Guest post from Bouziane Zaid
For two days before the Global Voices 2012 Summit this July, I took part in GV’s first-ever academic workshop – “Digital media and disruptive publics” (tweeted as #dpub12). Scholars from all over the world and rooted in different disciplines discussed a wide range of issues related to citizen media, including how it relates to the public sphere and to social change, and different theoretical frameworks, methods and methodologies for analysing citizen media. The Meta-Activism Blog wrote up good summaries for Day 1 and Day 2, and you can also hear Jamillah Knowles‘ podcast from the Summit here.
While I enjoyed the discussions and the high level of intellectual discourse, something particularly bothered me: a general tone of technological determinism, and a somewhat blind faith in the power of new digital technologies. I felt like we academics were discussing the power of mobile phones, social media and the Internet in the same awestruck way that our predecessors discussed the power of radio and television in the early 20th century. As such, the workshop raised more questions for me than answers.
In one session, on digital media and social activism, the dominant understanding of the activism was centered solely around the possibilities that social media offered; no other forms of activism seemed to matter. Another discussion, on methodologies, focused on how Google analytics and other tools are capable of generating and analysing data.
The discussion on methodologies in particular made me wonder what is driving the research in this area. It seems to me that it is no longer driven by a research question emerging from observation of a particular phenomenon. Rather we are examining phenomena occurring within specific technologies or even software, and are limiting ourselves simply to what those technologies make possible.
While this kind of research makes it possible to work with data on a larger scale and scope than by using methods such as interviews or focus groups, it makes the process of observation irrelevant and disconnects the various fundamental components of research: question, observation, theory. Using content analysis software to track what bloggers talk about, for example, and then using the results of this as the basis for our research, is putting the cart before the horse. We’re at risk of pursuing research that technology makes possible, not research that aims to answer a particular question.
Digital media does offer significant possibilities for both activism and research methodologies – but not to the exclusion of more established methodologies. While I find some of these trends problematic, there’s clearly a lot to learn from such discussions – and I am glad that they’re happening, and to be contributing to them.
Bouziane Zaid is the Undergraduate Studies Coordinator at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco. He is also the lead reporter of the Mapping Digital Media: Morocco report.