Richard Rogers, 2012 Conference
ANN-SONIC Fourth Annual International Seminar on Network Theory:
Networked Social Movements and Network Theory
Digital Methods in Context
Presentation summary by Peter Knaack
Richard Rogers is University Professor and holds the Chair in New Media & Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. He is Director of Govcom.org, the group responsible for the Issue Crawler and other info-political tools, and the Digital Methods Initiative, reworking method for Internet research. Among other works, Rogers is author of Information Politics on the Web (MIT Press, 2004), awarded the best book of the year by the American Society of Information Science & Technology (ASIS&T). His latest book, Digital Methods, is to be published by MIT Press.
Richard Rogers delivered an interesting presentation on digital methods of internet research. Prof. Rogers started with a historical overview of how social scientists have studied internet-related phenomena. In the early years, the consensus in the internet research community was to approach users offline and study their behavior with traditional methods of social inquiry. Only since around 2007 has online data become more accepted as relevant and representative to study internet phenomena. Nevertheless, internet research continues to benefit from triangulation between online data and “grounded data” that is gathered in non-virtual settings.
What objects are available online? How do dominant devices handle these objects? How can internet researchers repurpose this technology? Prof. Rogers addressed these questions by looking specifically at links, engines, the web(s), Wikipedia, and social media.
Links are commonly studied as connectors between nodes on the basis of hypertext theory, small worlds and path theory, and social network analysis. Conversely, dominant online devices such as Google treat links as reputation markers and indicators of relevance. The presenter used examples of hyperlink networks between companies, NGOs, international organizations, and government agencies to show how web pages of the former link to the latter but not vice versa. These networks of uni-directional weblinks can be understood as examples of “aspirational linking.”
Prof. Rogers then turned to search engines. His research team records the evolution of search engine returns over time. The website Issue Dramaturg for example traces the page rank development of selected websites. Additional opportunities of search engine research include the analysis of typical search queries and common patterns in search results.
The web is commonly understood in the singular, but a promising approach is to focus on specific webs that are demarcated by issue area, geography, and other categories. Each web can be analyzed in many dimensions, including youthfulness (datestamps), brokenness (link validators), and responsiveness (http codes). Prof. Rogers mentioned a recent study on the Iranian web, pointing out that this is one of the most responsive yet most censored webs.
Wikipedia, commonly understood as an encyclopedia, can be studied as a cultural reference. In particular, comparing entries on the same topic in different languages yields interesting results. One example is an analysis of the Wikipedia article on Srebrenica that reveals the different position of its authors on the Dutch, Serb, Bosnian, and English pages.
A playful way to research social media sites is elFriendo. This website was designed to generate a “typical” Myspace profile based on a selection of given interests. In addition, profiles that aim to maximize online friends can be created. In resemblance to marketing research, “typical profiles” of social media users that vote for a certain party can be identified, too.
The discussion that followed the presentation focused on the usefulness of web data. Lance Bennett pointed out that many mainstream social scientists still think in terms of an online vs. offline dichotomy. He asked how internet researchers can challenge this old paradigm. Robert Ackland remarked that the web represents social behavior, not just online culture. danah boyd explained how the discussion page of the Wikipedia entry on the American Revolution provides interesting evidence of identity-based contestation. She asked whether evidence of community-wide code-switching can be found online. In response, Richard Rogers stated that the Wikipedia entries on Srebrenica started with the translation from the English page but have continuously diverged since then.
Richard Rogers, Lance Bennett, and Sasha Costanza-Chock emphasized the importance of validation through cross-methods research. Combining web and offline methods in research teams that bridge “inter-cultural” gaps between different disciplines can help persuade mainstream social scientists of the usefulness of online data.