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.



One of the first challenges for this year is a presentation about user-centred or co-design, what it means to design a process with participants and what it may be like for participants to be part of that experience. Not a small topic, then.

A key part for me was to explore what I felt co-design to be about – and why working with participants in the research process was important in the work I am planning. So many conversations, blogs and articles offer different judgements on what co-design ‘means’ – with quite a few claiming co-design as an approach for something which uses data gathering through a workshop or survey to thinly veil a pre-determined direction set by the researcher as expert .

 "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”  Goldman, William (1973)

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Goldman, William (1973)

It turns out that these arguments about co-design are still pretty ‘zeitgeist-y’… Kevin Gillan blogged a few weeks ago about the needs to move ‘towards an ethic of public sociology’. He highlights the challenge in planning research co-design:
“Scholars need to guard against unwittingly reproducing an extractive mode of engagement with ‘research subjects’ and instead take seriously the idea of co-production of knowledge that recognises the expertise of movement groups involved in the analysis of social problems. Given the inequalities built into research relationships that are often sparked by academics with agendas that have been set already, and in conversation with problems defined in scholarly literature, this is a difficult task that should be embedded in the design of research projects and operate continuously through data collection, analysis and dissemination”.

The AHRC ‘Connected Communities’ project is reflecting on the impact collaborative research has had on the projects undertaken in the last few years. A report from the January advisory group meeting highlighted the benefits for participants, including “new relationships, increased credibility, greater recognition for existing work, ownership and control of research projects”. The winter 2014 special edition of DesignIssues included an article by Tuuli Mattelmäki, Kirsikka Vaajakallio and Ilpo Koskinen on developments in co-design and empathic design in the Nordic countries – where perhaps it has been embedded most significantly.

Co-design has to be more than user-centred, where there is participation and consultation, but the focus remains with the researcher. Instead, co-designed research should be about a dialogic process: ‘Co’ indicates something which is about community, equality, empowerment and collective creativity; something sustainable, shared, active and social. Co-design is democratising and a political statement about challenging those “inequalities” of the research relationship.

This is, of course, not without difficulty. Many feel concerned about the abrogation of responsibility in research design. How can the researcher manage unexpected provocations, trajectories and outcomes? How can we behave ethically in gaining informed consent for an organic process from which unanticipated data may spring? There are other questions about providing an authentic voice for research outputs co-created with participants outside the academy. Don’t get me started on the anxieties surrounding academics’ personal competencies such as emotional intelligence and sensitivity.

Co-design is a very messy process – it demands lots of fuzzy discussion before a clear line of thought and organised, collaborative outcome can be reached. I am trying to put into practice Kevin Gillan’s points about embedding ethically considered co-design in my research project. This may mean lots of unexpected direction – participants may want to consider different issues to the ones I am anticipating; constant review of what informed consent means will be necessary; finding the right voice and format for dissemination cannot be decided yet because my research collaborators need to discuss that at length. Readjusting and reframing will be demanding, but social, creative, authentic – and worth it.
yarn barf

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