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Learning to write English

DanielMiller30 June 2015

Image courtesy of Sharon and Nikki McCutcheon (Creative Commons)

Image courtesy of Sharon and Nikki McCutcheon (Creative Commons)

Our research team is made up of nine anthropologists, of whom less than half are native English speakers (two from England and one from the US), so one might not be blamed for imagining that the problem suggested by the title of this post relates to the other six researchers. Actually this is not the case. In fact this is an issue which relates to each and every member of the research team.

The problem is this – we are currently filming our MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and creating the website for Why We Post which is the title we will use for publishing our research results. These are intended for audiences, very few of whom we anticipate will be anthropologists.  Therefore we want to ensure that all our findings are accessible to people who are, by any definition, not academic. This means that the language must be entirely colloquial and in the form of everyday speech. When you are trained as an academic,  it is very hard to refrain from using words in a manner that takes meaning from one’s own academic experience. It is not just that we need to avoid words that were invented as jargon,  such as positionality and precarity, but also terms that are used in everyday speech but take on new forms of meaning in an academic context, such as subaltern or even critical.

I actually don’t think I am able to write anymore (though I find I can speak) with this kind of English that everyone outside of academia uses pretty much all the time. Something about the act of writing automatically shifts my use of words back into academic usage. So we have decided to employ Laura Pountney, who recently wrote the text book on anthropology for schools and specialises in explaining anthropology for English school children and and  further education as well as writing textbooks on sociology level, to go through all our written texts and check them for accessibility.

I don’t believe this constitutes `dumbing down.’ After all, novelists often express complex and profound discussion and dilemmas using ordinary English to great effect, so we ought to be able to do the same thing. It is possible we have swung the pendulum too far. I noticed that we had a script which translated homogeneity and heterogeneity as sameness and difference, these are colloquial words and could get tedious for educated readers.

On the other hand, all of the text used on these sites will be translated into six languages.  This is despite the fact that many of the audiences we hope to reach also use English as a second language, such as regions of India and Africa. From the beginning of the project,  our commitment has been to have our findings fully accessible to the people in the regions where we conducted fieldwork. I have felt for some years that the debate on Open Access is partial if the focus is only on cost rather than genuine accessibility to people who, so far, we have excluded through the use of intimidating and obfuscating language. So perhaps we should aim to err on the side of greater accessibility. Having said this, the issue really is very much about trying to strike a balance.

Fortunately, I think the actual material we are presenting is fascinating and whatever is lost by simplifying language will be gained by the richness of what is being described. Since I am also starting to receive requests from schools to speak, for example about the work I did on social media and school banter, this is also a skill I think I need to develop and is perhaps something that all anthropologists should be encouraged to develop, especially the ones who assume, like myself, that we already know English.

Our timetable and publishing plans

DanielMiller3 June 2014

Photo by XinYuan Wang

Photo by XinYuan Wang

With all of us (apart from Nell who started later) having completed a year’s fieldwork, we met in London for consultation for the month of May. On 1 June everyone returned to the field for 3 months of further research. During May we also discussed our plans for publications and wider dissemination.

We don’t just want to research new media, we also want to use its unprecedented capacities for ensuring that our work reaches audiences who we believe will be fascinated to know more about how social media operates across the world.

We also want this exercise in E-education to move beyond official education institutions, such as university and school, to reach anyone who would wish to be better informed about social media.

Obviously since we haven’t even finished the initial research phase this is very tentative and likely to change and evolve as we proceed. But at least this provided us with some guide as to what we might hope to achieve, and an approximate answer to the increasingly common question by others as to when they might expect to see results from the research. We certainly aren’t promising to abide by either the dates or the scale of what follows here, but who knows – we just might.

By Sept 2014, all fieldwork will be complete (other than Nell who finishes in May 2015).

Danny Miller and Jolynna Sinanan will have largely finished work on a book called What They Post, that is a comparison between what people in Trinidad and England post on social media, showing the marked differences between the two places.

By May 2015, We aim to complete the drafts of nine additional books (one for each fieldsite) of around 70 thousand words each. These will be popular and accessible accounts of what we have learnt about social media in each site. They will all have the same chapter headings, but our ethnographies have shown that the content will remain extremely diverse. Tentative chapters we have discussed might include Facebook/QQ, Polymedia – relating these to other social media, the impact on relationships, and answers to 10 questions people typically ask us, e.g. impacts on politics, inequality, gender and education. Also there is likely to be a chapter in each book on quantitative surveys and questionnaires. Most of these chapters will include 2 or 3 stories about individuals from our fieldsites who help us to illustrate the points being made.

January 2016 Launch of all our materials as Open Access to the general public through a site designed for web/phone/tablet. We hope that this will include a considerable amount of material designed to be more accessible and less academic. This will include a) short YouTube videos taken in our fieldsites by a mix of professional film makers and local informants, b) (if we can afford them) animations and infographics to explain our more theoretical points, c) a presentation of our main general insights with qualifications and caveats given the diversity of our sites. d) data from our more quantitative materials e) shorter texts that make some of the book material available in clear language. We hope to provide various guided routes through these online materials, e.g. organised by fieldsite or by theme. Our ideal would be to have much of this more accessible material available in all the languages of all our sites. Though we don’t expect these translations will be complete at the launch in January 2016.

As part of this site we would include the ten books already mentioned and (if finished) an additional comparative volume. All will be published under a Creative Commons licence. In addition we are considering the idea of creating a free MOOC or Open Access university course, possibly with UCL or perhaps Coursera. This will include lectures enhanced by these others materials such as the books and the films. We would also consider a paid version of this course for credit, including interactivity and examination within the UCL system. But this depends upon many other forces outside of our control.

At this point we believe we can achieve some version of the above. But the quality will be much better if we can gain additional funding or sponsorship which we are currently seeking (so if you know of anyone…….). We are also happy to work with volunteers who would like to contribute to these aims, e.g. helping with infographics or translation.

Further/Future Publications:-

The initial books are to be written in a popular rather than academic style and concentrate upon what each site has taught us about the use and consequences of social media. All the members of the team would also, however, wish to write a second, more academic book, in which we turn this around and ask how working with social media and ethnography has allowed us as anthropologists to learn about the fieldsites and the people who live there. Each of us also has particular themes we are interested in such as gender, education, the hospice, work/family balance, visibility etc. We also expect to write more academic journal papers, and potentially  comparative edited volumes on particular themes such as education, politics and gender.

A final component would be more theoretical academic publications that consider the implications of this study at a higher level, for example, our conceptualisation of sociality, what this teaches us about being human and the potential for comparative anthropology. But this is on the far horizon and we may have a better idea of such mountains when we have successfully navigated the foothills.