Youth + Digital Literacy + Algorithmic Relations: A ten year pedagogical model

Annette Markham

Nov 19, 2022

Introduction:

I’ve spent ten years (2012-2022) testing a critical digital literacy pedagogy by running an annual autoethnography project in classrooms with youth (university students, mostly) where they analyze their relationships with digital technologies. The methodology draws from a variety of ethnography, autoethnography, and phenomenology concepts, design thinking and ethnographic prompts, auto-ethnographic and ethnographic fieldwork practices, and different tools for qualitative thematic analysis of artifacts and data gathered from the field. I’ve written about this in a few places as I consider the patterns of relations, perceptions, and trends I’ve observed over the years, with more than 1500 participants. 

Here, I outline the basic format for conducting this exercise with students and add side notes.

Please note this post is not perfectly edited, citations are missing and spotty at best, and I barely scratch the surface in referencing the many (many!) sources and inspirations I have used. But it is quite usable. Please cite me if you use this in your own teaching or writing, and I’d love if you dropped me an email to let me know how you use it and what happens!. Different (shorter) takes on the ‘guided autoethnographic’ framework can be found in the following publications:

  • Markham, A., & Pronzato, R. (accepted, forthcoming). A critical (theory) data literacy: Tales from the field. Information and Learning Sciences.
  • Markham, A. N. (2018). Critical pedagogy as a response to datafication. Qualitative Inquiry. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800418809470

The digital literacy pedagogical design varies widely depending on the length of time available to devote to this “autoethnographic deep dive” into one’s own lived experience. While the level of education and location of participant matters (country/region/type of institution), the more important feature of the process is finding and using the best prompts to energize their commitment to the project, provoke reflexivity in various stages of the analysis, and nurture a forensic attitude (paying attention to the micro details, and taking an evidence based approach).

The ideal exercise is conducted for at least 8 weeks, to give time for reflections and repeating parts of the exercise after practicing with the tools/techniques. However, I have also conducted it in a one-week intensive course.

This set of activities have been designed, tested, and tweaked annually from 2012-2021. As a method for facilitating critical digital literacy, the model has resulted in interesting findings and robust outcomes, not least the production of extraordinarily rich ethnographic accounts from youth, reflecting on their own digital media production and consumption, their relationships with others as mediated through digital media, their interpersonal relationships with various non-human entities, including devices, interfaces, platforms, algorithms, and companies. The activities encourage and enable participants to first comprehend and then analyze their own dependencies, interactions, and relations with various parts of systems, or infrastructures of technologies, including algorithms, data modeling, interfaces and platform, and devices.

The exercises are framed for participants/students as a “research project” using “ethnography.” A basic introduction to terms is provided, especially to guide activities like observing, the participant observer role, making fieldnotes, gathering artifacts, immersion, and so forth. However, theoretical underpinnings are downplayed at the outset deliberately, to encourage a playful and low-risk attitude and an openness to learning from the field, characteristic of emergent qualitative methods and ethnographic approaches. Later, when participants need more complex vocabularies to explain what they’ve done, they are introduced to more complicated versions of ethnography, phenomenology, auto-ethnography. During the data/material analysis phases, they are introduced to various types of visual and text analysis using grounded theory coding and rhetorical analysis tools like metaphor or narrative analysis. In the final stages of of the project, as they’re shifting from analysis to interpretations and conclusions, they draw on a range of concepts and theories as needed, which largely depends on the topic of the course and even within the most common courses I have taught with this — “Digital Identity” and “Digital Communication,” this vary widely. They are interested in so many different aspects of what they’re discovering in this self-oriented fieldwork, so off the top of my head, I can safely say we’ve discussed such things as sociological theories of identity formation (e.g., Goffman, Butler, Jenkins) and studies of algorithmic identity (e.g., Cheney Lippold, Markham, or Lupton), concepts around digital flows and connections (e.g., Tiidenberg, Gamelby, Geiger), places (e.g., Yuan), digital connections and relationships (e.g., Baym, boyd, Marwick), concepts related to affordances (e.g., Bucher, Nagy & Neff), or assemblages (e.g., Wise), critical data studies notions of traps (e.g., Seaver) or control (e.g., van Dijck) or content moderation (e.g., Gillespie, Gerard), discussions of structure and agency (e.g., Giddens), or power relations (e.g., Deetz) and technologies of the self (e.g., Foucault), and discussions of play (e.g., Hjorth), haptics (e.g., Richardson), actions and issues around influence through social media (e.g., Abidin, Bishop). The list could go on… 

While the explanations below provide sufficient detail for students to get started, there’s always a bit of confusion, which is not just expected, but designed as a way to get participants to deal with the natural ambiguity and messiness of emergent qualitative analysis in the field. 

While the exercises, activities, and prompts may seem simple, there are years of iterative pedagogical work behind the scenes, buried in the design, including careful sequencing and timing of events, tweaking of the exact wording of prompts, after a decade of testing and repeating in variation over ten years. I have experimented with this model in the USA, Denmark, and Canada, with students from additional countries, including Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Croatia, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Estonia, UK, Indonesia, China, and Spain.

This particular description is keyed toward a lower level Masters or upper level Bachelor student audience studying digital communication or digital culture with little or no experience of ethnography, autoethnography, phenomenology or thematic analysis of discourse in an interpretive sociology tradition, all of which are at play as they conduct these activities.

This project was designed as an engaged/applied critical pedagog project. It was not designed to collect and analyze data from students. Nonetheless, some research analysis has been conducted with permission of some participants here:

    • Tiidenberg, K., Markham, A.N., Pereira, G., Rehder, M., Sommer, J., Dremljuga, R., & Dougherty, M. (2017). “I’m an addict” and other sensemaking devices: A discourse analysis of self-reflections of lived experience on social media. Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Social Media & Society. Article No. 21. Available: http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=3097286.3097307

Discussion of the critical pedagogy stance and descriptions of the pedagogy and overall project can be found here:

    • Markham, A. N. (2018). Critical pedagogy as a response to datafication. Qualitative Inquiry, 25(8). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800418809470. Personal copy available here. 
    • Markham, A. N. (forthcoming). Critical (Theory) data literacy: Tales from the field. Information and Learning Science. doi forthcoming.

A note on ethics, sensitivities to the situation, etc.

This project involves careful attention to guidelines for conducting ethical research, and also mindful attention to what is happening during and following the exercises, as the self-reflective nature of the experiments can generate strong reactions from students. As for the former, students in my own courses receive extensive ethical training for how to manage data, how to protect third parties in their own data collection, and how to think ethically about the design of their self-oriented research projects. I pay close attention to how they are handling this in their work. They have generally not been required to complete informed consent for this project, since their data is not being collected for purposes of inquiry but self-collected and submitted as part of coursework. Later, if they elect to donate their data, they can sign up for (opt in) to participate in my ongoing research study of digital lived experience and at that point, they would undergo process to become participants, with accordant ethical procedures. 

In the case of their affective responses to the assignments, this is handled in the classroom through an introductory mention that his sort of experiment will make people feel more self-aware, which can lead to strong feelings and reactions. Everyone will have a different response. We have this conversation again after each activity, which results in multiple debriefing sessions, with the presumption that some of them have been deeply affected by the experiments, whether or not they say it. Each activity and phase is followed by a debriefing session in the classroom. I begin by asking students to take a respectful and mindful stance toward the discussion and I remind them how this sort of experiment will make people feel more self-aware, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy, overthinking one’s actions, being paranoid about how companies collect data and build elaborate profiles of individuals. For many, these may not be comfortable feelings, but I emphasize that these are temporary and likely to fade. I emphasize that it is important to reflect on their responses and put them into perspective. We compare these exercises to other “learning moments” or “moments of ephipany” in their lives, when they felt similarly. Students are not required to actively participate in this discussion.  reminded to be respectful and mindful in how they participate. Students are encouraged to write in their personal research journal about how they’re feeling, and if they remain concerned, they are encouraged to meet and talk more about it with me.    

Description for participants

[Below, I offer one of the latest version presented to participants for an 8 week experience as part of a masters course on digital communication. Any remarks on the pedagogical design are italicized and included in brackets.]

This study is designed to help you take a deep dive into your own lived experience of digital media. Taking a qualitative, and more specifically, emergent ethnographic approach, you will study how you communicate online, how you build your self-identity, how your interactions are influenced not only by other people you communicate with, but also by the technologies you use and the networks in which your interactions occur. You are the primary participant in the study. You’ll spend a lot of time collecting data on yourself to reveal in more depth some of the ways your life is intertwined (or not) with digital technology and how you experience this entanglement. By taking this self-oriented focus, you are conducting autoethnography.

There are many ways your research project could be accomplished. Taking the role of qualitative ethnographic researchers, you will be conducting open ended inquiry. This means that your plan emerges and will likely change over time, as you figure out what works and doesn’t work, and as you dig deeper into what anthropologist Clifford Geertz would call “webs of significance.” [participants will have discussed or read previously a summary of ethnography that includes this phrase]

This entire project involves observing your own social behaviors at the granular level, documenting these in many detailed ways, and experimenting with different methods to try to understand what’s happening in your everyday relationships with and through digital media. The methodology basically includes:

  • observation of your everyday activities (fieldwork),
  • collection of material evidence of your digital communication (artifacts, fieldnotes),
  • self-elicitation of your own perceptions and attitudes about your activities and expectations with/in digital media (self-oriented interviewing, written, audio recorded, or video logs (vlogs) as braindumps or field diaries, could also be conducting and recording actual interviews),
  • analysis of your observations and these materials through various multimedia (written, audio/visual recording) reflections

These activities occur across three basic phases. Within each Phase, you’ll be creating several “Building Blocks” that help give shape and meaning to your investigation. You can do more

  1. Tracking (tracking, recording/documenting, self-interviewing, situational mapping, analyzing and producing insights through “think pieces”
  2. Disconnecting (which involves stopping all media use for 24 hours and then documenting, recording reflections, analyzing and producing insights through “think pieces”)
  3. Analyzing (conducting an overall analysis of the two previous phases, revisiting the field and repeating tracking or fasting as needed, and production of final ethnographic report/narrative account)

[Using the concept of “building blocks” helps students distinguish in-progress work products and finished products suitable for submitting as assignments for evaluation. Sometimes, material data that is produced/gathered in the field looks similar to finished accounts, but there are important differences. I include descriptions of building blocks below, which only map roughly to assignments. I don’t include assignment structures here, but I’d be happy to provide more details for anyone interested. I will note that it is complicated for some (many!) students to separate the written or video-recorded outputs of fieldwork (which becomes data to analyze) from written or video products that are submitted (which are more polished, transformed from e.g., rough fieldnotes to e.g., vignettes or interpretive memos)]

Justification

Why do this intensive self-observation and analysis? Critics and social media scholars have for many years now noted that ubiquitous social media + processing power + information structures + digital portable devices = a situation whereby we live life in and through “always on” medi. The internet and its various capacities are so ubiquitous, we no longer notice it, which means the internet has become simply a “way of being” (see Markham and Tiidenberg, 2020), like water to a fish (See Mark Deuze, 2012). Yet digitalization still has profound impact. As Greenfield noted many years ago in the book Everyware (2006, New Rider Press), “the project of everyware….is nothing less than the colonization of everyday life by information technology” (p. 33).

Is this a good thing? A bad thing? A neutral state for possible futures? Attitudes about communication technology and social life range from enthusiasm to suspicion. And the debates about the impact of technologies for communication have been going on for centuries. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the topics focused on the telegraph, the telephone, radio, film and moving pictures, and television. In the 21st Century, the concerns about the impact remain, even if we’re talking now about the internet and digital transformations, using words like surfing, sharing, streaming, produsage, posting, big data, quantification, machine learning, algorithms, and AI.

While it is clear humanity has benefitted greatly from digital transformations, there are many  important concerns.  In contexts of being “always on,” are people becoming addicted to their devices, or more specifically, the interactions and information flows they experience through this global connectivity? When using privatized corporate run social media, where data gathering and advertising is prominent and mis- or disinformation runs rampant, are we living in filter bubbles or echo chambers? How can we distinguish what’s really important in the constant deluge of information from multiple streams?

What are some of the potential and actual consequences of algorithmic systems, automated decision making, and autonomous digital agents? How does digitalization and datafication impact how identity is formed or how societies play out? The use of self-tracking in fitness, for example, gives people detailed information about themselves, and can motivate them to stay healthy. But in what ways does this quantification influence how people see their own bodies through this data lens? How does this data get used by insurance companies or employers to monitor individuals’ health, for both good and ill? Big data analytics are used to help identify patterns in global warming, which is adding critical nuance to our understanding of the planet’s health and aids responses. But machine learning also results in racial profiling, discrimination, and predictive policing. Facial recognition enables an iPhone user to swiftly unlock their phone, but also fuels deep fakes.

Examining your own everyday mundane behaviors with digital communication can help you gain greater critical consciousness about what lies beneath the surface of devices, platforms, and interactions. The project below consists of several sub- blocks, each intended to guide your investigation and scaffold your self analysis.

The value of “Defamilarization”

Tracking your own use for 48 hours or observing what happens when you disconnect from social or digital media is a good way of accomplishing what interpretive sociologists call “defamiliarization.” To effectively analyze your own behaviors and attitudes, you first have to step outside yourself and look at yourself as a foreign object. This is a process of reflexivity in autoethnography. To be clear: it is not possible to adopt a ‘neutral’ perspective, and so this stance is more like oscillating from close or intimate levels of knowing to more distant levels of observing. The steps outlined in the tracking and disconnecting phases are designed to help you bring some of your embodied and naturalized behaviors, attitudes, and values to the surface so you can document them in ways that can be ‘read’ as data. The process of defamiliarize some of your own tacit (taken for granted) experiences, relationships, and connections with your digital media.

A short note about open-ended, exploratory, or “emergent” approaches

A note about emergent, inductive approaches to ethnography: This exercise begins when you start paying attention to your “lived experience” of social media and your everyday use of the internet. Many ethnographies begin with an equally vague (very vague!) plan: In this class, for example, you have been given a general reason for the study (explore digital communication in everyday life), there’s a vague idea for focus (digital transformations in the 21st Century), and a research location for ‘fieldwork’ (your life). An ethnographic approach seeks to understand the unique patterns of experiences in naturalistic environments, from an immersive and subjective level. Qualitative methods like ethnography highlight the important value of letting the research investigation be an open-ended exploration. Since there’s no predetermined way this fieldwork should be conducted, and the contexts are unique, the methods, concepts, and theories emerge as you go along. They change over time and as you learn more about the environment and phenomenon you’re exploring, and as you make choices about what pathways you want to follow.

In practical terms, taking an emergent approach means that the beginning of the project may seem too vague– as if there’s no direction, or confusing –as if there are too many possibilities and directions to follow. This is characteristic of open-ended, interpretive, or emergent methodologies. Over time, as the researcher gets more and more immersed, themes and ideas come to the surface to guide the direction of analysis in later stages of the process. What does all this mean for your own inquiry? Do what works. Don’t worry too much about what is is all supposed to “mean.”  Embrace the messiness of the early stages of inquiry, and trust that questions and patterns and eventually, conclusions will emerge. Trust the process.

Literature suggestion: To learn more about emergent methods, or following different pathways to meaning, there’s a Handbook of Emergent Methods that might provide inspiration and guidance (Hesse-Biber and Leavy 2008). Or you might read Annette Markham’s ideas about how inquiry is a process of following flows, rather than being predisposed to focusing on the most obvious objects (2017; also see Markham and Gammelby, 2017). This perspective conceptualizes “flow” as both what is being studied (flows versus objects) and also what the researcher is doing (flowing). It combines ideas from George Marcus’s idea of multi-sited ethnography (“follow the..”); the mindset of actor network theory that seeks to equalize the various elements of situations to enable a researcher to begin anywhere in a network of meaning and then follow flows, actors, or threads as needed; Adele Clarke’s development of mapping as part of situational analysis; and the longstanding grounded theory practice of continuing along various paths until you reach “saturation,” which is elaborated by Ane Kathrine Gammelby and Annette Markham (2017). The following list is only a starting point:

PHASE 1: TRACKING

  1. Track yourself for 48 hours
  2. Document as much detail as possible
  3. Describe a selection of screenshots or screen recordings through a vlog
  4. Create two new voiceovers for the vlog reflecting on other analytical questions 

Methods

You will be asked to track yourself in various ways. The goal is to be consistent, persistent, detailed, and honest. You’re seeking to generate rich data, which comes from documenting the details of your observations, or tracking. While this is called “tracking,” it could also be called “logging” or “close level observation” to emphasize that you are following your own movements and actions through digital and social media and trying to note as much detailed information as possible. 

Tools: There is no “best” tool, although people have used automated logging, screenshots, pen/paper notes, filled out detailed information on tables and spreadsheets, and recorded their actions in various ways. 

Experimenting: Since people have different skills and preferences, you have to figure out what will work best for you. You will need to consider this. Once you’ve selected the tool or technique that seems most useful, you will want to test out different strategies to get the best data, so you have good material to work with over the course of this project. You’ll need to plan carefully how you’ll log/track your use before you begin.

The Logistics and Process: In this phase, you will conduct several building blocks that challenge and more importantly explore both the positive and negative assumptions in different ways by studying at a close level your own experiences and feelings about your relationship to or use of digital technologies.  

Basically, this Tracking Phase involves an intensive observation of your own movements, physical movements, locations, purposes, and activities with digital communication. The point is to generate a lot of different data that can be analyzed later. You’ll generate this material in logs, taking screenshots, screen recordings, auto-logging. You’ll also observe through ethnographic fieldwork, producing extensive fieldnotes (written). Afterwards, you’ll engage in some immediate reflections (a set of layered maps, a vlog, and two braindumps).  Essentially, you will track your media use at a very detailed level. You will create written and video reflections, and produce various small “building blocks”.

Building Block (BB) 1: Build your tracking plan
Generate a logical and feasible plan for how you will track (log, document) your media use for 48 hours (include dates and why these are useful). Choose tools, considering that you need to note times, locations, durations, and activities, including actions/responses. You also want to observe and note such things as: how you felt while using, how other people acted in response, what you notice about other people using media, patterns in your use, intentions for use, unintended  habits, intentional or unintentional consequences of use, social activity, who you communicate with, app/activity switching, motivations for avoiding certain things, social expectations, norms in play, etc).

[This part of the exercise may seem overly directive and not very open ended, but if participants don’t plan, their tools will fail. Since they rarely have energy or time to start over, I have learned to not only require them to submit a detailed logistically oriented plan, but also to evaluate it and require them to fix glitches or to visualize more clearly how it will proceed (like an athlete visualizing how they will strike a ball and follow through, this visualization of the exact process actually helps them consider how they will accomplish this intensive tracking and logging through bodily actions, and helps them identify what’s wrong with their plan)] 

BB 2: Generate data (by tracking for 48 hours)
Logs of activities: During this time, you should gain a good sense of how much time you spend doing things. This requires intensive logging of when you check your devices, how often, when you reply, how long you reply, etc. This is exhausting observational work, especially if you are busy, so don’t try to collect everything, but be committed to writing detailed field diaries, doing detailed logging, or otherwise recordings your activities at least ten times during the 48 hour period (5 times each day). This is data you will use later.

Screen Recordings and Screeenshots: In addition to logs of activities, you should be collecting multiple screen recording of your activities, to help create some footage that you can reflect on. You will later be generating some short “think pieces” to reflect on your usage, your feelings, and any analytical thoughts you have about what is influencing your activities, what you see, what you do, or what you think. All the following videos should be between 2-5 minutes.

Fun Focal points: Once you’ve collected the more mundane things (10 sessions of data collection at least), you can shift from logging everything possible to more concentrated attention on certain things. Here are some ideas that others have used, which might inspire you: “Track the Trackers,” “Track my interactions with algorithms,” “Find the “agents” in situations,” “Follow an action and the resulting interactions as far as I can, ad absurdum,” “Pay attention to the responses of the system, browser, or other people,” “Track how time speeds up or slows down.”

Data Management: Collect all your data in a single location (if you collected it all in digital form, spread it out in MIRO board, for example, or collect in clearly labeled folders with clearly labeled date/time file names)

BB 3: Reflections through vlogs

Review your tracking data, looking for something that stands out as meaningful. It could be startling because it seems strange, or it could be so typical it reflects a very common pattern of your own usage. For whatever reason it stands out, just choose a particular moment or pattern that occurred during this 48 hour tracking period. Reflect on it through three video logs. (written narrative with images is fine if you really don’t want to do video)

3A – create a short vlog (video log) where you ‘walk through’ a specific set of activities. You might choose something mundane/everyday or on the other end of the spectrum, highlight something unusual. In this video, you should narrate or do a voiceover of the video footage, focusing on the questions: “What is happening here?” This is a very boring question intended to get you to notice the details from a third party party perspective, as if you are a foreigner to yourself.

[I remind them it might seem boring, but then use the example of an alien dropping down to Earth and trying to build a detailed report of what’s happening at a common event. I focus on how an alien species might try to make sense of the entrance to a theatre or local night club, for example. There’s queuing and some sort of ordering, maybe jostling or various interactions taken for granted, guards or gates, transactions, tickets or stamps, an inside and outside, remarkable changes from day to night, and so forth). This helps them understand that this should not take anything for granted, and helps them identify tacit knowledge and practice]

3B – Create a second vlog using the same footage as 3A but create a new narrative voiceover, reflecting on a different question: “Why did I do X versus Y?”–here, you should focus on what you didn’t do, which highlights what you did as a choice among many options. This question might also help you explore your motivations for making certain decisions, clicking on certain items, thinking or responding in certain ways, and other very minute details of your interaction with digital media technology. (Note: don’t worry about making a perfect voiceover. This should be somewhere between “off the cuff without even thinking” and “I thought about it for a bit before hitting the record button”)

[This is a difficult question for participants, but extremely valuable. The question is intended to focus on how responses to actions generate critical junctures where alternate paths/options could happen. It helps develop a forensic attitude toward the analysis, focusing on the micro level details of actions as decisions with consequences. Often, this question helps participants notice affordances and how they are being guided, or that they are in relationships with technologies. Note: I often use a 5-second recording of typing into the Google Search bar to showcase how each new letter being typed causes a different reaction from the system]

3C – Create a third vlog (again, using the same footage) but with a new narrative voiceover, reflecting on the question: “How do I feel about what is happening?” and [or] in slight variation: “How do I feel about what’s going on with that person in that moment?” (“that person” being me). (Suggestion if you want more rich ethnographic data to analyze later: Ask the slight variation question in a fourth vlog). (Note: This should be your don’t worry about making a perfect voiceover. This should be somewhere between “off the cuff without even thinking” and “I thought about it for a bit before hitting the record button”)

[This third question is deliberately sequenced last in the series. It focuses attention on affect and the formation of the questions have been tweaked and revised. The forms of these two questions facilitate slightly different stances. The first question is more vague, as the referent is unclear. But it is deliberately so, since the openness of the referent is generative and yields interesting results depending on how the participant interprets the question. The second question was added after the third year, based on the richness that emerged when participants looked at themselves in third person and reflected on what might be happening to that person. The vlogs tended to oscillate from etic to emic and back again, and this oscillation seemed to itself prompt more reflexive responses, so that participants would ask unexpected questions or reach unexpected conclusions by the end of the vlog. I use “and” in the example above because they could be used in tandem, but ideally, they are two different vlogs. I collapse them here because there’s only so many a participant is willing to do. But some will do a fourth, and that’s quite satisfying for them]

PHASE 2: DISCONNECTING

You should choose any 24 hour period of time to disconnect from all digital or social media, or as much as possible. It must be 24 consecutive hours. This exercise won’t work unless it “hurts” a bit. The goal is to disrupt your everyday use to an extent that the structures and relations in everyday life are highlighted. You might want to notify your networks before beginning (parents, profs, bosses, friends, etc.). Emergency or work use is allowed. Cheating? That’s up to you, but if you do, you should definitely use your ethnographer’s perspective to reflect on why you are cheating.

  1. Stop using digital media for 24 hours
  2. Before you begin, create a written, video or audio recordings of how you’re feeling
  3. During the fast, generate fieldnotes through video/audio reflections and brain dumps
  4. After the fast, create a “think piece” vlog reflecting on this experience 

Methods

This exercise is akin to the famous “breaching experiments” that the sociologist and ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkel would have his students accomplish. He would encourage them to perform oddly in common environments to reveal the invisible social structures or norms guiding everyday life, like arriving at their family home one evening and knocking on the door like a stranger, or entering an elevator to stand facing the other passengers. These experiments can be deeply “defamiliarizing,” and bring to the surface things that normally are obscured because they are naturalized and habitual.

Tools: Document what’s happening and how you’re feeling through voice memos, vlogs, photo or video recordings, fieldnotes, and other creative documentation practices as needed.

The Logistics and Process: As mentioned, this exercise should “hurt” a bit in order to work effectively, so you need to define digital media or social media consumption in such a way that it is radical to suddenly stop using it for 24 hours. In this phase, you will conduct several building blocks that reflect on what is happening during this time, as well as how you are experiencing disconnection. 

All the building blocks below are focused on two questions:

Question 1: “What is going on here?” (striving to be observational and descriptive like an ethnographer studying a foreign culture)
Question 2: “How does this feel?” or “How am I feeling right now?” (designed to express how you feel, to document the immediate emotional state or mood)

[These prompts have been tested for some years and are deliberate constructions. The goal in these prompts is to highlight the Self’s affective response to being disconnected and reconnected. Here, the questions provoke an open-ended focus on affect and emotion, but in combination with the activities and timing, guide reflections in a particular direction. The sequence below is important, and has proven useful in capturing distinctive moments and giving participants a comparative set of perspectives.]

{As a further sidenote for teaching students about methods of elicitation in social research, this is very useful in learning about the limitations of one-off interviewing methods, since the attitudes and style of responses can shift dramatically through the course of the exercise. Of course, if they read this, the surprise value of the reflection exercises below can be lost, so anyone using this set of exercises should delete this note 🙂 }. 

BB 4: Anticipatory reflections through a vlog: Before you begin your media fast, create a Vlog (2-5 minute) discussing the question: “How do you feel about this media fast?”

BB 5: “In the moment” reflections through vlog: At some point in the middle of the media fast, make a short vlog (2-5 minutes), based on two questions, “How does this feel?” or “What is going on here?” The first question is more personal, and the second is an ethnographic question to consider what this moment tells us about this culture being studied. This is not a simple description, but more of what is called “thick description,” (here, recall how Clifford Geertz described the difference between a wink and a “wink,” as the interpretive knowledge that comes with ethnographic immersion. Knowing that a person winked is surface level description, where one might not know if it was a real wink or just an eye twitch. Thick description means knowing that the wink meant something specific in the context.

BB 6: Create some visual documentation through drawing/sketching, photos, videos, etc. To activate different modes of sensemaking, try some concept mapping, drawing, creative video or photography to add depth and richness to your field notes. What is this person’s experience of being disconnected? Is there anything strange or startling? Follow these curiosities playfully or instinctively, without thinking too much about whether they’re “useful” data. This will help you generate some interesting material artifacts that you can think about later.

BB 7: Field notes without overthinking it through braindumps: While disconnected, write at least three “braindumps.” These are for your eyes only (never submitted in raw form). A brain dump is essentially a timed writing exercise to get the junk inside your head out onto the page for external inspection. Use a timer to write continuously for 15 minutes without looking at the screen (turn down brightness or use white font on white background).

Always start with a question about a specific habit, moment, interface, or feeling, such as: “Why do I have so many red notification dots on my front screen whereas other people don’t?” or “Why didn’t I immediately reply to that SMS?” or “What’s the difference between my laptop and phone version of X platform?” or “What is the bodily sensation or feeling I have when I receive a lot of likes on a post…or none?” Even though you begin with a specific prompt, and you might start writing easily and immediately, you might also drift away from that topic. This is good. Let your mind wander. Just keep writing down what you’re saying in your mind. This is the point. When you stall or stop, or lose track of what you were writing, just click <return> twice and start with the original question again, or follow a different question that comes to mind. The goal is to write and produce material that can function as data to analyze later. So don’t over think it. Just write anything and everything that comes to mind.

This produces a lot of junk and a few small but amazing insights. It is very useful to hide your screen because it prevents deleting or editing. Braindumps could be done in spoken form rather than written; by experimenting with different forms, you can see what is most helpful for getting a bunch of random but potentially useful stuff onto the page.

[note: these are not to be submitted, and participants should be assured that this is personal view/use only. These have high value for producing small nuggets of insights. Mostly, they produce junk. I also make sure they know this, so they don’t expect greatness, but at the same time, they search for tiny insights.]

BB 8: Post-Fast Reflections through Vlog. Between 12-36 hours after the fast has ended and you’ve had some time to recover, record a third (in the media fast experiment) video reflecting on the question, “Well, how did that go?” (referring to the 24 hour media fast overall. Ideally, you would do several short video or audio clips following your reconnection, e.g., within 2 hours, within 12 hours, within 2 days, and after one week. Especially if you don’t review your previous responses before doing these recordings, you’ll be surprised at how your responses change)

[The timing of this definitely alters the content. Immediate reactions are great, but often focused exclusively on the relief or rush of returning to being online. After 2 days, the shock has worn off. Since each person is unique, I leave a generous margin and encourage them to do multiple versions. Some will take advantage of this, but most are tired of collecting data by this point.]

Phase 3: Analysis

In this phase of the study, you gather all the materials you’ve collected or generated and spend time immersing yourself in these materials, by reading, listening, or viewing them repeatedly, taking notes, and building various types of reflections. You may also end up analyzing the quality of your own fieldwork, including the tools and techniques you used. You will also want to consider how your own provisional conclusions connect with the concepts and theories of various social or digital culture scholars, or how your experience compares with common trends or findings from other studies.

The Building Blocks below are not ennumerated and only introduced briefly, as there are many genres and formats for “thinking through writing.” The eventual end goal is to produce an ethnographic narrative, or a “thick description” account of your experience, which contains deep or rich descriptions, but is not purely descriptive. An ethnographic account, based on autoethnographic methods of analyzing the self in specific contexts, makes claims about some aspects of society or culture using your own  experiences as the empirical materials for making these claims. This post doesn’t describe the process of building that final ethnographic account. Rather, these are just steps toward that end goal, not the end goal itself. They’re useful for extending the data you’ve collected, and producing snippets that might be useful.

Memos: These are short (1-2 page) explications of a specific concept, element of a situation, or emergent theme. The point is to write as much definitional material as you can on this topic, to help you understand it in more depth. A memo on “red notification dots” might describe what they look like, detail where and when they appear, explain how and why they happen, provide some history of when and where they emerged in smartphone use, and describe how they are relevant in your own study. A memo on “auto complete” might provide and cite some basic definitions, explicate how auto-complete differs depending on certain settings or platforms, and might describe specific instances of how it happens in your own experience. Screenshots or screen recording might be used to illustrate different stages of auto-complete or

Vignettes: These are short (1 page) descriptions of a scene that would exemplify an important instance in your own digital lived experience. Vignettes are short and evocative. Cambridge Dictionary describes a vignette as “a short description, picture, or piece of acting which expresses very clearly and neatly the typical characteristics of something or someone.” Vignettes are very good for illuminating or evoking a particular mood or sensation with words. They can help bring vivid life to your own lived experience. I’ve used vignettes in writing about my experiences of college bars in the US, and using walking and rock collecting to make sense of COVID-19.  and you can decide if these are successful in conveying the image or feeling of a particular scene.  Here’s a useful site for learning about vignettes.

[I don’t detail this section of the process, since the specifics depend on the length of time available, the level of participants, and whether the exercises occur in educational contexts or as part of shorter workshops.

At this stage, I am concerned with process and analytical depth, rather than the overall outcome. I find vignettes and memos are particularly useful for further defamiliarization of tacit knowledge. By building detailed descriptions and explications for others, participants end up learning a lot about themselves. In my own teaching practice I have students do detailed qualitative coding at different levels (open, axial, selective), following the classic techniques of Kathy Charmaz. I then have them choose a rhetorical analysis tool like metaphor or narrative analysis, recommending they choose a method from the Rhetorical Criticism text by Sonja Foss. And I also have them do visual analysis using the work of Kat Tiidenberg and Gillian Rose.

Tips and Tricks For Students/Participants

These are some small snippets I’ve written about methods for generating materials in ethnographic fieldwork, especially as related to the set of exercises laid out here. Many other sources can be consulted, so this is just a starting point.

  • Writing during observation stages
  • What is a brain dump?
  • Talking with others (or yourself)
  • Collecting archival data or artifacts
  • Capturing informational flows

Writing during observations:

Writing observations as fieldnotes: Various ethnographers talk about the importance of keeping a research journal/diary throughout the course of a research project. Fieldnotes are notes taken to capture descriptions of what is happening, record what is being said, or what is going on around you as an ethnographic researcher. Emerson, et al (2016) and James Spradley (1979) offer excellent details about how to take fieldnotes, transform rough fieldnotes into more clear pieces of writing, how to pay attention to details, etc.

Writing reflexively about your observations: As another layer of data, ethnographers reflect on their own feelings, attitudes, and assumptions during the fieldwork process. This is a meta layer. These should be demarcated or bracketed (separated as a different column on the page, put in different color, or set off in [brackets]. These are often the voice in your head that is full of doubt, or is leaping to conclusions, or has some tangent of an idea. This can serve as valuable interpretive material later, so include these to keep track of your thoughts, moving them from your head (where they’re likely to be forgotten) to the page (where they can function as data for your inquiry). These reflections are different from observations. In addition to fieldnotes, these materials can be used as data to analyze. Writing them is also a form of analysis in itself, when conducted as ‘close reading’ of fieldnotes, archived information, etc.

What is a brain dump?

A brain dump is essentially a timed writing exercise to get what is inside the head out onto the page for external inspection. The term ‘brain dump’ is the term developed by Annette Markham as an informal title for what she more formally refers to in 2017 as a form of “self-directed introspective elicitation”:

“a form of self-directed introspective elicitation. Many techniques can be used for this type of exercise, but there are four important elements to include:

1. Time the writing exercise

2. Do not edit or backspace: use a black screen or white font on white background, or if handwriting, don’t look closely at the writing.

3. Do not stop writing during the entire exercise; When you lose track, hit enter or start a new line with a different thought. Do not dwell on what has been written. Do not try to complete a thought if you lose track of it.

4. Start with a prompting question. For best effect, repeat the exercise with a slightly different prompt.

This technique aligns with elicitation techniques used in psychology, ethnography, and design studies, as well as classic techniques of brainstorming. Here, the distinction is that it is intended to both enact and produce cognitive processing from the self, to make it visible for inspection or introspection. This often produces an additional layer of data to analyze, especially in studies where the researcher is closely linked to the practice or situation being observed, but in this discussion of reflexivity, it is simply an easy way to produce material to critically analyze one’s premises, decisions, and interpretations.

Basically, consider this to be brainstorming, or writing to think. You are trying to move (dump) your thoughts from brain to page. It might be useful to consider this phrase, often attributed to Karl Weick: “How can I know what I think ‘til I see what I say?” You never know what sort of pearls might be buried in all that misspelling and unedited stuff that you’ll end up writing!!

If you want to learn more about the methods and techniques for spontaneous, reflexive, and evocative ethnographic writing, this book is strongly recommended: Writing the New Ethnography (H.L. Goodall, 2000, Alta Mira Press)

Talking (with yourself, with others):

Eliciting information through formal interactions (interviews): Interviews are valuable sources of information about yourself as well as about others. As a way of studying yourself, you could interview yourself, but you can also have others (in the class or your friends/family) watch you, look at your social media use, and ask you questions. You could do this in chat (auto-recorded and transcribed) or in person, with an audio recording, which you transcribe later, to transform the audio into a form that is suitable for close text/discourse analysis.

Discovering or eliciting information through informal conversations: A natural part of participant observation is casual interaction with others. It’s often called “naturalistic observation” or observation “in situ.” Interacting in particular social media and paying attention to the close details of such interactions can help you understand more about the medium or technology, if you’re paying attention to the details of your interactions and how they play out over time.  Talking with people about their practices as they use social media is also a good way to learn about practices and habits–both theirs and yours (by comparison to theirs). If the conversations become more formalized, they might become interviews (sometimes there’s a very fuzzy line between these things).

Collecting archival data or artifacts: 

Attentive observation is a key to any anthropological or sociological inquiry in a naturalistic setting. When entering a ‘field,’ to conduct fieldwork, one’s primary role is to observe action and behaviors of cultural members. But there is also the “stuff” of societies and individuals, in material form (pot shards, text or image archives, trash, memorials). Stuff can also be the traces of where we’ve been, how much time we spent here or there, etc.

How can you ‘observe’ and ‘document’ your participation? What is the “stuff” that is relevant for someone (like an ethnographer) to understand who you are, what your priorities are, where you’re at in life, and other big, abstract questions?

What is easy to log or track? Consider logging conversations, taking screenshots, doing some screen recordings, taking photos, making audio recordings.

What’s impossible to 
archive, record? How can that be captured, or is it something to reflect on, rather than “capture?” What will always remain elusive? Is it important?

These are not questions that have strict answers. But they’re good questions to reflect on as you choose and use different methods for gathering information or generating knowledge about the context.

Capturing informational flows:

How is this possible? We generally only see the outcomes of flows, not the flows themselves. This is an area for creative innovation, since we (sociologists, anthropologists) don’t have very good tools for capturing what is betwixt and between. There’s often tacit recognition that something is happening, or meaning is being formed, but this is an interpretation, after the fact, retrospective. So this is a good arena for experimentation. I have written about this in a few places:

  • Markham, A. N. (2017). Ethnography in the digital era: From fields to flow, descriptions to interventions. In Denzin, N., & Lincoln, Y. (Eds.). The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 5th Edition (650-668). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Final Draft version available for download on academia.edu
  • Markham, A. N. & Lindgren, S. (2014). From object to flow: Network sensibilities, symbolic interactionism, and social media. In Johns, M. D., Chen, S., & Terlip, L. (Eds.). Symbolic Interaction and New Media (Studies in Symbolic Interactionism, 43), 7-41. Initially publishedin 2012 via SSRN. Personal reprint version available here
  • Markham, A., & Gammelby, A. K. (2017). Moving through digital flows: An epistemological and practical approach. In Flick, U. (Ed.). Handbook of Qualitative Data Collection (451-465). London: Sage. Personal reprint copy available here