Research update

Whilst presenting at conferences and co-writing a paper with my colleague Annette, I’ve also been carrying out interviews with participants. I’m conducting interviews to find out about the role of social media in artistic practice and cultural labour, which is one focus of my PhD (the other being the performance of expertise on social media).

So far I have interviewed 14 people (including my pilot study) and have two more in the diary before Christmas. I’ll stop there for now in terms of recruiting participants, because I also need to gather samples of their social media posts, so I will have a lot of research material.

I’m going to take time over the festive period to transcribe the interviews, collect the social media posts and analyse what I have, because I’ve dived straight into recruiting participants and interviewing them without really taking a step back. I found my participants by looking on regional arts directories such as New Art West Midlands and Art in Liverpool, I identified artists who were quite prolific on social media, and contacted them directly. The response rate was great and I must thank everyone who has taken the time to speak to me so far.

My participants include fine artists, photographers, writers, craftspeople and musicians. The interviews mostly took place over phone and Skype, and I asked them about their work and their background, how they use social media, what they think of it, how it has helped them in their career, and so on. This was to really get a sense of the role of social media in their artistic practice, and subsequently their personal lives (because most of them do not separate their work from personal life).

What I’ve been presenting at conferences so far is the performance of expertise element of my PhD which has been based on my pilot study. This has proved  to be really insightful and I’m looking forward to building on it when I come to analyse the other participants’ social media posts properly. However,  I’ve found that interviews are crucial if you want to find out how social media is used and its role in people’s lives.

One thing in particular that social media analysis doesn’t pick up is the amount of time people spend looking at it, what they’re looking at, and why. This is often called ‘lurking’ but I prefer to use Kate Crawford’s (2009) concept of ‘listening’, which:

invokes the more dynamic process of online attention, and suggests that it is an embedded part of networked engagement – a necessary corollary to having a ‘voice’. If we reconceptualize lurking as listening, it reframes a set of behaviours once seen as vacant and empty into receptive and reciprocal practices.

(Crawford, 2009:527)

Interviews reveal this process of ‘listening’ and the context in which it occurs. In my interviews, I’ve found that listening is an important part of my participants’ artistic practice – they look on social media for inspiration, to keep up with events and opportunities, and to generally ‘see what’s going on’ in their networks and specialist areas. And for most of them it’s a habit, they do it during ‘downtime’ when they’re having a coffee or waiting for a bus. This type of activity and context is not visible on social media, but is potentially important when thinking about social media and its role in cultural labour.

These are some very pithy initial observations of course, and there is much more to be drawn from the interviews when I revisit them. I do feel however they have added a valuable dimension to my research, and I’m going to present these initial thoughts at my University’s upcoming research conference, RESCON. The presentation is part of an ethnography panel organised by Birmingham ethnography coffee group.

So over the next month or so I’ll finish the remaining interviews and start to gather social media posts. I’ll also take time to reflect, not only on what I’ve gathered but also the research process and my own position as both a researcher and social media practitioner, and implications this may have for my interpretation.

 

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About Karen Patel

PhD candidate in social media and cultural work at Birmingham City University.

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