I’m at a Digital Participation seminar at Birmingham City University today, looking at how we can measure digital participation and how digital tools can contribute to social inclusion
We had a great presentation from SIDE project at Dundee University which is looking at blogging for 55 plus and SKYPE for older people based at Dundee University. Particularly interesting is older people and students working together. They are looking at how older people use digital tech to better utilise public transport and to driver safer for longer (the latter they are assessing by using digital telemetry data from car engines).
Their creative work is focused on interactive music making with younger people – acclimatisation, introduction to sampling, creation, publishng remix online, peer commentary, virtual economy with tokens. Using creative practice to teach young people transferable skills.
Final work is about using digital media to in a purpose-built kitchen with sensors and WII remotes built into knives to monitor what people are doing. System understands their actions as part of a process and sends prompts to user to continue in their task (eg next step in making a cup of tea) if they forget, pause etc.
We then had presentations from OFCOM - who are getting very good at measuring at which people use the internet and for what, but have less information on the impact that all this usage is having. There is a huge emphasis coming from government on increasing access to the internet, so that government services can be moved online. Less thought is going into what they actually do once they get online (other than getting their benefits). The Arts Council presented their audience segmentation data, which looks at some of the groups that do or don’t attend and participate in the arts. In the afternoon we did some workshopping, and looked at differentiating attendance from participation. We do this with physical arts events, but are only starting to understand how to do this online. Social media should enable us to do all this, and to do some real longitudinal tracking of beneficiaries. But it isn’t quite happening yet.
Have a look at the #MDP10 for the twitter feed from the day, lots of good stuff including a fair bit more from me.
There’s some thinking about making a digital participation network, and BCU has a blog on their interactive work at
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I thought I’d post this in its entirety as it’s not too long. This was the assignment for a module on Research for Professional Practice. It discusses the extent to which we can treat websites as conventional documents, and suggests some approaches for their analysis.
TEXTUAL ANALYSIS AS A METHODOLOGICAL APPROACH TO EVALUATING THE LANGUAGE OF ORGANISATIONAL WEBSITES IN THE SUBSIDISED ARTS SECTOR
Since the 1990s almost every arts organisation subsidised by the Arts Council of England (ACE), has created a corporate website. Typically they fulfill a number of functions: marketing; information; education; archives; and a range of inter-active functions such as mailing list sign-ups, Facebook groups, Twitter feeds etc. For the general public they have become well-established first points of contact and many arts organisations can be said to have a ‘virtual identity’ housed within their website(s), alongside their physical identity as manifested in venues and galleries. In terms of social science methodology, I will consider to what extent websites can be seen as conventional ‘documents’, and then explore textual analysis as a methodogical approach to their analysis.
2. Websites as Documents
First, we should consider to what extent the social science researcher can treat websites as conventional documents. May (2004 ed.) includes it in a list of media which can be used by the social scientist as sources of data: the content of the mass media, novels, plays, maps, drawings, books, the internet and personal documents. Like several social scientists writing in the early years of the digital age, he uses the ‘internet’ to stand for both the technology used to transmit data (the computers, fibre-optic cable and servers) and the data which is transmitted. Websites can be more precisely seen as collections of documents of varying formats and media, which can be accessed via the internet.
Scott (1990) devised four key concepts for evaluating the credibility of documents as sources of data for the social scientist: authenticity, credibility, representativeness, and meaning . Within the context of the arts sector the first three are relatively straightforward. We can be reasonably sure that the website of, for example, the Royal Shakespeare Company, authentically and credibly represents the organisation. If a researcher were to analyse websites drawn from lists of ACE RFOs (Regularly Funded Organisations) he/she could draw up criteria to ensure representativeness. Many organisations’ websites are designed for the general public, and so clarity and comprehensibility is not the issue that it might be in researching websites dealing with open-source software.
May (2004 ed.), is uncertain about the status of photographs, as existing on the borderline between documentary and aesthetic. Sound and video files could also be considered as falling into this category. It is characteristic of websites that they present to the audience a number of embedded media within the overall frame of a single website: photographs, graphic design, video and sound files, and inter-active software. What may be perceived by the viewer as a single website is usually a collection of many documents linked together, some of which fall into this marginal category.
Other issues that present themselves to the researcher are those of authorship and publication. Websites are usually anonymously authored (like much printed marketing material), but are also collectively authored. Different sections of an organisational site may have been written by several authors within and without the organisation, so any research that depends on analysing author intention through interview could be time-consuming and potentially problematic. Even more difficult for the social science researcher to pin down is the issue of publication. The ease of editing software means that websites are updated by a variety of individuals at different time-scales. An organisation’s news section may be updated on a weekly basis, whereas an archive section may only be revised annually.
More seriously, websites characteristically undergo periodic re-launches in which the entire look and lay-out of the site may change and whole sections may be added or deleted. Accessing previous ‘obsolete’ versions of an organisation’s site to enable, for example, a longitudinal study of an organisation’s web presence over time would require, if feasible, highly specialised and time-consuming IT-based research. Academia and libraries have evolved over centuries a highly sophisticated and global system to historically archive, retrieve, index and reference printed documents. Such a system for the web is in its infancy. The British Library has been attempting to persuade the government to implement new legislation that gives copyright libraries the same powers to collect websites from publishers as they currently have with printed material. In an article on this issue in The Guardian on 28 December 2009:
The internet is fast becoming the dominant form of publication in the UK: about a third of all works currently published are only in digital form and that number is increasingly dramatically. Ministers predict the UK will host 15m websites by 2016 but under existing powers the British Library would be able to archive only 1% of them.
Finally, we should note that audience reception plays a far more dynamic and central role than in the case of printed documents. Menu navigation, inter-active content and user-generated content are website elements that place the audience in an actively interpretative and creative role as well as that of a receiver. Though aspects of the reception of printed material are creative, I would argue that there is a category difference in the reception of websites, due to the explicit demand for it placed on the receiver.
The multiplicity of authors, content formats, and continuous deletion/publication editing options, together with the ability of the audience to modify or create their own content as part of the act of reception renders websites too mutable and provisional to be satisfactorily read as straightforward documents.
Researchers basing their investigations on websites need to recognize that their analyses may be based on websites that no longer exist and that new ones may have appeared since data collection was terminated.’
Bryman, A (2008 ed.) p. 468
I would like to propose textual analysis as an approach which can capture more of the fluid and dynamic relationship between current and previous iterations of a website; the range of media and formats within it; and between its producers and audiences.
3. Textual Analysis and Websites
Textual Analysis is a social sciences approach to the analysis of social life, and in particular to the ‘texts’ that are the linguistic elements of social events. A ‘text’ can be written or spoken, and the definition offered by Fairclough (2003) includes many of elements present in websites, including still and moving pictures; video and sound. Textual analysis divides into three distinct phases: the production of the text, the text itself, and the reception of the text. These three phases cannot be studied independently from one another:
It seems clear that meanings are made through the interplay between them: we must take account of the institutional position, interests, values, intentions, desires etc. of producers; the relations between elements at different levels in the texts; and the institutional positions, knowledge, purposes, values etc. of receivers.
Fairclough (2003) p.11
Textual analysis emphasises the deconstruction of the ‘text’ in many different levels and contexts to understand the social effects that it has (whether intended by the producer(s) or not). There is not space here to go into a complete description of the tools used, which include analysis of Networks of Practice, Genre, Style, and Identity. I will take as an example intertextuality: the presence of other texts within a text. This may take the overt form of quotations or reported speech, but also less overtly summaries of other texts that may or may not be attributed. More deeply embedded still is the idea of ‘assumptions’: that what is said in a text is said against a background of what is unsaid but given; and finally that producers make conscious or unconscious decisions to exclude or include other texts. If we were to use intertextual analysis some of the questions for an enquiry into organisational websites would be:
What other ‘internally-generated’ texts are overtly included in organisational websites and in what form? Examples could include interviews with artists, directors etc.
What ‘externally-generated’ texts are overtly included and are they attributed? Examples could include critical coverage in the media.
What texts are assumed and by whom? For example: policy affecting the organisation set by ACE; local authorities; or DCMS.
What texts are specifically excluded or otherwise absent, and are these omissions significant for the organisation’s relationships with its audiences? An example would be the user-generated content of Facebook groups that may discuss the organisation’s work, but which are not acknowledged or linked to within the organisational site.
I have attempted to outline in this essay some of the starting points for a textual analysis of organisational websites. The strengths of this approach are primarily the foregrounding of the networked aspects of all texts within websites. Rather than seeking to ‘fix’ websites as independent and authored documents, textual analysis recognises that a website represents a multiplicity of voices embedded at various levels within the text. Moreover, it exists linked to many other texts within networks of social practices (for example the marketing practice of ACE RFO’s). These linked texts exist in dialectical relationship to each other, and to the receivers of these texts whose ‘reading’ includes the generation of additional texts that add to (or are excluded.from) the website and thus its effect on social events.
Its limitations within a professional context is that it does not, by itself, reveal the intentions of those who act as agents producing the texts that websites consist of. As such (and this is recognised by Fairclough and Bryman in their descriptions of textual and discourse analysis) it acquires an even greater power when supplemented with other research methods such as structured interviews with authors and users. Textual analysis can provide the research commissioner with a richer analytical frame with which to begin to understand how the relationships emerging between real and virtual identities, and between user-generated and organisationally-authored content, are changing the relationships between organisatons and audiences.
Bryman, A, (2008 ed.) Social Research Methods (3rd edition). Oxford: OUP.
Fairclough, N, (2003) Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research. London and New York: Routledge.
The Guardian, (28.12.09)”Website Archives to be fast-tracked”
May, T, (2004 ed.) Social Research: Issues, Methods and Process. Berkshire: Open University Press
Scott, J. (1990) A Matter of Record: Documentary Sources in Social Research. Cambridge: Polity