On Friday, September 30th 2016, over 30 members of the University of Calgary’s academic community joined Dr. Tamara Shepherd, Dr. Jessalynn Keller and M.A. Students Carla McCutchin and Sheena Manabat for Interventions in Digital Methods - a seminar launching the CMF Speaker Series for the 2016-2017 season.
Dr. Samantha Thrift opened the seminar by introducing the speakers and outlining the goal of the series. By combining the work of both M.A. students and faculty on the subject of ethics and social justice implications of interdisciplinary methods for studying digital culture, this first seminar in the series was an opportunity to create points of connection across the department of Communication, Media and Film.
M.A. Students Carla McCutchin and Sheena Manabat presented a reflection and review of their experience at the DMI summer school, and proposed ways in which researchers could use the tools they encountered in a reflective, theoretical and ethical manner. They suggested that the DMI summer school is currently framed as an opportunity to study social media in order to learn something about society, but in reality it was a two week symposium on the basics of using digital tools, and aestheticizing data at the cost of analysis and data literacy. Sheena and Carla introduced what was to be a theme in the seminar: the blackboxing of digital methods in research, and the ethical issues presented to researchers interested in critical interventions in culture. Sheena and Carla argued that by having a data team at the summer school gather and design the “data”, questions of theoretical grounding, richness of findings and the use of private/public data sets went unaddressed. They called for increased accessibility for “newbies” at the summer school, an emphasis on theory over empirical data, and a breaking down of the divide between social scientists and data scientists.
Next, Dr. Tamara Shepherd presented Reframing Digital Methods, and offered possibilities for intervening in big data as a critical scholar. She introduced the network of Fourchette researchers, and described the goals of the research group. Dr. Shepherd then situated the field of big data focused research within surveillance capitalism, which she noted serves to reinforce the concentration of expertise within research and denies the power of sampling while ignoring the power of the algorithms at work in the generation of the data itself. This focus on the objective of research, and the denial of the power dynamics at work then creates a data subject without agency – one reduced to a statistical representation and subject to forms of “epistemic violence”. The result of a focus on big data and not on small/thick/deep data forms (as can often be seen in virtual ethnography as a methodological approach) then presumes the neutrality of the screen between the researcher and the subject, and can result in some communities being over represented or even pathologized. Dr. Shepherd proposed two forms of interventions from an intersectional feminist science and technology studies perspective: unblackboxing and infrastructural inversion, providing examples of Dr. Rena Biven’s work on Facebook’s algorithmic structuring of gender binaries “behind the code”. She also discussed the practices of counter mapping and strategic refusals as ways of foregrounding researcher positionality and unblackboxing the research practice itself.
The last presentation of the seminar was delivered by Dr. Jessalyn Keller, who spoke about Interventions in Digital Methods: Feminist Approaches to the Hashtag. Dr. Keller addressed three key interventions in digital methods: valuing small data in a big data world, learning the landscape of the hashtag, and digital archiving as a method. Each was framed within the work of her ongoing project: Feminist Approaches to the Hashtag, which seeks to document acts of digital feminism, and to uncover and analyze the ways in which girls and women are using digital technologies to challenge what is broadly called rape culture. She discussed the role of the purposive sampling process, and the ways in which this form of interaction with digital data presented a different picture than larger scraping/algorithm focused methods. The data generated for her ongoing project through a purposeful selection told a different story than that generated by amalgamating a time-based sample of Twitter information, revealing the ways in which the methods we use shape the data that is generated, and our ways of understanding and conceptualizing our object of analysis. Dr. Keller also addressed the ways in which the social context of hashtag use, and the curation of the data collected (using methods such as online archives or tactile cut and paste methods) can influence us to think about data in a different manner – creating an intervention into the digital methods used.
Questions posed by the audience focused on the ethics of data archiving, the alignment of archival methods with the feminist ethics of the projects, and integration of interventionist methods into traditional curriculum forms, ways of troubling big data and the interdisciplinary requirements of this research form.