Digital Living: Sweden

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I’ve been thinking over the last days of how to describe the differences between digital living in the US and Sweden, as an American spending quite a bit of time in the north. Are there differences?

The more I think, the more I feel that there are more similarities than differences, that some cultural differences aside (largely related to Sweden’s stronger public safety net and related expectations), daily life in Sweden is swept up in many of the same patterns as shape digital life in the U.S. today.

Daily Life Abroad

On a personal level, Internet access allows me to stay much more connected to the US when I’m in Sweden than otherwise. I can continue to work “there” (the US) even when I’m here (Sweden). My colleagues are largely the same, as is my day-to-day work. In New York, as in Sweden, I spend a large part of my working day at my laptop, sipping cups of tea, reading and writing.

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I can still access and participate in the US internet landscape even when I’m not physically in the US. This sounds mundane, but it’s actually pretty amazing when one stops to consider the implications. And, I indeed continue to participate much more in the US-online-world than I do in the Swedish one. With a VOIP phone I can even keep my NYC office number, easily calling the US or receiving calls. And, with a six-hour time difference working cross-continentally with the east coast US feels relatively reasonable (3pm in Sweden = 9am in NYC). Even when I’m in the US, many of my work relationships are mediated by technology, as collaborators and clients often live in other US cities, sometimes on the other side of the country.

To put things in perspective, I think about the story a friend told me about her time in China. As a young student at Yale in the 1970s she got the opportunity to study in Beijing just after the Cultural Revolution, at a time when the country was generally quite closed to foreigners. At Beijing University (often considered China’s equivalent Harvard) there was a small reading room with foreign newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post. The room was off-limits to Chinese students, but foreign students and a handful of scholars were allowed access. The newspapers were often at least a week old, given the transport time involved. But, my friend would read the news, now and then, to get a sense of what was happening in the world and at home in North America. After two years in Beijing, surrounded by Chinese language and culture with only slow and occasional access to “home”, returning to the West was a shock.

Shared Language, Shared Culture

My friend’s experience abroad in 1970s China is certainly very different from my experience of living in Sweden today (I also spent stretches of time in China in 2004/2005/2006, but that’s a different story!) Here, many instantaneous lines of connection remain open for me with the US. And, there are many similarities between New York and Stockholm life — or, perhaps, better said, many Swedes and Americans participate in a shared international culture of iPhones, well-roasted coffees, hip secondhand shops, the Millennium trilogy of Stig Larsson books, big theater showings of the Hobbit, American TV shows, and Swedish bands ranging from ABBA to First Aid Kit.

Part of this crossover is related to the fact that a large majority of Swedes speak and read English very well. Bookstores and libraries in Stockholm typically have a large selection of English language books, Swedish academics often publish in English, and some workplaces are entirely English-speaking. Despite the fact that English is not one of Sweden’s official minority languages, government websites and services are often offered in both Swedish and English. All of this is not for the benefit of native English speakers alone, but rather allows Sweden to connect with a large international community with English as a lingua franca.

In digital culture, the overlap is often even more clear. Many computer-related words have been taken directly from English into the Swedish language. Apple devices like iPhones are incredibly popular. And, episodes of American shows like Portlandia and True Blood are available on the Swedish public television website.

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Episode of Portlandia currently available on SVTplay.

The media connections continue: recently a Swedish relative began reading The Economist and The New Yorker on his tablet — as this digital option is much cheaper than an international paper subscription and makes it affordable. A woman I spoke with in a shop in Stockholm in early January had just finished gorging on a set of American science fiction novels she’d ordered on Amazon.com. Many of the books, she said, had labels from US libraries — presumably books the libraries had purged from their collections. And, a friend showed me beautiful antique quilts from the southern US that she’d won on Ebay and had shipped to Sweden.

(This digital exchange isn’t always so smooth — for instance, I can’t buy Swedish language media via my US-based iTunes account, and it’s hard, though by no means impossible, to access certain American media online from abroad.)

Non/Digital Summers

Nevertheless, there are some basic differences (and many more subtle ones — surely including those I haven’t yet discovered). Most markedly, Sweden’s social safety net with affordable day care, low-cost and high-quality healthcare, support for families with children, and long vacations has an impact on life in general, as well as on digital norms.

I’ve slowly learned, for instance, not to expect a reply if I email someone between mid-June and mid-August. A reply is possible — just not a given. During these summer months much (but not all) of Sweden is off on vacation: ideally and idyllically at a small family cabin by a lake or the ocean. Many offices shut down for at least a month, and it’s not uncommon to receive an email auto-reply informing you that the person in question won’t be back in the office for six weeks. That is, there is a social expectation, in the professional world at least, that even the digital shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with these holy summer months.

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Of course, there are exceptions. And, perhaps they are becoming increasingly common. With mobile broadband more people can take the internet to even previously remote locations because, as this short article explains, service is available in 99% of inhabited locations in Sweden (note the photo of the couple using a laptop in their camping tent). Further, many parents feel increasingly pressured to bring not just their own, but their children’s digital devices on vacation.

A real life example: last summer we visited a friend and her family at their beautiful small old summer house in the countryside. She was working on finishing a book on the history of black metal (music) and explained that she was often up half or all of the night after her little girls went to sleep working on it. She could send chapters to her collaborator, she explained, via her mobile phone — which could be connected to her computer for net access.

Digital Patterns

From my own window in the Swedish countryside I can see four tall white birch trees, and behind them a gray 3G mast, just as high. Sometimes I ask myself: would I be willing to give up using a mobile phone if it meant that I didn’t have live in the shadow of its infrastructure? What’s the price of 99% mobile coverage? (In achieving the ideal of ubiquitous access Swedish telecom companies faced unexpected delays, as many citizens fought the arrival of 3G towers on or near their land. In part because mobile telephony is classified as a potential environmental hazard, local cities and towns had to consider these objections, even if, in reality, most weren’t heeded.)

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While there are some differences in the build-out of telecom infrastructure in the US and Sweden, the overall patterns are remarkably similar. From the consumer side, there has been a decline in landlines in favor of mobile and VOIP telephones over the past decade in both places. Home broadband and internet use have increased markedly (see US stats here; and Swedish stats here), and now tablet use is on the rise. One interesting difference is the cost of a mobile phone service in the two countries: 4 cents per minute in Sweden versus 18 to 25 cents per minute in the US, according to a 2010 study,

Surprisingly, 1.3 million people in Sweden — about 1 in 7 people — don’t have the internet at home.  This is much less than in the US, where as of April 2012 34% of adults didn’t have a home net connection, or 1 in 3 people. Still, for those who don’t have the internet at home, or don’t get online regularly, the patterns in both countries are remarkably resonant. In both the U.S. and Sweden, those under 65, who have higher levels of education, and higher incomes are much more likely to be online at home. In addition, the reasons given for not being online are similar.

Perhaps the difference in the degree of disconnectivity between the two countries is reflective of the fact that due to a long history of supportive policies, Sweden is more socio-economically equal than U.S., leading to less drastic gaps in education and income.

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Video still from De Bortkopplade (“The Disconnected”)

On a cultural level, corresponding patterns are also evident. In Sweden, like the US, as increasing numbers of us become connected, more of us are experiencing internet burnout. Or, a growing sense that we can’t survive without our digital devices: not always a pleasant sensation. About 40% of Swedes, for instance, say they can’t “live a normal life” without the internet, and 7 out of 10 “can’t live” without their mobile phone.

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Percent of people in Sweden who “Feel that the spend too much time with the Internet, 2009-2011”, see study here. Bar graph labels, left to right: Never, Sometimes, Often, Very Often.

Still, in both countries, researchers and students at the biggest technical universities continue to study gaming and other digital futures with excitement and it’s considered to be more harmful for children to grow up without regular technology access than for them to spend too much time with devices. At the same time, over a recent lunch with a Swedish colleague, she related, with concern, how hard it can be to pull her children away from computer games and bring them outside: a situation perhaps not to unfamiliar to many parents in the US.

So, is digital living in Sweden different than in the United States? One could say that in some ways it is, but it’s perhaps more interesting to explore the surprisingly many parallels and interconnections.

In/Dependence: Swirling Communities

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The trending word for gatherings, groupings, meetings of the minds online seems to be — community. Job ads look for community managers. Blogs get written about how to build a community around your brand.

In the recent past, 20th century, thinkers have positioned societies as opposite to communities. The former are structural manifestations; about faceless organizations of humans into functioning arrangements. The latter have carried a nostalgic sense of emotional belonging that relates to one’s roots; whether geographically, culturally, or ideologically. Communities are cozy, nurturing, supportive — communal.

The past decades, observers have noted that the world has entered a postmodern state where nothing is permanent — ideologies, all kinds of power relations,  let alone structures of societies. They have argued that as we see this insecurity and impermanence in our highly formalized institutionalized and impersonal societies, we desperately seek refuge. We long for warmth and support. We want to connect as communities, but can we?

Enter the Internet. Fears of impermanence lift. Changes are embraced, seen as a way to bring down old borders — whether geographic, economic, social. Many celebrate the democratizing power shift of the online era and argue for a formation of a global public arena. The most optimistic voices hail the transformation of passive  ‘mass audiences’ and mass consumption, not only into a Global Village (where virtually everyone knows about one another, virtually), but into communities acting out of an inherent desire to participate, unleashed by social media platforms and tools. And online, we all can have a say, create independently, be whom, and with whom, we want to be. Right?

How free are online communities? How spontaneously are they formed, how unrestricted are they can operate? In the documentary We Are Legion, a member of the online group the Anonymous describes their way of organizing:

No one forces you to participate. You can always say you’re out. People act online like a flock of birds, just swirling around, until one flies to a certain direction — and then others follow.

Every idea/l of a  community — and democracy — includes some kind of co-dependency. As in: We are responsible for one another. We want all to have the same opportunities. We care for those in need, as helping one means helping the entire community.

So: the question of online communities is: Do they thrive on independence or dependency?  Is there a coop where all the pigeons meet; where they can come together, decide to act together, with a direction, for a common cause? Or, is the ambiguous swirling, and an instinct to follow at times, the new model for today’s communities?

Networking for Digital Public Media?

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I recently took part in a preconference of the International Communication Association titled The Future of Public Media: Participatory Models and Networks (here’s a Tumblr site, curated by Jessica Clark, that follows up on the discussions of the conference; here’s an account by one of the participants, Marius Dragomir of the Open Society Institute).

The event made me realise how a great deal of digital living is really conditioned by how the media serves public interest — even in the times of micro media and user-generated content. Below some thoughts inspired by the event:

In the past decade, redefinitions of what public media might mean have begun to emerge in a variety of contexts. The RIPE network of scholars and public media practitioners is a pioneering initiative, addressing the need for reinvention of public service broadcasting in the commercializing media landscape, defined by drastic technological changes. Similarly, the U.S.-focused Beyond Broadcast conferences (2006-09), conceived by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, have aimed at bringing together ‘legacy media’ representatives with new media practitioners, to foster innovation and collaboration.

Recently, however, numerous initiatives outside of conventional framework of public media organizations have begun to address concerns at the heart of public service, public interest media. In other words, they deal with, and promote, diversity of access, ownership, content, and participation. Such endeavours could be said to include ‘media reform’ and ‘media justice’ projects and organizations, large and small; some well-known initiatives being the activist/advocacy umbrella organization the Free Press (U.S.), not-for-profit journalism projects from OhMyNews to ProPublica, or the global community/alternative media collective OurMedia. Public media issues are also very much at stake in mapping and research projects, such as the Global Media Policy project, or the Open Society Institute’s state-of-affairs global mapping of digital media landscapes.

Consequently, while the interest to understand and rework public media questions has traditionally happened by and/or with public media organizations, now there is an increasing amount of thinking and innovation at the structural level (industry landscape, policy-making) as well as at the individual, small-scale, grassroots level (a variety of civic groups and collectives, as well as micro-media by individuals).[1] The following figure summarizes the different circuits of stakeholders, from micro to meso and macro levels, in the public media realm. It aims to highlight that these circuits are interrelated, and should be in dialogue: Structural policy questions are setting the stage for possibilities of public media to exits and flourish; community media practices might inform and inspire conventional media organizations; media activism and advocacy may influence policy-making and increase public awareness of issues pertinent to public media.

According to this framework,  to re-envision and re-invent media, for and by the public, means fostering dialogue and collaboration between different levels of stakeholders. And while the ideas of public media for and by the public are being discussed in much broader base of stakeholders than ever before the challenge still remains only how the stakeholders can meet, develop a common language, and truly begin to collaborate in re-envisioning the public media of the future.

What is needed is a multi-stakeholder knowledge-sharing and innovation network for public media that would (1) map out core questions and goals for different stakeholders; (2) discover core competencies and ‘shareables’; (3) narrow down  common interests; and (4) brainstorm for a step-by-step working plan for ‘networking the networks’, for systematizing collaboration in promoting new kind of public media, in its different varieties.

[1] See, Aslama 2010: Re-thinking PSM Audiences: Diversity of Participation for Strategic Considerations. In Lowe, Greg (ed.). The Public in Public Service Media. Gothenburg: Nordicom.

What We’ve Been Blogging About (a summary)

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I’ve spent some time the last few days reading through the contents of the blog from the beginning to the present. I’ve listed some common themes I see emerging as well as blog posts and questions that relate to those themes (Minna: feel free to edit or add more!). The major gap from this summary is a synthesis of the wonderfully rich discussions by Fordham students related to a few of the posts.

Cluster 1. Digital time / digital addiction / the digital in everyday life.

Blog posts:

Digital Natives Surveyed
Internet Addiction
A digital family / digital individuals
The Paper Book is Dead?
Tech as Identity
Digital Living Time
Effects?
Digital Time / Fast Time
Digital Diet / Digital Fast

Related questions:

What does ‘internet addiction’ look like? How much is too much? What role do digital devices play in family life; how do they affect it? How do the analog and digital communication worlds intersect? What role does technology play in identity? Are you cool or un-cool if you carry an iPad? How is time organized in daily life and family life? What aspects are governed by “digital time” vs. by other parameters like the rhythm of night and day and the seasons? How could film – a time-based medium – be used to study and represent digital time? How do you feel when you aren’t connected? When is it okay (and not) to turn-off, to be unconnected? What is the nature of ‘digital time’? Is it always faster? What happens if/when we choose not to participate in digital time?

Cluster 2. Participation / where and who you are in the world and if or how you (can) participate online / Privacy.

Blog posts:

Participation and Social Media: This is What the Latest Trend Analysts Claim
Participating Digitally: Connecting People or Tearing Us Apart?
digital privacy: great article in the economist
“Internet Is a Scary Place”
The Machine is Us/ing Us
Participation, Networks, and Politics
A Scale of Value in Participation
That Chaos Scenario
Nuances of Participation
The Web in Translation
Digital Media Industries in Our Everyday Lives
Digital Challenges?

Related questions:

The digital environment is technically border-less, but do border exist? What role does language play in that (ex: the English language)? Do culturally specific concepts of privacy exist in the digital realm? Can ICTs affect things so fundamental to our everyday experience and our understanding of where and who we are in the world? How so? Can they affect our perception of proximity, distance and time? To what extent? What would people’s memory-maps of navigation or ‘maps’ of participation look like of the virtual world? How does the internet challenge and change global North-South communication flows and patterns (or not)? What is it like to navigate the web in another language and culture?


Cluster 3. Media scholarship / methods / micro and macro views / ethnography.

Blog posts:

Digital Living? Digital Living! INTRO to Project
Micro, Macro and Users Like Us
Media Anthropology?
Digital Living – ja sama suomeksi
Blogging as engaged scholarship, in teaching too

Related questions:

How can ethnography (micro views, user POVs) help us to understand the role of the digital in everyday life? What is the level of our ‘otherness’ vis-a-vis the USA, Finland, India? How do we study the ‘everyday of everyday people’?

Effects?

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A great article in the NYT today about a handful of scholars thinking about effects of heavy duty technology use — in the wilderness. Neuroscientists, not us clever comm researchers… But made me reflect my thoughts about effects.

A couple of years ago, I was part of a team conducting an overview report of current communication research in the US for a Finnish foundation (HSF). Although I had spend some time in the US, and knew a bit about the academic context, the prominence of the so called effects research (as in: effects of mass media, often researched in laboratory settings) took me by total surprise. That kind of research, to my understanding, is quite marginal in Europe (disclaimer: maybe I’ve just never explored the field in Europe, but at least seldom encountered such research in conferences, journals…)

When I asked my fab Fordham students, of the course Media & Society, what they think would be the most acute research need, they almost unanimously mentioned the necessity to study how youth that grow up as heavy users of media will be affected mentally, socially, emotionally… Will their digital living as adults be something completely different than of adults of today?

This discourse of effects, as important as it is, still makes me a little vary; only because often the premises are a little skewed (see David Gauntlett‘s funny ‘10 things wrong about the effects model‘); for me, especially because they tend to emphasise the negative and perhaps thus circulate unnecessary slogans and fears…

Media Anthropology?

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Amelia and I are engaging in media anthropology, we claim. And/or digital anthropology. But terms are just terms.

Given the prominent role of (mass, electronic, lately digital) media and (in Benedict Anderson‘s terms) of imagined communities — partly or entirely produced by media, and in cultures all around the world for past decades — it’s surprising how little research has explicitly been labelled as media anthropology. An exception would be the study of virtual realities that has been ongoing for quite some time, and produced such delightful projects as Boellstorf’s (partly autoethnographic) work  Coming of Age in Second Life.

Having conducted plenty of qualitative, ethnographic audience research, I still struggle with the exact borderline between sociology and anthropology. Both fields use the same method. Perhaps in the field of communication and media studies, a discipline without it’s own grand theory or methodology, but an eclectic mix of humanities and social sciences-oriented approaches, the distinction between how A or S approach media as they topic is particularly vague.

Some talk about aim and angle (sociology being more geared towards relationship with the society, and with the focus often on social justice issues, anthropology traditionally studying other cultures). Pardon my ignorance, I’m thinking aloud, but haven’t two of my heroes conducted anthropological work , the UK sociologist Morley on everyday life and television, the Finnish scholar Kytömäki on television viewing and families (latter, in fact, for the Dept. of Social Psychology).

I recently read a wonderful Finnish-language book on media anthropology (or, as the term is sometimes stated, anthropology of the media), first of its kind, by Sumiala. Her clever take was to frame the idea of the field around rituals (how media mediates as well as creates them, and thus creates communities). She discussed rituals related to production, media texts themselves, and reception. While this focus on rituals works, I intuitively find it slightly limiting, as well as the three categories, especially as my interest is in participation (and that nowadays tests  the boundaries of production, text and reception…)

Dunno. In our project, we actually aim at some point to connect political economy and macro-level considerations of socio-cultural and economic conditions to our descriptive micro-level ethnography. The reason why I’d like to call it anthropology is that I’d like the research to be about communal,  individual, cultural, social. I’d like to see culture as the umbrella, under which all other aspects such as social and economic structures are constructed.

There has been so much theorisation about digital media as a platform for new public spheres and so on. Most of the related empirical research is about global social movements. (More about this e.g, in a recent working paper by Erickson & myself).

Instead, I’d like out micro-level examination be as inductive., ‘grounded’, as possible. About the everyday of everyday people. And i should say that I’m quite an ‘other’ regarding the context of India, somewhat other in the USA, and slowly becoming an other regarding Finland 😉

IMHO: Whatever labels,  one thing is for sure. These times are made for communication research. (I’m not the only one to claim this, the World Bank bloggers agree 🙂  There’s no longer a need to see the field as an odd one out. The eclectic, inclusive nature of the field can now easily be utilised in multidisciplinary, multi-method research efforts — the kinds that can truly uncover aspects of our increasingly media-saturated cultures.

PS: My fave blog on media anthropology: http://johnpostill.wordpress.com

Digital Living? Digital Living! INTRO to Project

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Why This Project?

The impact of digital media in our everyday lives is magnificent. In addition to the rapid development of digital forms of “old” mass media, the period of “individualistic experimentation” of participatory media is over and all kinds of digital platforms are currently being embraced not only by businesses but by civil society organizations, political parties and universities alike (see, e.g., Clark & Aufderheide 2009). We know from statistical data, for example, that broadband penetration is extensive in the West and growing in many parts of the world[1] and that mobile communications play a crucial role in developed and developing countries[2]. We know that social networks are not only for the younger generations any longer[3] and that a variety of organizations, from universities to the United Nations, have established their presence in many social networking sites. And we know that digital media matter increasingly and in new ways in national and transnational contexts, for policy-makers, for professional and non-professional media-makers, and for “ordinary people” (e.g., Aslama & Napoli 2010; Boler 2008; Hackett & Carroll 2006). At the same time, the question of access and participation is a concrete, real-life challenge, and not only in the Global South  (e.g., Dailey et al. 2010).

Arguably, digital media has evoked extensive interest from various disciplines; notably, and interestingly, from the technology-oriented, interdisciplinary “Science and Technology Studies” (STS) as well as from legal scholars (e.g., Benkler 2006; Solove 2007). Network theorists and others have presented optimistic claims on how digital media can create new kinds of information sharing, resulting in new ways of identity-creation (e.g., as citizens; human communication –based approach, see, e.g., Wang & Hancock 2009), sociality, and (political) activism. Communication scholars with social science background, or with an interest in combining “culturalist” (Dahlgren 2005) and political economic interests, have discussed theoretically (albeit not so often empirically) political participation, gaming, net-based fandom, children and new media technologies, and the like (in the Finnish context, e.g., Hautakangas 2006; Matikainen 2008; Nieminen et al. 2000, Pessala 2008; Sassi 2000). Yet few researchers have tackled user-generated content, peer-to-peer communication and other Web 2.0[4] phenomena from the perspective of the experience and practices of participation, by the participants themselves. For example, only relatively and surprisingly recently, scholars have begun to engage in challenging the term of “mass communication” conceptual/theoretically (Napoli 2009).

This lack of understanding of practices of “user-player-citizen-producer-audiences” (see, e.g., Syvertsen 2004) is coupled with the use and abuse of another slogan, that of globalization. While the digital media environment is potentially borderless in geographic terms, it seems that media structures, policies, as well as actual media contents are often in some way bound to nations states, local identities, and so on. Yet, most importantly, we know too little of the complexities of mediated participation and community-creation in terms of everyday life – locally, nationally, and globally. As noted by Hegde (2005) the transnational context, deeply fragmented and divided by crisscrossing lines of power, exerts a significant influence on the patterns of communicative activity and modes of identification. And as indicated, e.g., by the communication scholars Kraidy & Murphy (2008) and Sparks (2007), globalization is not the term to discuss different contradictory tendencies pertaining to the location-bound and location-defying interests, needs and practices of, for instance, people living in remote rural areas or being members of cosmopolitan diasporic communities.

Furthermore, although the slogans that claim we have entered into the era of the non-proprietary networked information economy (Benkler 2006), or into “post-broadcast democracy” (Prior 2007), may be somewhat historically insensitive and exaggerated, we are not witnessing a fad but a rainbow of interrelated phenomena that have very real and practical socio-cultural consequences. If viewed from the perspective of participatory or Habermasian “deliberative” democracies we can observe the emergence of promising opportunities as well as threats (about Finland, see, e.g., Nieminen et al. 2006). Still, the contribution of social sciences and specifically communication studies in understanding the everyday “uses” of digital media is a highly understudied area. Apart from statistics, through ethnography we know something about fans, gamers and virtual worlds (see account, e.g., in Boellstroff 2008; Hine 2000) and teenagers engaged in social networking (Boyd 2007; 2008). However, there are no extensive studies on digital media in the line of the tradition of media ethnography of the 1980s and 1990s (e.g., Morley 1986; Hill & Gauntlett 1999; Silverstone 1994). Specifically, there is little understanding of different modalities of participation, such as media-based and media-oriented activism (Aslama & Napoli 2010; also Aslama 2010).

This project aims at empirically addressing the question of participation in the digital media environment with specific, concrete case studies. It is based on the (normative) stand that the role of social sciences is to participate and inform debates also outside of academic contexts and show alternatives to existing discourses (see discussion in, e.g., Aslama 2004). It is grounded in the belief that uncovering and understanding people’s concrete everyday practices are the key to innovation and development of tools that support those practices[5]; in ways that enhance and inspire action towards more democratic and participatory societies.

What Are We Interested In?

This research project responds to two aforementioned gaps in the research of digital media that have evoked surprisingly little empirical examination. First, it addresses the question of the contested concepts of “global” and “local” in the network environment. Second, it does so by engaging in empirical qualitative research; in “media anthropology”, specifically “digital anthropology”, by using ethnographic methods (e.g., Boellstorff 2008; Boyd 2007). The research objective is inspired by the emergence and use of various slogans in public discussions – that are often applied in vague ways and naturalized as common knowledge[6].

The core concept in the study is participation. Here the definition is empirically grounded, pragmatist, and examined through cases that focus on any experiences and practices that emerge as important from the study. While the aim is to (re)open the term up for bottoms-up interpretations, beyond scholarly distinctions between interactivity, participation, and so on (e.g., Jenkins 2006), the term is limited in one sense: it is used to describe actions and experiences that related to being a part of a whole, as opposed to describing more general  “media practices” and equivalent (c.f. Hargittai & Walejko 2008; Karaganis 2007; discussion in Braucherl & Postill, in print [7]).

The second central, and related, term is community. To be sure, the idea of community is one of the basic foci of anthropology and has for decades evoked a vast array of theorization around mediated communities, “networked public spheres”, and the like (Aslama & Ericksson 2009). Yet, apart from studies on fan communities, up until recently fewer empirical analyses have been conducted on how mediated communities may come about and are experienced. Again, the concept of community will here be grounded in empirical material.

The third core concept relates to definitions of space, of what of global/local mean in terms of participation. As noted, it can be suspected that empirical evidence will reveal more of a “scale” of experiences and practices between different spatial contexts and identifications; many of which may turn out to be “translocal” (c.f., Kraidy & Murphy 2008). To address this component, the objective is to engage in comparative research in three distinct contexts: that of Finland (developed digital media access and use of internet and mobile, strong long-term information society policies), India (relatively underdeveloped and segregated digital media use, with meager broadband and mobile phone penetration, but exponentially growing, coupled with innovations and technology-orientation and large non-resident, or NRI, communities around the world), and the U.S. (home of many global digital media innovations, relatively high level of penetration, but a digital divide exists, traditionally a very market-oriented media system, lively debates on policies such as regarding net neutrality and a very active media activism and advocacy movement).

In sum, the core research questions are:

(1)   What do people mean by participation and how do they experience it in their everyday lives; what is the role of digital media in it?

(2)   What do people mean by communities and how do they experience them in their everyday lives; what is the role of digital media in those perceptions and experiences?

(3)   How do people understand and experience “spatiality”; how do digital media create and reflect the issues of local/national/global in their everyday lives?

What Are We Doing — And How?

Methodology

The basic premise of this study is to provide a continuum to important, groundbreaking studies within communication and media scholarship, about different media and everyday life (aforementioned Morley 1986; Hill & Gauntlett 1999; Silverstone 1994; in Finland e.g., Kytömäki 1999) and to “upgrade” the approaches by exploring ways to capture Web 2.0 environment, with the help of multidisciplinary reflections from STS, political science, sociology, cultural studies, and so on. In addition, to systematically contextualize the micro-level ethnography, the research will include macro-level overviews of the media industries, structures, and policies in each country, as well as audience/user statistics when available.

The main idea is take tools of “conventional” media ethnography and modify them for the use in terms of “digital anthropology”.  The former field (of ethnography) refers to methodological issues – qualitative research practices including participatory observation and interviews – and the latter (anthropology) shifts the focus from conventional research object of “media audiences” or “media consumption” – a necessary step in studying digital media that entail a great deal of user-generated content (c.f., Rothenbuhler & Cornan 2005; also Napoli 2009). “Media anthropology” also refers to the urgent need of comparative approaches, relatively seldom addressed in empirical communication studies. The concrete methods include observation, interviews, as well as “media diaries” to systematically track contexts and “significant events” and practices related to (digital) media, participation and communities.

However, at the core of the documentation of this inductive and descriptive research are visual documentations. While on-line/mobile interaction can be “natural” and suitable for this study, and although it has been claimed that online ethnography is not necessarily bound to place (c.f., Boellstorff 2008), the contextualization is important here (global vs. local; c.f. Boyle 2008), and therefore face-to-face theme and focus group interviews are crucial to the study. The visual documentation is intended to bring a new, unique element to this study; as it can capture and highlight subtle aspects of everyday lives as well as illustrate and provide an interpretation to the participant observation and interviews. In other words, the documentary based on the material will be complementary, yet a work in its own right.

In addition, to record this project as an exploratory experiment in methodological approaches, and in the challenging cross-cultural contexts, the research process will be recoded in a designated blog. The actual research material can be deposited in the Finnish Social Science Data Archive[8].

Material

Since the basic idea of the study is to shed light to different experiences of participation at a time when mediated communication is at least a potential, and potentially global; yet local contexts and individual identities may shape their media practices, needs and interests. An attempt to conduct systematic cross-cultural comparisons would not result in meaningful analyses, as the focus is on describing micro-level phenomena related to participation; and thus the contextual questions as well as the limited research material would not allow broad interpretations. Instead, the idea here is to find a loose network of people in the three locations; in that each shares an issue, platform, some form of a social setting, any participatory connection potential with on or more other participants.

The ideal would be to gather a geographical mix, and one or more representatives of the following groups (altogether some 20-30 participants, including families):

o      Scholar/s [possibility of auto ethnography; incl. documenting the research process, e.g., in a blog]

o      Fan/s, gamers

o      Activist/s

o      IT Professional/s

o      Cosmopolitan professional/s

o      “Middle-class” families (one in each country)

o      Individuals/families in areas/situations with limited access to digital media

The following methods to gather material are used for each participant:

– At least one theme or focus group interview before participant observation; focus on background and participants’ general ideas of communities and networks they affiliate with, and the role of media in their everyday lives (very open-ended).

– One week of participatory observation (at least one day will be filmed, either during the week or at a later stage soon thereafter).

– One face-to-face or mediated follow-up interview to map participants’ own observations after they have taken part in the research process.

– When possible, media diaries (for one day, sometime before the first interview).

Research Plan – Time Table:

Summer/Fall 2010:

–       Gathering of background material for the macro-level outlooks

o      Outcomes: a working paper at the IAMCR on participation and media policies; a book chapter on Indian media system

–       Searching for participants (USA ongoing; FIN in Oct; IND in Dec); piloting filming in the U.S.

–       Related teaching in Helsinki: MA workshop on Global Media Activism

2011

–       Gathering of material in FIN, IND, USA; film in at least 2 of the locations

–       Conference presentations (ICA, IAMCR, others)

–       Related teaching in Helsinki, Spring 2011: BA course on Media & National Identity; other TBA

2012

–       Analysis and writing; film; website.

–       Teaching TBA

Blog: ongoing

References

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  • Aslama, M. (2004). Notkean modernin julkisuus. Zygmunt Baumanin mediaetiikka ja viestinnän tutkimus. Teoksessa Moring, I., Mörä, T. & Valtonen, S. Mediatutkimuksen vaeltava teoria. 165-184. Helsinki: Gaudeamus. [Public sphere and liquid modernity. Bauman’s media ethics and communication research.]
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[1] E.g., http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm (accessed 1 June 2010).

[2] Africa being a prime example, e.g., http://www.apc.org/en/system/files/APC_SAT3Briefing_20080624.pdf (accessed 1 June 2010).

[3] E.g., http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/272/report_display.asp (accessed 1 June 2010).

[4] Here, the term is used in the meaning based on the active use of the media, “as a core ‘set of principles and practices’ that applied to common threads and tendencies observed across many different technologies”. See on the history of the buzzword http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2006/Riding-the-Waves-of-Web-20.aspx (accessed 1 June 2010).

[5] This line of scholarship, see, e.g., Harvard-MIT initiatives: http://civic.mit.edu/event/harvard-mit-yale-cyberscholars-working-group (accessed I June 2010).

[6] The starting point of “slogans” versus empirical research and related knowledge is an approach that I have applied in my doctoral dissertation, regarding the claims of changes in television contents (Aslama 2008).

[7] http://docs.google.com/View?docid=dxm64w9_209g9vk47ts (accessed 27 January 2009).

[8] See: http://www.fsd.uta.fi/ (accessed 1 June 2010).