How will online socialization affect research practices?

Karen Herland

As we spend increasing amounts of work and leisure time interacting with keyboards, screens, phones and people we may never have met face-to-face, there are numerous implications for research practice.

That was a large part of the premise of Trials and Tribulations: Negotiating Research Methods in Cyberspace, an interdisciplinary symposium held at Concordia Nov. 10 to 11.

Shanly Dixon (PhD Humanities) has been preoccupied by this question for a long time. As a student, she has been working with Sandra Weber (Education), Leslie Regan Shade (Communications) and Bart Simon (Sociology), all of whom are exploring different aspects of youth, new media and online culture and gaming and whose research groups supported the symposium.

“We’re all looking at digital spaces, but at the Université de Montréal, Film Studies is interested in the video game as a text or artifact, while in Sociology it is the communities that form around the game that are the object of study,” Dixon said.

Convinced that bringing these and other perspectives together could strengthen research practices, she and Kelly Boudreau (MA Sociology), put out a call inviting others with similar preoccupations to come together.

“We really wanted people to bring papers in which they were trying to work out their process and considering the complexities, nuances and challenges—which is where the trials and tribulations come from.”

The result was the convergence of two dozen researchers from the Netherlands, the U.S. and across Canada. Papers addressed youth culture, gaming culture, the impact of the internet on traditional roles like that of the librarian and the ethics of studying Internet use and practices with young people.

Of particular interest to Dixon and Boudreau was the increasingly inadequate division between the real and the virtual. “I think the distinction is really fluid. And most of us have multiple roles within those spaces. How do you capture that in your research?”

Dixon was impressed by the fact that although researchers represented a range of ages, levels of experience and disciplines, they shared a desire to develop new approaches, or rethink old ones in the face of new contexts.

“It’s really exciting. I think digital culture is eliciting a kind of collaboration and collegiality.”

A desire to maintain a level of rigour in new and unexplored fields was shared by participants, as was an interest in staying in touch and perhaps developing an open source forum to continue and build on the connections made at the symposium.

Dixon, who is co-editing Growing Up Online with Weber, is aware that many current scholars “have a foot in both camps. They use new media, but have not been socialized into it.”

She is curious about the methods “digital natives” will introduce as they enter the academy. “What about those who grew up with Facebook, text messaging and blogging?”