Monday, 11 January 2010

Must Read #2

Kozinets, R (2010): Netnography. Doing Ethnographic Research Online

The importance of this book is, IMHO, comparable to the must read #1 by Hindman (2009): Perhaps not incredibly innovative but filling in a crucial gap regarding online research.

Kozinets seems to be the pioneer in discussing ethnography done online, and his brand new book is a clear, simple, step-by-step manual that systematises the core characteristics and particularities of researching internet use/consumer behaviour (K comes from marketing research). Thank you!

In one way, the book is a basic, general manual for empirical research:

What is ethnography -- a strand of anthropology, mix of methodologies to understand a culture or a social setting?
How to choose your method online -- whether a survey, journal, interview, social network analysis?
What are the steps of an netnography project -- Definitions of questions and social setting/topic to be researched; Community identification and selection; Community participant-observation, gathering of data; Analysis & interpretation; Writing up results, theoretical and/or policy implications?
What are the particularities of netnography vis-a-vis ethnography -- alteration of communication by the particular media used; anonymity; access & participatory ethos of online communities; 'autmatic' archiving of communication?
What are the ethical considerations and procedures -- are online communities public or private spaces; how to get consent for research (inform about the reseach, ; how to avoid harm for participants and how to portray data (degrees of concealment)?
What are the quality parameters of netnography -- degrees of coherence, rigour, literacy, groundedness, innovation, resonance, verisimilitude, reflexivity, praxis, intermix?

By being so basic, systematic and practical, the book demystifies online ethnography. Its wonderful core message is, really, that a lot of social science/ethnography data is mediated. Thus, online is just one -- albeit a very important, if not currently the most important -- domain, among others, with its particularities. But those special characteristics can and should be researched in a manner similar to any ethnographic project -- with ethical, reflective and contextual considerations.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

BB, policy & ethnography

Prof. Phil Napoli (Fordham) and I have moved a (BIG) step further in our investigation of Broadband Access: The Case of Finland.

Last week, I interviewed key people at the Ministry of Transport and Communications of Finland (MINTC), Ms. Maaret Suomi (Ministerial Adviser) and Mr. Juhapekka Rantala (Director of Communications Networks Unit).

They told a fascinating story of the process of lawmaking (see the previous blog on Finnish radicalism), paralleling the recent decision by Finland with the traditional system of universal primary education (kansakoulu): BB access is a similar, necessary component of today's (Finnish) society.  (A core background document -- in English -- by the MINTC  for the national BB strategy can be found here.)

But they also depicted a much broader policy-making philosophy and interconnected set of issues that, I suspect, Phil and I would not have been able to tease out from the law, public debates, or background reports. 

Interestingly, just a few days prior we had received some interesting emails forwarded from the Giganet list, debating which country, after all, is the first one to declare universal access (was it Estonia, as this discussion suggests? Or perhaps Ecuador? France? Switzerland?). Whatever the case, I'm sure that the background stories of the policy making would be partly similar, but surely also different, but that would be something revealed by discussions with those concretely involved in the respective processes.

This just highlights to me how ethnography as a method needs to move to the realm of policy studies. One segment is, naturally, understanding changing audiencehood (see previous blog on participation) that can't be solely derived from statistics on blogging, tweeting, and facebooking.  

But in order for communication research to matter, we need to gain a much more in depth understanding of policy-making processes. In that realm, there are a couple of interesting recent works applying ethnography that real with activism/advocacy -- and Des Freedman's wonderful US-UK comparative analysis on 'Politics of Media Policy'.

However, I hope that the work Phil and I are involved in will prove the importance of case studies and in depth analyses of specific policy decisions, and suggest their applicability and possibilities for modifications for other contexts. Only microlevel ethnography approaches can show the particularities, subtleties, and details that can, in turn, inform the possible lessons learned for other countries and policy forums.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Citizen 2.0: cross Arabian Sea

I'm preparing for a lecture/data gathering trip in India.
One stop will be in Bangalore, in this wonderful institute that combines research and advocacy re: the Internet: 

In search for some possible research partners for the future, I compiled this short abstract that was meant to outline my interest in the question of participation:

The early and mid 1990s witnessed a surge of academic thinking and public debates around the democratizing power of the Internet. The most hopeful utopias of deliberative online communication and formation of active ‘subaltern counter-publics’ (Fraser 1992/1997) were countered with fears ranging from trivialization, fragmentation, even disappearance of widely and commonly shared issues, to viral distribution of non-democratic, ‘harmful’ content. Now the same debates are re-emerging once again in era that is witnessing the explosion of ‘social production’ in a multitude of digital platforms.The recent examples of the elections in two very different societies, the United States and Iran, provide just two cases where information production by non-professional individuals and loose associations, distributed via informal networks including social networking sites and microblogging, has played a major role in democratic processes.

A question remains: do social networks facilitate platforms for democratic debate and participation in our ‘post-broadcast’ democracies characterized by ‘a networked information economy’? And further, is or can there exist such a phenomenon as a ‘Citizen 2.0’ who actively participates in democratic processes (issue driven and/or local, regional, national, transnational) via digital media? So far academic scholarship has focused on theorization rather than empirical analyses, has tended to emphasise activities of social justice movements that are by default networked and proactive, and thus have ‘romanticised’ the participatory and democratizing nature of the Internet, web 2.0 and mobile communications (while most quantitative indicators tend to point towards concentrated and elite communication, and while digital divide still clearly exists). Needless to say, much of the hopeful theorization is European / Anglo-American, and there seems to be relatively little cultural sensitivity in grand visions of global public spheres.

My talk will not claim to provide answers to these paramount questions. Instead, I wish to raise more questions about (1) what should be researched about mediated democracy and citizenry in our time; what should we know? (2) How could we frame that research theoretically and conceptually? And (3) what kinds of methodological solutions might be useful in this context. Rather than presenting a comprehensive research agenda, I will suggest some ideas that would broadly connect to macro, meso and micro-level view of media, power and citizenship (c.f. Clegg 1989), and I will illustrate  those ideas with some empirical examples of my current pilot work for a planned multi-country study on the theme. I hope to provoke a lively discussion, or, rather, a brainstorming session amongst us who care about the possibility of Citizen 2.0.

Ouch. I should have been more specific, articulate, all that. Some magazine from Bangalore contacted me with a blunt question: You'll lecture here but are you seriously advocating the concept of  "Citizen 2.0" in a country where 3.7% of the population uses the Internet?

So I restate my research aim and interest here: I dislike utopias and big slogans (some described above). I'm interested in re-introducing the concept of citizenship in these debates, and the idea that it embeds the notion of participation. I'm interested in the totally different structural, socio-economic as well as policy  contexts of the US, India and Finland that have to do with people, emdia and participation vis-a-vis people's experiences of participation. 
Crazy or what, but I want policy studies to meet media ethnography, in a comparative context. 
I love policy studies but we know many of the (quantitative) constraints. At the same time, as convincingly argued in
this online essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, pol economy scholars look down on cult studies, often for a reason (every CS analysis seems to conclude that everything is a consequence of neo-liberal regime, as the sarcastic comment by, author of the essay Michael Bérubé, reads.) And we surely need to descriptively document practices of both "people" and different kinds of media organisations, to see the choices, and to reflect what might work and in which contexts.

I believe we need a multi-method, multi-theory approach if we want to theorise as well as impact the way we all see ourselves, and are seen, as citizens. When I've presented my research manifesto @CIS, in a few hours, I'll share the actual lecture & reactions.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Fortress Europe and Global Research

Recently, I've seen a couple of very attractive teaching and research job opportunities in something called "Global Media" or "Global Communication".  Also, my dear Alma Mater the University of Helsinki has just begun a new MA program on Media and Global Communication

Excellent. I'm sure no one can deny any longer that there's at least some transnational characteristics regarding most media -- not only in terms of production, content and consumption/participation, but in terms of ownership or even policy challenges and regulatory frameworks as well. Another curious phenomenon is that as I'm getting ready to teach a course on media and national identity there's really nothing very contemporary about written about it. The related books are dominated with titles that start with the G-word.

So it's great that scholars and universities are focusing on this. But.

I wonder how to put this diplomatically... A couple of years back, I was part of a team doing an overview study for the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation about communication research in the US. Having been used to the little clique that meets within the protective walls of the Fortress Europe I was amazed what a different research landscape emerged from our mapping of the situation the US.  No need for details here (well, the studies on media effects, you know... check out the report) but I also noted how US-centric the research is.

Wearing my European hat, easy for me say. Access to data (e.g., state-funded statistical bureaus, the European Audiovisual Observatory), to researchers/universities in other countries, cultural proximity, EU/European as a common topic... all make things easier on that side of the Atlantic. At the same time, the relative Anglo-American dominance in communication and media studies, at least for Northern Europe, had given me some glimpses of the US-based research. And thanks to America 'cultural imperialism' I felt I could analyse American talkshows and reality programmes fluidly, no problems.

But then today, here in Brooklyn, I realised what the European me had been missing... 

I just finished a part of a book review I'm coauthoring for a US-based academic journal. My task was to read a book by Danish scholars -- oh well: New Publics with/out Democracy.  A solid edited volume, interesting cases. But having become somewhat cross-Atlantic reading it I was suddenly transformed back to Finland, could even see in my mind's eye the seminar room where these texts and others would be presented and discussed. The point: I encountered something that I claim is the Nordic way of doing research and writing, and something in me recognised it immediately.  Can't deconstruct that in detail (yet), but will think about it more.

And I realised how culturally, well, narrow, my research competence is. It also dawned to me that we Europeans really lack analyses by North and South Americans colleagues, African, Asian and Oceanian researchers, about our contemporary media culture, structures, policy-making... The cultural competence is important, but oh how refreshing would it be to read analyses that looked at our fortress (and the national mini-fortresses within the big one) with a little bit of distance... We might learn tons! (Apologies to those scholars who are already working on this, but you are not many). 

So let's mix and match and get truly global -- Europeans (Westerners) have excelled in researching other cultures; it would be so important to learn more about ours through non-native ones, so much more possibilities for innovation. 

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Radicalism a la Finland: Governing Broadband Access

Mark the date 10/14/09: Finland made history in broadband access. This is how the Finnish Broadcasting Company told the news in its website:

Starting next July, every person in Finland will have the right to a one-megabit broadband connection, says the Ministry of Transport and Communications. Finland is the world's first country to create laws guaranteeing broadband access.

The government had already decided to make a 100 Mb broadband connection a legal right by the end of 2015. On Wednesday, the Ministry announced the new goal as an intermediary step.

Some variation will be allowed, if connectivity can be arranged through mobile phone networks. 

This is a radical step, at least as in: the first in the world. However, to put things in context:

According to a recent poll by Statistics Finland, 82% of all Finns had used the Internet in the researched 3 month period last Spring. In that tiny country of 5.3 inhabitants 70% of Finnish households have already a broadband access

[A comparison to my other home country: According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in Spring 2009 63% of adult Americans had broadband access at home. This means a 15% increase from 2008. ]

But it should be noted that the Finns have had their visions about Internet connectivity long before one could even dream about something like the Obama administration & FCC's national plan that is in the making. Finland has been busy since mid 1990s with creating national strategies to ensure it position as a leading 'Information Society'. The first action plan was envisioned in 1995, followed by one in 1998, and another in 2007. The latest plan exceeds until 2015 and had initially included  the 100 Mb vision cited above.   

A great research topic: How did the 2015/100Mb plan -- and now the speeded-up version of 2010/1 Mb law -- come about; how did the argumentation pro/con manifest and the policy-making process unfold? Prof. Phil Napoli, a colleague and mentor from Fordham University, and I will look into that in the near future.

However, the topic has spinoffs: when online, searching information in English  about the novel landmark law, I encountered quite interesting approaches to this piece of news. Alone the pictures used in some of the news items would make a fun cultural analysis of the Brand Finland and free image banks (a medieval castle in Turku in winter; a lake and red wooden cottages on a summer's day). 

But it was fascinating to read how different sources commented this act of Finnish radicalism. Here are some samples:

CNN had made a story out of it and interviewed a legislative counsellor of the Ministry of Communication, a certain Ms. Laura Vilkkonen. Bless her soul for saying this, plain and simple: "Universal service is every citizen's subjective right."  CNN also noted how Finnish are in accordance to the UN view of Internet access as human rights.

The story in the Guardian started with a slightly negative tone (the Ministry 'pushed' through the law that will 'force' telecoms to offer high speed access) but really focused on the reasons for such decision (sparsely populated country, business opportunities) as compared to the UK where the issue is a very concrete digital divide between those who're ITC savvy and those who never go online.

It was not so much the short news item but the related heated comments that, admittedly, startled me when reading Business Week's take on the matter. How about these world views:

Rainer: (...) It's just like needing a car to get to work. If you don't have one, you move to a place that's close to work, or has access to public transportation. Would you have the government of Finland also state that everyone has a right to a car? (...)

Mike J: (...) Welcome to "Robin Hood" socialism where we steal from the rich (who pay the majority of taxes) and give to the poor (who don't pay taxes or pay much less of a percentage). Then when the rich have no money left, their employees will get laid off and the government will have not have a money source. (...)

Dave: (...) There are only three ways that the Finnish government can guarantee this right to all of its people. They can:

A)Use the threat of force to mandate ISPs to provide service to all of its people without being paid (aka slavery)

B)Use the threat of force to mandate that all Finn's must pay some type of tax to subsidize internet service to all people whether they want to or not (aka slavery)

C)A mix of the two via some type of scheme of forcing people into plans, price capping and subsidies (aka slavery)

Whichever of these three paths they take, the Finn's are putting a gun to the head's of innocent vicitms in their own citizenry and forcing them to provide this service to its people. (...)

OK. We all know how online commentaries may sometimes be in style and way of argumentation. And the thread included positive feedback to the Finnish policy-makers, as well.  

Still... perhaps most interesting observation for me, as a Finn, was how relatively little attention the law  received in Finnish online media. One way to look at it is that we are too jaded with our Info Soc and other social/cultural/industrial policies that characterise a social welfare state, so we don't see what kind of radicalism this decision signifies to some audiences, countries... To be sure, there exist claims and increasing evidence of dismantling several aspects of that welfare society -- as we've known it in the past. 

But the Finnish decision on broadband access is radical in its 'old-fashioned' approach:  it views Finnish citizens as, well, citizens, even in the context of the new networked information economy. 

Friday, 2 October 2009

Ecumenical Media

On 9/30 I had the honour of attending  the annual Everett C. Parker lecture on ethics and telecommunications and awards reception, organised by the United Church of Christ, to honour the courageous pioneer of the US Media Reform Movement.

I had initially met Rev.  Dr. Parker at Fordham University a few years ago -- where he used to teach until recently. His legacy, however, goes way back. For those not familiar with the US media reform in its early days, consider this:

In 1954 Dr. Parker founded the Office of Communications of the United  Church of Christ, the main goal of which was to use media for the public good in education. However, the Office ended up playing a key role in the 1960s civil rights movement in terms of addressing the issue form the perspective of media policy making. 

Regarding unfair representation of people of colour on TV, and backed with empirical evidence, the UCC was the first organization to demand that those holding Federal Communications Commission licenses and authorizations act on behalf of the public interest. Thanks to its efforts, organizations and individual citizens were granted the legal standing to  address these issues, e.g., to participate in TV licence proceedings. 

The Parker award and lecture event was now organized 27th time (27!) The main lecturer was Rev. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in the U.S.A.. Listening to this engaging speaker, I was once more reminded of how useful it is to hear perspectives outside of one's own field / even comfort zone...

Rev. Kinnamon, a major figure in World Council of Churches, discussed the issue of diversity in unity, paralleling the ecumenical movement with the media. 

Recognizing that the media are not included in his field of expertise, he started with what is: he gave serious, and seriously humorous, examples of how, within current Christian ecumenical encounters, different views flourish. The problem, he argued, is no longer the lack of the expression of diversity. The recognition of marginal, formerly neglected voices and their specific contributions to the Church is becoming more and more mainstream. 

But while every fragment/movement is looking out for its right to be heard, safeguarding its position, the common language and unity may be forgotten in that process.

Let me be clear: Rev. Kinnamon did not in any way argue that the alternative, diverse voices should be silenced. He simply asked: how can these segments, groups, ideas speak with one another to realise unity in diversity?

Is that the case with the media? Is there anything in media contents that truly unifies us as communities (beyond the one formed by tweets and Facebook statuses of your 11 most active virtual friends)? And, I was thinking, is this fragmentation in some ways also reflected in today's media justice and reform movements? As Phil Napoli has argued in his excellent review of the academic literature on the movement, based on the analyses it might be a big part of the truth. 

So are we so issue-driven, segmented and specialised as audiences, prosumers, advocates, activists and/or researchers, that we lose the ecumenical ideal; the one that, in a way, is the underlying normative hope and promise of the media in support of a functioning democratic society / community.

Monday, 28 September 2009

fast food publishing?

It is no news that Internet not only changing news journalism but also publishing business in more generally. Not only are poets publishing their work as  Tweets (The Guardian 3/25/09), but it seems that conventional books must step up to meet the online schedules.

The New York Times article of 9/28/09 on a new fast-paced publishing company chrystallises the issue. A popular blog - journalism site The Daily Beast that features (often expose-style) political commentary as well as human interest posts (speculations on Travolta's faith on scientology, or an analysis of Brigitte Bardot's influence on sex, 9/29) will extend its operations to Beast Books. BB will become a publishing company for Daily Beast writers. They will have 1-3 months to write their manuscripts that will first be published online, and then quickly as paperbacks. 

The rationale behind the move, according to the BB: magazines can no longer cater to people's needs and interests in current affairs issues; while traditional book publishing often takes too long and will thus miss its true momentum. Says the founder of the Daily Beast, Tina Brown, in the NYT article:

“There is a real window of interest when people want to know something,” (...) “And that window slams shut pretty quickly in the media cycle.”

Oh, that vicious media cycle! Now real time and 'liveness', formerly accredited to radio and especially television (see
Jerome Bourdon's observant article fr0m 2000), is being forced upon books, too.  Surely it is wonderful to read well researched and contextualised reflective accounts on timely issues. How I for instance admire New Yorker (most of the time) because it's evident that weeks and weeks went into composing the essay or artist portrait. For instance, I found this day-by-day account of last September's events in the financial markets simply -- amazing (New Yorker 9/22/09). I could imagine such and extensive, interview-based reportage must have taken months of research, fact-checking, revising. And the essence of the story is precisely in the retrospective perspective, 12 months after, by the key US actors.   

I wonder whether fast-paced book publishing can produce thorough, quality, well-written accounts of current affairs, simply because the author has to produce plenty of words to fill the pages. And is the book format the best one to serve audiences who want in-depth, contextual information about a current, newsworthy topic? Is this mode of publishing to non-fiction what Metro is to conventional nation-wide or regional newspapers?

I also think there's a certain parallel to academic publishing, too. I would really like my work to be current and relevant. I think it is the responsibility of scholars to take part in ongoing public debates. I salute online journals like the International Journal of Communication for being platforms for  timely analyses. Yet, sometimes time (and lots of it) is needed for an article -- or a book -- to develop into a many-sided, wise, reflective, useful commentary or vision.

My prediction is that there will be a 'slow-publishing' and 'slow-journalism' movement, parallel to slow-food movement. The race for 'real time' and short Twitter-style commentaries in all media will make well-researched, well-written, well-edited essays and reportage delightful delicacies that more and more audience members will want to savour as special treats. And hopefully the movement will be embraced beyond few elite gourmands, especially via new forms of public media and new non-profit journalism efforts (as this current article by the Nieman Journalism Lab @Harvard  may lead to expect).