Post-Snowden Media Empiricism and Secondary Social Media: Data Studies Beyond Facebook and Twitter
Deadline for applications: 23 April 2015
This year’s Digital Methods Summer School is devoted to what we call ‘post-Snowden media empiricism’ and ‘secondary social media’. Post-Snowden media empiricism refers to how to study online media since the revelations in June 2013 about the breadth and scope of NSA surveillance activities. Writing about the future of media theory, post-Snowden, scholars are closing the age of Internet innocence. For years one would study the extent to which cyberspace is an alternative space, a realm of new politics, corporealities and identity play, cleared of reputation, institutions and regulatory legal regimes. Such a point of departure is long dated, but the post-Snowden dates others too, with the likely exception of surveillance studies, once a branch or sub-field. Such is the context these days for calls for post-media as well as post-digital studies.
In considering how to rethink the study of online media, post-Snowden, there are a series of proposals for new theory, but there is not the concomitant attention to the empirical project. What may be the agenda for a post-Snowden media empiricism? Are there digital methods for a post-Snowden surveillance studies? Considering how to approach online media generally nowadays, we ask:
1) What does it mean for media researchers to treat and study empirically the web as an intelligence medium? Do we hunt for confidential documents and study leaks? Would we inevitably slope towards intelligence work?
2) In post-Snowden media empiricism, would one embrace the study of the dark web, anonymous web and onion routers? Should we throw a Tor install party?
3) Ghostery and other software that track trackers (like our very own “tracker tracker” tool) are means to study soft surveillance online (third party cookies, beacons, etc.). Does such surveillance study pale in the face of the sheer scale of post-Snowden media that is surveilled?
4) With the cloud we have moved from a user logic of downloading to one of uploading. Should we replace our scrapers with sniffers?
5) Do the older new media methods still apply? Could we map the cloud as linked server space?
The NSA did not name all the social media platforms. ‘Secondary social media’ is a term we are using to compliment and place opposite to GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon), employed increasingly in French intellectual circles to denote U.S. digital cultural imperialism. Should we turn our focus to the lesser platforms? What value do the other social media platforms have for social research? If Google can be shown to author new source epistemologies, Apple’s iOS store (together with Amazon’s lists) as sources for best-selling issues and Facebook for most engaged with content, what do secondary social media such as Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr have to offer? We are also interested in social media alternatives and new online spaces offering conviviality without necessarily resorting to the logic of the social graph.
//Big Platforms, or GAFA
Among the big data critiques is the notion of ready-made data. This line of thought is part of the continuum which sees a wholesale switch from hermeneutics to pattern-recognition as well as a reputational swing favouring those with big analytical infrastructure. But there needs to be data for the machines that learn and the analysts who run them. Ready-made data as a big data critique refers to an over reliance on API streams for the study of virtually any societal matter, such as Twitter data to monitor disasters, revolutions and presidential transitions and predict flu trends, elections as well as celebrity awards.
Which data are preferred? Whilst the term has deeper roots in the consideration of publishing old media online, the acronym, GAFA, standing for Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, has resonated particularly in the French press and scientific literature as the new term for U.S. digital cultural imperialism, expanded from allusions to Googlization nearly a decade ago, which also coincided with a call for a European search engine, Quaero. Whilst the term may fit well for media publishers and advertisers, for data analysts Twitter is an obvious addition for the study of influence and trend as would be Wikipedia, not only for monitoring attention to matters of concern and cross-cultural comparison but also for data groundwork such as keyword and source list-building (with the advantage or disadvantage of often being exhaustive such as the list of social networking websites).
As a counter-point to GAFA, and the study of big platforms, we would like to introduce the notion of secondary social media, with the question, where are the other signals (online) for the potential purposes of social research? And do they tend to be studied in a similar fashion as the big platforms (monitoring and prediction)? How else to study them?
When one queries new trending social media networks, most popular social media sites for teens or other auto-suggested and completed key phrases in leading search engines, the lists may be concatenated (the exhaustive approach) or triangulated, serving up !LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, Flickr, Vine, Meetup, and other platforms but also the ‘after Facebook’ messaging applications such as Snapchat. How to study the other social media?
The first recognition is that secondary social media is meant as a term in a research sense rather than one pursued from a political economy point of view. We realise that Vine is owned by Twitter, Flickr by Yahoo, Instagram by Facebook, meaning that they are already GAFA-like, and rising on (potential) market capitalization lists. They are understudied, however, both generally but also in terms of how they may be repurposed for social research, which is the digital methods approach.
Secondary social media have specificities as well as similiarities to Twitter and Facebook, which may makes methods of their study comparable. Instagram selfies (including their locations and characteristics) have seen scholarly attention as has (gendered) social curation on Pinterest. But one may make use of the content tagging and activity on the platformed social media so as to study issue engagement. Instagram has hashtags (and comments), and Pinterest likes, repins and comments, organising content and metrified attention to it in ways similar to Twitter and Facebook, where one routinely studies most engaged with content (through the likes, shares, comments, liked comments on Facebook pages and groups, and retweets and favorites on Twitter), often finding content with characteristics consistent with memes. With its reblogging feature, Tumblr is similar, as potentially are its modes of analysis.
Indeed, there may be a temptation to reduce all social media analysis with digital methods to the study of network metrics, particuarly through inquiries into influence, be it of an individual (clout) or a subject matter (trend). The ease with which data can be collected from such platform APIs as Twitter, and poured into analytics buckets attests to the admonition. As an analytical strategy, however, one also may prefer the specificities of the platform over the typical metrics measures. On the list are mature platforms such as Flickr, where one typically studies tagging’s new taxonomies, or more specifically the social life tags, watching which pictures most significantly occupy the politics tag over time, for example. There is !LinkedIn, which one can study the (new) skill sets of professions, profiling the new job names and activities in the emerging creative industries. Snapchat to date has had little scholarship or attention paid to its analytics, apart from a security breach into its unauthorised API, thus far defying repurposing. When is a platform less suitable or even useless for repurposing for social research? Such could also fill in the notion of secondary social media.
//About “Digital Methods” as Concept
Digital methods is a term coined as a counter-point to virtual methods, which typically digitize existing methods and port them onto the Web. Digital methods, contrariwise, seek to learn from the methods built into the dominant devices online, and repurpose them for social and cultural research. That is, the challenge is to study both the info-web as well as the social web with the tools that organize them. There is a general protocol to digital methods. At the outset stock is taken of the natively digital objects that are available (links, tags, threads, etc.) and how devices such as search engines make use of them. Can the device techniques be repurposed, for example by remixing the digital objects they take as inputs? Once findings are made with online data, where to ground them? Is the baseline still the offline, or are findings to be grounded in more online data? There is also a Digital Methods book (MIT Press, 2013) as well as a complementary Issue Mapping book (Amsterdam University Press, 2015).
3Pour les détails sur la candidature, le coût, les informations pratiques: About the Summer School
The deadline for applications for the Summer School is 23 April 2015. Notices will be sent on 24 April. Please address your application email to the Summer School coordinators, Saskia Kok and Liliana Bounegru, info [at] digitalmethods.net. Informal queries may be sent to the email address as well.