No trolls allowed?


I was fortunate enough to hear Sarat Maharaj of Lund University (and previously of Goldsmiths) speak recently about art, textiles and knowledge production at the Cultural Threads Symposium at Central St Martins. Included in his ‘haberdashery of ideas’ was the Norwegian concept of the troll as curious and observant – a challenge to the comfortable status quo. This, of course, is in contrast to the image of the faceless, vindictive troll we have seen in social media news from Mary Beard and Caroline Criado-Perez to Gamergate.

It gave me pause to reflect as I have just launched the Facebook element of my research into amateur knit and crochet makers who engage as communities both ‘in real life’ and online. Crafty people are generous, welcoming, affirming and full of admiration for the skills of others. Crafty people are also – well, people… which means some can be thoughtless, mean, narcissistic and vindictive. Trolling on Facebook has affected Attic24 (which I wrote about here) and more recently the ‘Crochet-Along’ efforts of Dedri Uys and Kimberley Slifer. The generous designers – offering free their skills, patterns and time – were broadsided by vitriolic posts which almost brought the 20-week schedule to an early close. Similarly, the inventor and sole Facebook manager of the ‘Big Comic Relief Crafternoon‘ found it necessary to post that she was stepping away from the site temporarily as the trolling posts were too distressing to manage.

Why trolling happens at all is a much bigger conversation than can be had here. The thoughtlessness or sheer horrid wounding involved has something to do with the protection offered by the screen. Yet it is not faceless… people’s avatars, images and names are associated with these postings – observed by strangers and ‘friends’ alike.

A colleague has tried to assuage my concerns by pointing out that any potential trolling in my research group is of academic interest: A pragmatic, detached approach can be taken where I analyse the motivation, message and impact of a negative post. However, this project is about wellbeing and community. There is more at stake than my role as a researcher. I have a moral and ethical obligation to participants that I will protect them from harm.

And so… in these early stages, there is a light touch reminder in the welcoming pinned post about support and positivity. However, there is a draft ready to go regarding a zero-tolerance approach to trolling: Posts will be deleted, posters will removed from the group without debate. I have engaged some trusted friends with ‘Admin’ permissions to help monitor this. It may well mean ‘missing’ some points for research, but protection trumps all.

With these measures in place, I begin this aspect of my research with a hopeful heart.

If you are interested in participating in the research group, the details are here – please feel free to share.

No trolls allowed.


Social Media in Social Research: Blogs on Blurring the Boundaries

Thank you, thank you, 23 Things – without you, I would never have discovered the value of Twitter as an academic tool and resource and would never have discovered #NSMNSS – New Social Media, New Social Science and the NatCen publication Social Media in Social Research. As it is, my mind is full of the rich possibilities of not just using social media to represent my own writing or reading the work of others – but to employ it far more explicitly as a tool for research.


The e-book is a collection of blogs written for #NSMNSS and replicated or reframed for this SAGE publication. It contains reflections, advice and academic writing on the practicalities, principles and ethical challenges of social media in social research. Overall, the message is clear: further research is essential as the world of the academy catches up with the world made smaller, more accessible and (frighteningly?) public through platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

Some of the texts explore the possibilities, largely yet untapped, of the vast, messy data source that social media represents: Francesco D’Orazio comments on the implications that ‘social data is not quantitative data, rather qualitative data on a quantitative scale’. This is idea is picked up by Jessica Owens as she reflects on the needs for rigour in social media research – including the need to ‘qualify your quant’… quantify your qual insights’.

The work of Phillip Brooker and the Chorus Analytics project picks up the need to re-evaluate these terms of quant /qual. One of the most exciting things to have discovered through the book is this free analytic resource which has suddenly made the possibilities of using data gathered from Twitter a genuine consideration for my research planning.

As someone involved in planning research in the spirit of ethnography, I was interested in the articles dealing with the need to find a suitable language for ethnographic research in the worlds of social media. Randall Clemens writes eloquently of the tensions in ethnographic principles of place, time and cultural group in moments where participants are ‘both here and somewhere else’ when they use social media. Equally, temporal boundaries are blurred in ‘asynchronous communication’ where responses may be in real time or ‘seconds, minutes, hours old’ and more. The cultural groups represented in ‘Neighborhood Ethnography 2.0’ are also fluid and emergent as cultural content is constantly being viewed, uploaded, edited and shared.

Perhaps one of the key contributions this collection makes is further debate on the complexities of applying rigorous ethics in social media research, especially following the outcry about methods and practice in the Facebook ‘Emotional Contagion’ project. Lisa Sugiura writes on the challenges of virtual ethnography whilst Amy Aisha Brown provides an account of her practical approach to managing ethical problems. Of particular value are the reflections of ethical considerations by Kelsey Beninger and the recent NatCen report on using the views of social media users.

Right, I’m off to think about the ideas presented by Deborah Lupton on using Pinterest as a tool for gathering visual and reflective data with participants…

More than ‘Network, baby’? – other social media tools (Things 9, 10, 11)

If I am learning anything through ’23 Things’, it is that I should spend a little time finding out / having a go / reflecting on the unfamiliar territory of learning and making a place in the digital world. Inevitably, there are elements of a project such as this which appear to be of greater relevance than others… But what is the point of committing to following a programme of this nature and not diving in to the unfamiliar?

I am a dutiful swot – as I’m sure you have already picked up – and so I had a go at signing up to the networking sites: LinkedIn feels like an uncomfortable place at the moment… I have assumptions and associations of this as a networking vehicle for industry and the corporate world of which I have never been part. I also think of LinkedIn as a site which perpetuates itself – everyone uses it because they think everyone uses it and it would be risky to be out of the loop. This may well be unfair and unfounded, but I felt that the aspects of data they wanted for profiling were not those most important to me. I may feel differently in the future if LinkedIn remains a key way to post your CV and seek job opportunities, but it just isn’t reflecting where I am at the moment.


I can see the relevance and usefulness of, however. No surprises there, perhaps, but it has more to offer for ‘newbie’ and early career researchers. Elements such as uploading of conference presentations and papers are not just promoting the voice of your work, but can act as an organic archive – a hot topic to consider in the aftermath of ‘Open Access Week’ and many recent questions about the growing need for recognition of altmetrics (See Thing 6). My first conference is next week and whilst my presentation will be (mercifully) brief, I will begin my archive on the site.

I have already written about Facebook as a personal space (see Thing 3) rather than a place to make professional connections, but I am beginning to consider the purpose of using pages other than personal ones: Firstly, I need to explore the idea of creating ‘events’ pages as a way of reaching a wider variety of research participants. I am preparing some workshops for the University of Falmouth and Craftivist Collective #wellMAKING Craftivist Garden project – both of which will be advertised through Facebook event pages that can provide information, allow sharing and help keep track of numbers. In addition, I am still committed to using Facebook in the future as a way of involving far-flung virtual participants in my research. There are issues about ethics, confidentiality and ensuring transparency about informed consent here which I am trying to learn much more about.

What else is new? I have considered Pinterest in a new light (this mother-of-the-bride has too many wedding planning associations with it) after reading this from the LSE: My personal recommendation for using digital technology in teaching is the wonderful Padlet: This allows the creation of a ‘wall’ where images, text, video etc can be posted – but there is a key difference… The URL can be shared securely with students / co-workers so they can add their own contributions, making it a truly dynamic bit of collaborative technology. It updates in real time, so it’s also a top way to invite contributions from everyone in a lecture or seminar.
padlet banksy

Certainly, Twitter remains the professional discovery of the programme so far… This week I have kept up to date with debates in Open Access week, found interesting material about Qualitative Research– including a committment to ‘online first’ articles, signed up to a local conference (where I also will be submitting a blog-post and hopefully a paper), and committed to blogging for Public Health England’s A Day in the Life site as part of challenging stigma around mental illness.

Thing 5 – ‘personal brand’ and other uncomfortable ideas…

Alison was concerned that she may have taken her involvement with Twitter a step too far...
Alison was concerned that she may have taken her involvement with Twitter a step too far…

And so we come to the first element of the ’23 Things’ programme where I am truly uncertain. I have spent a great deal of my life trying to be as invisible as possible – indeed it was necessary to be ‘professionally invisible’ on social media in my previous existence as a teacher (See Thing 3 post on this). The concept of a ‘personal brand’ makes me shudder…

I followed the guidelines for this week’s activity: ‘Googling’ (ugh, changing noun to verb) myself led to a myriad of people, all of whom were not me. Google images illustrated many beautiful humans – ditto. I do not exist on social mention. I do pop up on Facebook, identifiable as ‘doctoral researcher at Sheffield Hallam University’ – but my pages are uber-protected, so except for links to my blogs – that’s all you’re getting.

The challenge, then, is to grapple with the principles of reaching a wider audience for professional purposes. I have begun this journey by rejoining Twitter, which I see as a professional platform rather than a personal one. Following people I respect and organisations I admire allows me to discover events and ideas I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. So far, I am only engaging in the echo-chamber activity of ‘retweeting’ things I think are important and interesting and am reluctant to ‘over-tweet’ (again, see Thing 3 post). I have also linked my Twitter and blog accounts, so notifications of posts from now on will go out to people I do not know, may like to meet or possibly who don’t really care. That is what feels uncomfortable in its newness.

Public blogging does feel somewhat different: I see the exercise of writing and reflecting as crucial in my development as a researcher: it’s like going to the gym for my brain. I also feel passionate about the role of blogging in connecting people and communities who share the same values and who can learn from each other. Part of my planned research is to use my Recovered Threads blog as an interaction with readers, ‘making scholarly work accessible and accountable to a readership outside the academy’ (Gregg, 2006).

The blogosphere is full of articles about the digital footprint of academics, ways to get noticed professionally and the use of exciting new algorithms for applying metrics which measure citation and influence beyond the traditional spheres. I remain uncomfortable – I am a ‘newbie’ after all. However, I do see that moving into a different role in a world with different regulations and lingua franca means reassessing how I present and re-present myself within it.

Thing 3 – social media

Social media is a relatively new world for me. As a teacher, the nightmares of what Facebook may reveal were controlled by strict workplace social media policies. I found it easier to avoid ‘the book’ altogether. For a while I found Twitter professionally interesting, especially exchanges on best practice from respected educators like Geoff Barton, John Thomsett, Tom Sherrington and Ros McMullen. Equally, I found the professional self-promotion of others somewhat off-putting. I never ‘tweeted’, only ‘twood’ (or read, as we have it in our house). I am not a fan of David Cameron, but I perhaps share his concern about what too many tweets may make…

For several reasons, I have begun to feel differently. Firstly, I have come to see social media for social purpose – Facebook or Twitter by friends and family, for example – as a valuable connection to the world. This is not the place for personal disclosure, but there has been plenty of emotional upheaval in the last year or so. Social media has offered connection and communication at a time when other interactions were not possible.

Because that’s the kind of person I am, I then became interested in this academically: What categorised people’s transactions over, for example, Facebook? What were the cultural markers for different groups? What happened when they broke protocols (official and unspoken), shared ‘off-topic’ or posted about secrets? This enquiry is now feeding into my current research, exploring the identity and self-efficacy of yarn-crafting women in ‘real’ and online groups. Things can get pretty heated in those crochet pages, let me tell you.
darning women

In addition, I am interested in research methodology which empowers and educates participants, enabling access to academic material on the nature of crafting and its role in – for example – wellbeing. Part of my research project plans include a blog where I can reflect on some of my own making and reading: As time progresses, my goal is to have a focus group who can follow and anonymously comment on theories and questions which I discover in my research – gathering data through blogging as well as using the blog as part of the participatory and reciprocal experience.

I still have some reservations: Would blogging informally, rather than doing ‘proper’ academic writing, become a tempting procrastination? Also, I can see the value in blogging as an exercise in regular, reflective writing – posts can form the seeds for later ideas or become early draft pieces for more formal academic pieces later. However, what stickiness can develop from ‘self-plagiarism’? This is one of the reasons why my name is attached to the blog.

Nevertheless, after avoiding social media as much as possible, I think I am all set to embrace it. Let’s see how that goes…


23 Things