Digital methods: an entreé

On Saturday I spoke at a PG HR Conference at my University. A valuable experience for a number of reasons.

This blog should introduce the source of light which illuminates my research position. And, without issuing a spoiler, it should not go without saying that I was surprised that so many people thought 'virtuality' still to be a thing, and that many I spoke to afterwards still identified with a boundary between the online and the offline. If one thing is for sure, the 'Snoopers Charter 2' currently being introduced by the British Government doesn't.

Anyway. Here is a short portion of the text.

"I start with a quotation.

Note the words in bold: “the Internet is not only an object of study but also a source.

What I want to say today builds on that last part of the sentence. I want to emphasise the difference between culture and society with the Internet, and culture and society and the Internet. And, to be clear, from where I'm standing, 'and the Internet' is a thing of the past.

The Internet is always changing. This comes with challenges, especially as we move away from Internet research being solely about the Internet and it’s users. The World Wide Web (the bit of Internet relevant to all of us in this room) is a fabulous data source, but one that suffers from a serious reputational problem. To understand this, let us briefly revisit its emergence. The World Wide Web arrived as infrastructure awaiting content, rather than content awaiting infrastructure. It began life as a collection of web pages, connected by hyperlinks, and driven by information. The awaited content was generated by free-for-all spirit of self-publication, and it became an unwitting home for fandom, porn, aliens, imposters, and conspiracy theorists. The digital turn, around the start of the millennium, placed a new emphasis on user-generated content, usability, interoperability, though still with its digital quirks, such as lolcats.

A brief history of Internet, highlight the move from information-driven technologies to communication-driven technologies on the World Wide Web.

The timeline shows the emergence of native digital technologies, and as you look from left to right, you can see information giving way to communication, transitioning our understanding from 'life and the Internet, to 'life with the Internet'.

The legacy of self-publication on the Internet causes some understandable unease within universities, but I am not calling for folksonomic sources to replace the expert's knowledge. Repurposing the Internet for research is not about conducting existing practices using a more convenient technology, but about making a distinction between the digital and the digitised. The natively digital - website, search engine, forum, social media, smartphone, app, hashtag, user id -  join with the gig, the gif, and the gizmo. Natively digital things doing natively digital things. Downloading expert-authored articles, hosted in online repositories, isn't really digital research. It's just a digitised library. What digital methods insists we do is learn from the methods of natively digital online devices, understand them, repurpose them, and then we can begin to ground claims about cultural change and societal conditions in web data.

So, in order to present the natively digital to a traditional audience, digital methods adopts a position of online groundedness, whereby web data is afforded a validity and reliability through its interaction with humans on the ground. It means finding human voices amidst the noise of digital data, and using them to bring together two worlds - online and offline - which some people still consider to be distinct."

Onwards with the day.