The Conversation Never Ends: Participatory Culture in a Networked Era (Part Two)

The following is the second part of an exchange between myself, danah boyd, and Mimi Ito, intended to mark the occasion of the publication of our book, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era, which is being released this month by Polity.

Henry: All three of us are finding ourselves collaborating more and more with quantitative researchers, so in what ways might the findings of more humanistic research help to inform the kinds of data we collect and publish about young people and their media use?

Mimi: I’ve enjoyed increasing collaboration with quantitative researchers over the years, and I find it a useful corrective to contextualize my local, in-depth cases with broader trends that you see in national surveys and the like. And the stories that we tell from a qualitative and humanistic lens are often taken up as ways of putting a human face to the numbers. At the same time, I find it very challenging for the qualitative evidence to punch through some of the underlying preconceptions that are often reinforced by large scale surveys. For example, what gets categorized as “making” versus “passive consumption” is culturally defined, and how a young person might answer a question of this sort doesn’t necessarily track to what adults conclude based on a set of survey findings. For example, one of the case studies our team did of fan fiction on Wattpad showed that young people don’t necessarily describe their publication and writing on the platform as “writing” or “reading” because it doesn’t conform to the genre expectations of what gets called reading and writing in school. Reducing consumption and production to a binary set of participation genres misses the fact that the majority of what kids do these days sits between these poles of activity. These are an outdated set of metaphors in an era where even “consumption” involves searching, querying, downloading, rating, and sharing of media. This more youth-centered perspective is harder to communicate than a raw percentage number coming off a survey.

danah: I recently read Sarah Igo’s The Averaged American, which was a brilliant reminder of the politics that underlie all discussions of data and research. I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by researchers of all stripes who are really passionate about moving past methodology and theory to work collaboratively to understand what’s at play. But I also realize how rare this is. All too often, research is produced, disseminated, and framed for political agendas. One of the things that I relish about the scholarly community in which we operate is that when we disagree – which we sometimes do – we’re able to challenge each other in a productive and constructive way. But I’m definitely struggling with the ways in which research is positioned to mislead and fear-monger, especially statistical and quantitative research.

Henry: I have been lucky to spend a good deal of time over the past six plus years interacting with the members of the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network, a multidisciplinary group trying to understand the political lives of American youth. This research is discussed throughout our book, but is also the focus of another book coming out early next year. The focus of the work on my side was qualitative and ethnographic, but we worked in conversation throughout with researchers who were using more quantitative methods, including large scale surveys. By doing this work collaboratively, some of my team’s framings — such as the emphasis on circulation as part of what it means to participate in the new media environment — found their way into the agenda of questions for the survey research and has resulted in important findings, suggesting that there has been a significant increase in young people spreading political news through their social networks and that this process is an important part of finding their voices as citizens. Such results would have been invisible if participation was defined entirely on the basis of media production, for example.

The challenge of this kind of work involves the development of shared vocabularies, which works better if everyone sheds some of the established jargon, and the recognition of conceptual differences. For example, throughout the process, we kept bumping up against the focus of some of our home disciplines almost exclusively on individual agents and the emphasis of other fields on various forms of collective agency (or social constraints on individual action). We’ve reached a point where we are all aware of these different methodological starting points, acknowledge them, and try to incorporate them into our analysis. But this worked because everyone came in with mutual respect and was able to take the time to listen and understand where we each were coming from in our research.

Mimi: On the qualitative/quantitative axis, the other interesting development is the rise of data analytics, another thing we discuss in the book, and something that has become the focus of danah’s work. While there are a lot of new risks associated with the big data movement, I do find it interesting that it has broken the methodological linkage between quantitative and reductive approaches. Big data is quite unlike the sequestered and reductive methods you see in traditional surveys and psychometrics, and is more like ethnography and fieldwork in the sense that it is “in the wild” and about capturing behavior in context. I’m still early in incorporating data analytics in my own work, but I am finding it a fascinating space to play in.

danah: Most people who hear about “big data” don’t realize just how nuanced you have to be to do analysis in this space. Asking questions of data – especially semi-structured and unstructured data – is extremely hard. Cleaning data is hard. Analyzing and interpreting data is hard. As a result, doing data science is often more art than science. But the iterative nature of working with complex datasets – especially highly dimensional networked datasets – is so refreshing. It allows you to look at a problem from a radically different perspective.

Because I started out in computer science and came to anthropology and qualitative methods later, I always felt as though I needed to convince people that I was a “real” ethnographer. In seeking legitimacy in a scholarly world defined by method, I often downplayed the different technical work that I used in my research. I did a lot of large-scale random sampling of MySpace and a lot of network analysis of different social media services. Although I published a few papers on Twitter and Friendster analysis, most of what I did when scraping and using technical tools to analyze data was to help me better understand what I was seeing in interviews and observations.

In all the hype around “big data,” I hope to see more integration of qualitative methods with statistical and machine learning methods because it’s amazing how these can feed into each other. The key with both is learning how to formulate a question and be reflexive about what you’re seeing and what you’re not.

Mimi: I feel the book does a pretty good job of giving expression to our different disciplinary dispositions and generational identities, and the methods we have brought to bear to our research. All three of us have studied overlapping and related topics and trends, but have different lenses on the phenomenon. The book reminds me a bit about the proverbial blind men and the elephant, but with a more positive outcome. When the three of us are in conversation I do feel like we are able to piece things together into a still imperfect, but somewhat integrated bigger picture.

danah: As we dive into this conversation, emulating the kinds of conversation that we produced for our book, what do you hope people get from reading our book?

Mimi: Writing this book as a three-way dialog was a new experience for all of us, and I’m really curious what people will make of it. Although it was challenging to work through a new genre of book writing, in a lot of ways the process mirrored how the three of us have actually worked together over the years, sharing partially formulated ideas, arguing with one another, and putting things out there in public for broader engagement. I’d love it if this book gave folks a window into this kind of dialogic knowledge production. I hope people leave with positive view into the way that ideas and theories are socially and relationally constructed as other people and the changing world pushes up against our theories and preconceptions. This kind of openness and flexibility seems to me critically important especially for those of us who take up topics like technology and youth culture which are very dynamic, require us to be methodologically innovative, and collaborate across geographic and disciplinary boundaries.

Henry: There’s lots of core insights to be found in the book about the themes and topics we all care about. This really was an honest period of reflection for all three of us, looking back on the past few decades of change in a networked society, trying to assess what we believe to be true and important, trying to qualify early claims both by us and others that may have simplified our understanding of the current situation. I was struck rereading the book about how much we had to say about inequalities in access and participation, a theme which seems urgent for us to address, but was sometimes pushed aside by our excitement on new and emerging opportunities and the amazing things young people were doing within their online communities. We each bring in examples of the kinds of communities which we’ve focused on through our research and the comparison across those cases is illuminating.

But, like Mimi, part of what I really value about Participatory Culture in a Networked Era is the ways the book may illustrate the power of critical conversations, even among people like us who start with somewhat similar positions. Our thinking evolves over the course of the book, as we listen to and respect what we learn from the others. We need more of this kind of academic dialogue — not reading papers to each other at high speeds at conferences, not throwing out messages in bottles (or journals, which can take even longer to reach their recipients), but in sitting down in real time, sharing thoughts, responding thoughtfully to others, and challenging established wisdom. I’ve recently been rereading a somewhat more contentious exchange between Cornel West and bell hooks about the role of the public intellectual and it has made me wish we had so many more scholarly works in this genre. What I’d love to see happen is for people to sit down with colleagues, across disciplines, across perspectives, with the book, and talk through together how they react to what we say there, or simply take the intersections of their own research trajectories as a starting point to see where this leads them. Such conversations do not happen enough.

danah: I think we’re all in agreement that the key value of this book is exposing how ideas become ideas.  I love “Advanced Reader Copies” or galleys of books because I like to be reminded of the imperfection that happens before we get a book in its completed state.  When I was first entering graduate school, everything about research seemed mysterious.  Ideas appeared to just come down on high and get magically polished by brilliant people. But as we all know, that’s not how scholarship happens.  It’s indeed socially and culturally constructed. More than anything, I hope that this book gives people an insight into the process and practices of research. This book is definitely the backstage of research into participatory culture and I hope it helps people see our work and struggles from a new light.

Henry Jenkins is Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California

Mizuko Ito is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation chair in Digital Media and Learning, University of California, Irvine

danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, the Founder of Data & Society, and a Visiting Professor at New York University