“Privacy is a crumbling myth” – Annette Markham on Promises, Discomforts, and Methodologies of Digital Culture

Annette Markham

Annette Markham will present a keynote at the DCC ECREA’s next workshop in October 2013. We are very happy to welcome her in Bonn in autumn. As a scholar dedicated to ethnographies, visual data analysis and sociology of online communication, Annette Marham has been one of the most innovative researchers in the field. Her current interests include the cultural form of the remix and questions of online ethnographies. We took the chance to ask Annette about her methodological approaches, her influences and tools.

What field of research are you currently most interested in?
I’ve been deliberately crossing disciplinary boundaries for the past few years because for me, it’s important to find innovative ways of conceptualizing and grappling with–methodologically speaking–complex digital contexts. I’m most comfortable in my home disciplines, all of which connect in some way to the Chicago School or pragmatism: human communication studies, organizational theory, and interpretive sociology. My other “home” field of research is Internet Studies. This is an umbrella term for an international body of researchers looking at issues related to communication and culture as mediated or influenced by the internet.

Can you name some authors, concepts or theories that you regard as important for researching digital culture?
There are so many! Let me just describe what I’ve been thinking recently: I have been exploring how we can blend symbolic interactionism (SI), actor network theory (ANT) ethnography, and grounded theory to explore the (inter)action between materiality, technology, and individuals. Symbolic Interactionism and Actor-Network Theory provide excellent frameworks for conceptualizing digital culture as processes and interactions among elements. Here, we can read any number of great scholars, like Gregory Bateson, Erving Goffman, Herbert Blumer, Karl Weick, John Law, Bruno Latour, and so forth. In terms of actual methods, they provide less solid grounding for how we might actually identify and study these processes. Chicago School ethnography lends well-developed practices and methods for engaging in close-level, grounded observation of the details of situations.

While I draw inspiration from many ethnographers, both classic and contemporary, I tend to return to the work of James Spradley. Although his extraordinarily detailed guides for participant observation and ethnographic interviewing are targeted specifically to face-to-face settings, his explanation of the reasons for such detail is very useful to help consider how these methods might be translated to digitally-mediated contexts. Grounded theory, as developed more recently by Kathy Charmez and Adele Clarke, gives us many useful tools, not only for getting close to the user experience, but for how to manage and sort data through iterative processes and levels of coding.

What methods, software, or tools do you use in your research?
I use a range of methods and tools, depending on the specific contexts. For collecting materials, I tend to use ethnographic methods. For initial sorting and coding, I use a range of rhetorical criticism methods and play with different ways of cutting into the materials, such as metaphor analysis, narrative analysis, cluster analysis, and Burke’s pentad analysis. I apply these as more systematic approaches to grounded theory coding. Considering the contexts from a network perspective (not social network analysis but a general network sensibility), I will generate various maps of the situations, as described in my recent work and drawing much inspiration from Adele Clarke. Most of these methods I describe are not theoretically driven, but a remix of various approaches, all intended to provide more or less systematic ways of looking at the data. I talk about the importance of this ‘mixed methods’ approach in my recent work on ‘remix methods‘. I have used computer-aided analysis tools, but prefer hands-on analysis, as this allows me to get closer to the data.

What is the most interesting question at the moment concerning the role of digital technologies in interaction and communication?
Certainly, the question of the moment concerns the role and power of the algorithm.

What are the promises and discomforts of digital culture in 2013? How has this changed since 2003?
Privacy is a crumbling myth and we’re more aware of this myth than we were in 2003. So too is control over information flow: Google algorithms filter what we find when we search, Facebook algorithms controls our newsfeeds in ways we don’t quite understand, and every platform, app, and device has layers of control through code. In many ways, we are more aware that our experience is filtered in ways we cannot really understand or therefore control. Yet marketers seem to know exactly who we are and feed us very specific targeted advertisements. Whether or not we’re totally aware of the extent of this juxtaposition, many of us feel a vague sense of dissonance.

The promise is the flip side of this coin: access and awareness. As access to the internet grows, particularly through social media, we become more aware of the characteristics of digital culture. We may live more and more “in media,” as Deuze would say, which arguably creates a saturated self, as theorist Ken Gergen notes. But we’re also gaining more critical perspectives on how this might be influencing our everyday lives and sensemaking practices. In a hopeful sense, we can more clearly see ourselves, the frames of digital culture, and the future potential.

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