities and maintaining reflexivity about our research practice at all times and this makes ethnographers great partners in data studies. Going native in this context, in other words, is an appropriate metaphor for both the benefits and risks of digital methods because the risk is not in using digital methods but in focusing too much on data traces.

Having surveyed some of debates about data-centric methodology, I’ve categorized the risks according to three core themes: 1. accuracy and completeness, 2. access and control, 3. ethical issues.Read More… The Person in the (Big) Data

Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy


Joseph LindleyJoseph Lindley works with design fiction in order to facilitate meaningful speculation about the future. In between he likes to make music, take photographs and combine the other two with things that fly. Quoting from his 2012 song Tingle in the Finger: it’s a designed world, balanced and slippy. Artificial. I see beauty, not a little superficial. Colder wind.

Editors Note: When I agreed to collaborate with my friend Dr. James Duggan in order to explore a future where corporate taxation was transparent, I had no idea that it would ultimately result in me writing an introduction to my own blog piece on Ethnography Matters. To explain: at an event to share the results of our design fiction tax project (that I did with James) I ended up talking to Heather, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that she was one of the people behind this website. I was aware of Ethnography Matters because of citing Laura Forlano’s posts while writing about ‘anticipatory ethnography‘ for EPIC. Through the wonder of serendipity, that citation, the collaboration with James, and the conversation with Heather has lead to this introductory paragraph being tapped out on my keyboard. Amazing! This seems like the best place to say a massive thank you to the Ethnography Matters team for their extensive and friendly support through the process. Also a massive thank you to Rob, Ding and Dhruv who contributed posts. Hopefully what we’ve collectively written will be of use, interest, or act as some kind of stimulus to provoke new insights about ethnography. So long, and thanks for the all the fish.

This post is part of the Post Disciplinary Ethnography Edition based on work done at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training and curated by Joseph Lindley. The other articles in the series are “What on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?“, “What’s the matter with Ethnography?“, “Everybody’s an Ethnographer!” and “Don’t Panic: the smart city is here”.

Design fiction is what I do. I’ve immersed myself in it for the last 3 years, and it is the subject of my doctoral thesis. I’ve explored it by adopting a ‘research through design‘ approach, which in essence means I’ve been ‘researching design fiction by doing design fiction’. It also means I get to be playful, which suits me fine. The ‘doing’ part of design fiction can be great fun (arguably it’s an integral part of getting design fiction’s right) and this has made my PhD experience an absolute blast. Of course there has been a fair amount of reading and desk-based research too but for the most part I have been doing practical experiments with this extremely flexible approach to speculating about the future. One of the many insights coming out of my research is that design fiction achieves many of the same things that design ethnography does. Furthermore it achieves those by leveraging some of the same properties of the world that design ethnography does. Design fiction can easily be adapted to play an important role in virtually any kind of research project.

But what is design fiction? The generally accepted definition of design fiction is the ‘intentional use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change‘. That’s a bit of a jargony mouthful. With the most jargony part being the word ‘diegetic‘. Diegetic is the adjective from the noun ‘diegesis’, and diegesis is derived from ancient Greek philosophy. The concept is fiendishly deep and complex, so properly ‘getting’ it is pretty damn hard (and, if I’m honest, probably beyond my modest cognitive capacity). For the purposes of design fiction, however, it can be taken to simply mean ‘story world’. So if we put it like that, design fiction is really quite simple: it’s about incorporating design concepts into story worlds. But why would you join together a design concept and a story world, why put a prototype inside a fictional world, what’s wrong with this world? Well, it’s about the power of situativity, the depth of insight that emerges when action and context are considered together and with equal importance. And this is where the similarity between design fiction and ethnography can be drawn. The combination of design provocation and context is design fiction’s unique selling point (even if it is all just ‘made up’). It differs from traditional notions of fiction in that it tells situations rather than stories. And it differs from normal views of design, in that the designs are only of consequence when considered in terms of the (made up) situations they’re placed within.Read More… Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy