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What’s New in Digital Scholarship: Twitter philosophies, dying on Facebook, and the age of mobile media

Want to keep up with what academic researchers are learning about digital media? Journalist’s Resource rounds up the latest findings.
Jan. 31, 2013, 12:30 p.m.

Editor’s note: There’s lots of interesting academic research going on in digital media — but who has time to sift through all those journals and papers?

Our friends at Journalist’s Resource, that’s who. JR is a project of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and they spend their time examining the new academic literature in media, social science, and other fields, summarizing the high points and giving you a point of entry. Roughly once a month, JR managing editor John Wihbey will sum up for us what’s new and fresh.

Welcome to the wonky world of digital scholarship, 2013, early edition.

Though academia may, for some, be synonymous with “sleepy,” there have been several actual news developments already in 2013 — chiefly the launching of two new journals, Digital Journalism and Mobile Media & Communication, which each just published Volume 1, Issue 1. In such an evolving and new area of research, many of the early papers in those journals are “think piece” in nature and try to frame basic problems and questions. But there are lots of good nuggets and insights for those interested in the future of media.

As for the usual suspects — the several dozen journalism- and communications-related journals that touch on on social and news media issues — some interesting scholarship has already arrived. Below are some representative studies and papers — something to curl up with on a cold winter’s night.

“Twitter as a Reporting Tool for Breaking News”: Study from the University of Sheffield, published in Digital Journalism.

The study looks at the Twitter usage patterns of The Guardian’s Paul Lewis and The New York Times’ Ravi Somaiya as they covered the London riots in 2011. The researcher also draws on millions of tweets from hundreds of thousands of users employing specific hashtags during that same four-day period in August 2011. Lewis’ account was the second-most mentioned (he tweeted 441 times and was mentioned more than 30,000 times by others), while Somaiya was 34th (290 tweets and about 3,500 mentions.) They employed different strategies: “it is clear that Paul Lewis’ tweets are most often original tweets (312 tweets, 71 per cent) compared with Ravi Somaiya’s (133 tweets, 46 per cent).” Other differences include: “Paul Lewis uses 54 @ replies…whilst Ravi Somaiya dedicates more than a third of his tweets (89 tweets…) to @ replies”; Lewis shared 111 links, while Somaiya shared 70; and Lewis sent out 82 tweets with crowdsourcing requests for information, compared to three such requests from Somaiya.

The researcher concludes that “studying breaking news on Twitter and early adopters in these situations is important as it can highlight the emergence of new journalistic conventions, which a focus on established journalistic norms alone may fail to identify.” For example, Somaiya voiced more opinion than old-school norms might allow, suggesting an evolving “hybrid norm,” the study notes. In many ways, the study is a natural followup to a 2012 conference paper, by different scholars, titled “Sourcing the Arab Spring: A Case Study of Andy Carvin’s Sources During the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions.”

“‘Soft’ Versus ‘Hard’ News on Microblogging Networks”: Study from the New School for Social Research published in Information, Communication & Society.

One big buzzword in academic digital discourse and web studies is “produsage” — basically, the idea that there are no longer strict lines between producers (media) and consumers (audience), and that there is an emerging hybrid category of producer-consumers which creatively participates in information networks. Who are these strange new beasts, and what makes them tick? This study looks at a huge volume of tweets — a one-percent sample from more than 2 million users over a week. It uses the semantic analysis tool OpenCalais to help code the tweets’ content, assessing some 240,000 messages in all. The researcher finds that “as users become more and more active, the degree of consumption at the expense of production lowers significantly.” Lower-activity users — those with fewer than 1,000 tweets — are much more likely to behave strictly as consumers; but as consumers get into the 8,000 to 25,000 message zone, their input-output (consumer-producer) ratio stays roughly 1:1, and they become something of a hybrid user engaged in “produsage.” Put another way, an “individual’s agency as a media participant grows over time with continued microblogging use and, as a byproduct of that growth, produsage increases as well.”

The study makes some observations about Twitter content and user profiles, ultimately concluding that users produce the most information about human interest stories, entertainment and culture, and technology and Internet topics. Individuals who discuss business and finance — and hospitality and recreation topics — tend to have larger networks than others. Further, “Twitter users tend to produce much more soft news than hard news by volume.”

“Mobile News Adoption among Young Adults: Examining the Roles of Perceptions, News Consumption, and Media Usage”: Study from the University of Florida and The New York Times published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

The researchers examine the prior literature on how the next generation of news consumers behaves and thinks about mobile news, and they survey 384 young people. They juggle and analyze many variables — among them, the advantages young people see in getting mobile news over traditional sources, as well as their attitudes toward technology — in order to figure out how and why they might become mobile news consumers. They find that the “relative advantage perception of mobile news plays a role in how early and how much a young adult might use mobile news and his or her willingness to pay for such services,” but “it is insignificant in predicting his or her length of mobile news usage per occasion.” There’s a lot to digest in this study, but the holy grail of the long-term news future might be hiding somewhere in all of the data the researchers crunch.

“Social Media and the Arab Spring: Politics Comes First”: Study from Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, and IDC published in The International Journal of Press/Politics.

The researchers use the Arab Spring as a case study and examine social media data from 20 countries. They conclude that the effectiveness of collective action and protest through social media is highly dependent on political context. In some ways, they are trying to cut through a polarized and over-simplified debate between “cyber-enthusiasts” and the “cyber-skeptics.”

Although they don’t deny that social media were important for Arab protestors, the researchers present some cross-national comparative data that show high rates of Internet penetration did not always lead to greater levels of protest in all cases. Another research takeaway is that a “significant increase in the use of the new media is much more likely to follow a significant amount of protest activity than to precede it.” The study adds new perspective to the pile of studies now accumulating on this important historical moment.

“Mobile News: A Review and Model of Journalism in an Age of Mobile Media”: Paper from the University of Gothenberg published in Digital Journalism.

The author reviews the existing research literature on how Internet-enabled information and communication technologies (ICTs) are changing both producers and consumers of news media. The paper serves as a useful overview for those trying to understand, in context, the diverse changes and experiments now going on in the news industry.

It concludes by proposing a new framework for understanding these mobile news dynamics. It’s a model that sees a continuum along two lines: the continuum between human work and machine work; and the continuum between customization and repurposing. There is a tension here: “One finds that the production of mobile journalism has generally traveled from the human-led customization dimension towards the technology-led customization dimension (alongside some who exercise only different kinds of repurposing). Mobile news publishing seems to have become increasingly synonymous with excelling in technological customization, harnessing technological assets that enhance the perceived affordances of mobile devices.”

“Mobile gazing two-ways: Visual layering as an emerging mobile communication service”: Paper from Boston University published in Mobile Media & Communication.

The author, James Katz, who is starting BU’s new Division of Emerging Media Studies, examines the future possibilities and implications of mobile visual devices. (Think Google Glass.) He notes that such technologies might reconfigure our “self-presentation” — and how we might communicate with others — but also our perceptions of our immediate surroundings. Such technologies might “enrich the local information environment.” He also thinks about the potential downsides, e.g., What could street gangs do with all this? And Katz reviews privacy concerns in this brave mobile world.

“Tweeting Social Change: How Social Media Are Changing Nonprofit Advocacy”: Study from the University of Buffalo, SUNY, and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis published in Non-profit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly.

In the wake of the viral “Kony 2012″ campaign, the researchers review the social media use of 188 non-profit, 501(c)(3) advocacy organizations (all those in the sample were reasonably well established and well funded) and try to identify patterns among their various strategies. They focus on Twitter, which about 80 percent of the sample currently employ as an organizational and communications tool. The average organization has about 2,500 followers and tweets about 100 times over a four-week period, though some sent out as much as 1,000 messages over that time.

The study concludes that, for nonprofits, Twitter is most commonly used as “public education” tool (40 percent of all tweets fell into this category), not necessarily a mobilization tool: “[W]e found the majority of the tweets were aimed at providing information to stakeholders, followed by building an online community, and then calling that community to action.” The researchers ponder whether, as more advocacy goes online, the very nature of these organizations may change substantially. The paper can also inform debates over “slacktivism” and related topics.

“What Happens to Our Facebook Accounts When We Die?: Probate Versus Policy and the Fate of Social Media Assets Postmortem”: Paper in the Pepperdine Law Review.

The researcher, a law student, reviews the legal precedents and haphazard policies relating to the massive — and rapidly accumulating — online historical data relating to deceased persons now entombed in social media platforms. “Digital death” raises myriad conundrums and issues: company terms of service and whether they should be re-written; new kinds of wills, estates, custodianship and probate practices; the scattered attempts by various states to address puzzling novel situations; how to gain access to family members’ accounts when they have taken passwords to the grave (and “password” vault solutions.”) The list goes on and on, and innumerable other unanswered questions surface. Of course, historians and journalists may also have a huge stake in all this. The second half of the paper is entitled “Digital Assets and Death: A Status Update!” Like.

A news note: It’s worth acknowledging, especially following the death of information and Internet activist Aaron Swartz, that many of the studies in this area remain behind paywalls and are not “open access.” In discussing Swartz’s life, journalism scholar Jay Rosen recently noted that he had declined to serve on Digital Journalism‘s new editorial board because the publication was not free to the public. For a full explanation of where the open access movement stands, see this interview with Harvard’s Peter Suber.

Photo by Anna Creech used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 31, 2013, 12:30 p.m.
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