Interview with Nell Haynes

As part of the preparation for running the third lab of the Stirling Crucible at the University of Stirling, I spoke to Dr Nell Haynes, one of the team who’s working on the Global Social Media Impact Study, about their approach to recording and sharing the project as they go. It’s very interesting specifically in terms of open academic research projects, but also more broadly in terms of how open working might apply to other types of organisation too. Here’s what Nell said…

nell haynes profile

It’s certainly the intention that this project is more open and visible; we’ve been doing the blog for about two years, which gets a fair number of hits, but there’s only really one post that got ‘picked up’. The idea is that it’s not just for an academic audience, or for an english-speaking audience, but it’s a global project that everybody should be able to learn from it.

We’re currently all writing a book about each field site [the locations around the world where each of the team is researching], but the idea is that they’re quite short and accessible; the ultimate goal is to have everything translated into eight languages (possibly more), everything open access, a final website with videos, photographs and all of the documents, and whatever else we come up with along the way.

My previous work had nothing to do with social media or technology, but I do think that in an anthropologically foundational way, social media is important to humanity, so it’s easy to get excited about those aspects of the project.

I finished my PHD in 2013, having started the research for that in 2011, and one of my Professors has had a blog for years and years, for as long as blogging has existed really. But she’s the one who encouraged me to blog, to put field notes, to put random thoughts on that. I’m not sure I’m the most effective blogger, but I’ve at least been trying it for a while. I think it’s helpful to the process for me because if I even just write a little description of what I did that day, I can go back in and slip that into the project later as it’s already in language that’s accessible. And if I need to make it sound more academic-y, then I can stick stuff in there. I try to make my writing interesting, rather than theoretically dense.

In terms of collaboration, when we were still in the field sites, every month we would write a 5,000 word report, and send it out and read everyone else’s. It was helpful to make yourself write something every month but also read other perspectives.

It was good for generating ideas of methodological things, or connections to think about. The man who is working in China talked a lot about Chinese spiritual beliefs, and how that’s connected to morality and social media, and that forced me to think about these things in context of the work I was doing in Chile.

Chinese family watch television on computer

(Photos from the GSMIS Flickr group)

I was actually the last person on the programme – they applied for a grant for eight people, and then a Chilean University got a separate grant and I started later. They’d had several months of planning here, and had been on field sites for four or five months. So I had to play catch up, but they had already collaboratively made a methodology plan, surveys already. I had to catch up, but I also had a lot of resources that were handed to me to help.

For me, this approach is very different from any other anthropology project I’ve encountered. I think it is a new thing that’s gaining a little bit of traction and respect. I did the US academic system, and as far as I know I’ve never seen anything as collaborative. And certainly there are senior researchers who write blogs in partnership, but usually they go to the same place to do it. In terms of having nine different field sites, I’m not aware of anything else like it.

We have a central blog, a Flickr, a Facebook and a Twitter, technically we have a Pinterest (but I don’t think anyone’s ever done anything with it). But the blog has definitely been the central piece to it, and the website has a lot of descriptions of the project and little bios of everyone working on it, but most of the traffic comes in through the blog. There are certain posts that get a lot of comments, but in generally speaking it’s about one a week.

There have been several people who have said “I’m really interested in the project, is there any way I can help?”. So we have various people translating things into different languages, and some people helping out with some social media stuff. There are some film-makers who’re not academic film makers, and there are some masters students too. It’s either educated professionals or academics, we’ve been fairly visible amongst the academic community. There’s not a lot of interest from the people in the field sites. Part of that is there are only a few posts translated.

Danny Miller wrote a blog post, and in it used the phrase “dead and buried”; I think what he actually said was “for teens, in this small English Town, Facebook may as well be dead and buried”.

The title of the post was then reworded slightly [“Facebook is dead amongst teens]”, and that’s what got picked up. It prompted everyone to go back to the blog post, but not necessarily paying attention to the exact wording of the blog post. [The headline of the post in question was picked up by several national and international news organisations].

It was what prompted us to put a disclaimer on the top of blog, “this is still in process, these are initial insights, not to be taken as forecasts”. We had a lot of discussions in December (2013) after it happened, and a US academic wrote this critique saying that ‘anthropologists shouldn’t be in the business of making predictions’, when actually we weren’t.

So it created some tension there, but we discussed it a lot, and vetted the blogs a little more, and making sure there was nothing scandalous. I don’t think it’s changed what we blog though. There’s been an increasing awareness though about making sure that if we are going to make some sort of bigger claim, we have some more data included.

For me, and the way I blog, it always starts with a story. I just sit down and write it, and whilst I’m writing it. I feel it should be something good, and have a point. I edit it a lot, it tends to be much longer the first time I write it. Part of it is figuring out what your style is, and how you like to write, and not putting too much pressure on yourself.

Readability is important. I have an audience in mind, for the most part; my sister, she’s an artist who lives in Madrid, she’s nothing to do with academia, so I send her things and she’s like “I have no idea what this word means, what do you mean by this sentence…”. She’s my imaginary audience because she’s a really smart person, but not at all in an academic sense, or not at all part of the academy. So if I say something pointless or dumb, she’ll say “don’t say that”.

There’s a tendency to try to fit in; you have to use this particular big word to try to fit in with a crowd of people who’re particularly into a specific topic. It’s almost like a rite of passage, a social norm. You have to perform this academic identity in order to be accepted, or even just feel like you’re part of it. And I think for some people, it becomes a kind of crutch. But at the same time, to be published in prestigious academic journals, you have to play that game.



Thanks to Nell for her generousity of both time and openness. Follow the Global Social Media Impact Study here, and if you’re interested, a good further read on the implications of the reaction to the Facebook post is this piece by Peter Spear, “Qualitative Illiteracy and the One-Eyed Business“.

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