Author Archives | tricia wang

Tell Me More danah boyd: an interview with the author of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens”

MSR3sm-sq danah boyd (@zephoria) is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center. In 2009 Fast Company named boyd one of the most influential women in technology. Also in 2010, Fortune named her the smartest academic in the technology field and “the reigning expert on how young people use the Internet.” Foreign Policy named boyd one of its 2012 Top 100 Global Thinkers “for showing us that Big Data isn’t necessarily better data”. danah just published, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.  

There’s this idea that hard-core techies are code geeks. But hard-core techies also look like ethnographers. A tech ethnographer not only has to understand cultural code, but the mechanisms for how software design links back up to tech practices. I sat down with one of the most well known tech ethnographers of our time, danah boyd (@zephoria). 

Over breakfast at The Ace Hotel’s Breslin, danah and I talked about her career. This fascinating and personal interview reveals danah’s journey through industry and academia.

We’re also excited to have danah’s interview launch Ethnography Matter’s second column, Tell Me More,  featuring interviews with people who are pushing the boundaries of ethnography in unconventional and exciting ways. We conduct the first interview and then post a follow up interview with crowd-sourced questions from the audience. 

Post your follow-up question for danah in the comments or tweet it with the hashtag #askdanah by March 10. danah will select her favorite questions to answer in her second interview!  

Tricia: danah, I’m super excited that we get to talk ethnography over some yummy breakfast food! Earlier last year, you were inducted into the SXSW Hall of Fame.  An ethnographer being validated by geeks! I was beyond excited when I heard this news. How did you feel when you found out?

danah: SXSW has been a very important event to me for a long time. I learned so much about the tech industry through that conference by spending late nights drinking with entrepreneurs and makers. I actually got many a job that way too. It was at SXSW where Ev Williams and I started debating blogging practices. He hired me to work for him that summer.  Oh, and SXSW was where I met my partner.

Tricia: What? Are you serious?

danah: ::laugh:: Ayup!  And now we have a baby who we’re taking back to SXSW this year.

Tricia: Shut up. That is so sweet. Where did you guys meet at SXSW?

danah. At a Sleater-Kinney show.

Tricia: That’s awesome.

danah: It’s just funny to be honored there because I’ve selfishly gotten so much out of the conference.

Tricia: Well I remember very clearly when I read the transcript of the keynote you delivered at SXSW in 2010. It was about Facebook’s issues with privacy. Your talk generated so much discussion. How did you settle on this topic?

danah: I thought, what could I do that would provoke this audience to think? I saw it as a political platform; not big P but small p. I wanted to use this opportunity to challenge norms inside tech industry. I decided to take on the underlying values and beliefs in tech industry regarding privacy because my research was showing that the rhetoric being espoused was naïve. My topic was not surprising for academics, but it was for practitioners. Read More…

Why go to an ethnography conference?: Notes from the EPIC 2013 Conference

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TTricia Wang his month’s theme features a series of posts from EPIC 2103  (Ethnographic Praxis In Industry Conference)and is edited by Ethnography Matters co-founder, Tricia Wang (@triciawang), who gave the opening keynote at EPIC, “The Conceit of Oracles: How we ended up in a world in which quantitative data is more valued than qualitative data” (transcript).

Most ethnography conferences are largely academic affairs and have been ongoing for years. The American Anthropological Association is in its 113th year; the Ethnography in Education Research Forum, its 35th; the Ethnographic and Qualitative Research Conference, its 26th; and the Chicago Ethnography Conference, its 16th. In contrast to conferences that are mostly academic in nature from the speakers to the attendees and content, one relatively new conference focuses on the work ethnographers do within organizations: EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis In Industry Conference), which was held most recently in London from September 15-18, 2013 (draft proceedings of papers & program).

Before attending an ethnographic conference, there is a critical question that must be answered: Why go to an ethnography conference? This is not a trick question. It is something that I have asked myself a number of times. In fact, I had honestly been unsure of the value of such conferences. That is, until I attended EPIC 2013. Let me elaborate…

Consider the hypothetical in which you are a superhero. You would likely want to hang out with a team with different super powers(a la X-Men or Justice League), not a team comprised of clones of yourself. So for most of my career, I didn’t prioritize going to ethnographic industry events. That said, I have attended my fair share of academic conferences such as HCI, CHI, CSCW, and ASA. By and large, I haven’t been overly impressed; the academic rigor of presentations wasn’t always coupled with inspiration and the events could be incredibly sleep-inducing (except for the fun meet ups afterwards where everyone becomes human!). I generally prefer conferences that challenge me to think about the unfamiliar, which shouldn’t be surprising to hear from an ethnographer.

But I can now testify that I have attended my first ethnography industry gathering and I found it very inspirational, indeed!

In September 2013, I traveled to London to attend and speak at EPIC 2013. It was an honor to deliver the conference-opening keynote lecture entitled “The Conceit of Oracles: How we ended up in a world in which quantitative data is more valued than qualitative data” (transcript). While there was some variability in the quality of the presentations, the ones that were high quality were beyond inspirational. Equally brain-exploding were the fantastic hallway conversations with other accomplished ethnographers.

EPIC is a gathering where academic ethnographers and corporate ethnographers mingle as equals. In its sixth year, EPIC “promotes the use of ethnographic investigations and principles in the study of human behavior as they are applied in business settings.” EPIC started out with folks who were working at large tech companies such as IBM, Xerox Parc, Intel, and Microsoft, but it has now evolved into a conference that welcomes attendees working in boutique research firms, design studios, and consulting agencies.

There is no other conference in our field that is so interdisciplinary in attendance and ideas. I met attendees who deal with ethnography in every context, including marketing, strategy, design, research, and academia. Simply put, this is the conference to go to if you wish to learn how to make products, services, and organizations that truly serve people.

To capture the memorable presentations, interesting conversations, and useful workshops from EPIC 2013, Ethnography Matters will present a series of guest posts from presenters and attendees of the conference. Read More…

Big Data Needs Thick Data

Tricia Wang

Tricia Wang

Editor’s Note: Tricia provides an excellent segue between last month’s “Ethnomining” Special Edition and this month’s on “Talking to Companies about Ethnography.” She offers further thoughts building on our collective discussion (perhaps bordering on obsession?) with the big data trend. With nuance she tackles and reinvents some of the terminology circulating in the various industries that wish to make use of social research. In the wake of big data, ethnographers, she suggests, can offer thick data. In the face of derisive mention of “anecdotes” we ought to stand up to defend the value of stories.

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image from Mark Smiciklas at Intersection Consulting

image from Mark Smiciklas at Intersection Consulting

Big Data can have enormous appeal. Who wants to be thought of as a small thinker when there is an opportunity to go BIG?

The positivistic bias in favor of Big Data (a term often used to describe the quantitative data that is produced through analysis of enormous datasets) as an objective way to understand our world presents challenges for ethnographers. What are ethnographers to do when our research is seen as insignificant or invaluable? Can we simply ignore Big Data as too muddled in hype to be useful?

No. Ethnographers must engage with Big Data. Otherwise our work can be all too easily shoved into another department, minimized as a small line item on a budget, and relegated to the small data corner. But how can our kind of research be seen as an equally important to algorithmically processed data? What is the ethnographer’s 10 second elevator pitch to a room of data scientists?

…and GO!

Big Data produces so much information that it needs something more to bridge and/or reveal knowledge gaps. That’s why ethnographic work holds such enormous value in the era of Big Data.

Lacking the conceptual words to quickly position the value of ethnographic work in the context of Big Data, I have begun, over the last year, to employ the term Thick Data (with a nod to Clifford Geertz!) to advocate for integrative approaches to research. Thick Data uncovers the meaning behind Big Data visualization and analysis.

Thick Data: ethnographic approaches that uncover the meaning behind Big Data visualization and analysis.

Thick Data analysis primarily relies on human brain power to process a small “N” while big data analysis requires computational power (of course with humans writing the algorithms) to process a large “N”. Big Data reveals insights with a particular range of data points, while Thick Data reveals the social context of and connections between data points. Big Data delivers numbers; thick data delivers stories. Big data relies on machine learning; thick data relies on human learning.

Read More…

March 2013: Stories to Action Edition

TTricia Wang his month’s Stories to Action edition was inspired by a panel that Ethnography Matters co-founder, Tricia Wang (@triciawang), curated at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng & Liz Lawly at NYU’s ITP. For the panel, Tricia asked several researchers to share a specific story from their field experience, the insights gained from the story, and how those insights shaped their projects. In this edition, several speakers elaborate on what they shared.

Welcome to the Stories to Action edition of Ethnography Matters!

Over the last few decades, organizations have learned to use the tools and approaches of ethnography to inform product and service development.[1] But the idea of gaining context-specific insights about users before a product or service is engineered is still relatively new. In May, Jenna Burrell is curating an edition on how to talk to organizations about ethnographic research (please reach out if you’d like to guest post for that edition!).

This month, we want to show that the ethnographic process is more than just an insight-generating machine. As ethnographers, we gather stories, analyze them, and identify the relevant insights. But, we do so much more. We do stuff with those stories and insights. We design products, services, apps, campaigns, and programs. We create new approaches to problem-solving. All that analyzing? It never stops. Like software programmers, we are constantly improving our designs.

To ethnographers this is all obvious. But it’s not always clear to others.

Clients often focus on end-product insights, failing to realize that ethnographic practice is a complex and multi-stage process. It is common among ethnographers working in the private or public sector to share frustrations that clients want ethnographic insights, but do not grasp the fieldwork and analytical work required to produce deep insights.

As ethnographers, we can feel the fieldsite in our bones. It stays with us. We can recall every participant’s face, the colors of their clothes, the texture of their hair, and the way they hold their cellphones. Long hours of fieldwork are sprinkled into memos, invoices, project management files, and proprietary qualitative software.

We can close our eyes and envision the tangible evidence of shadowing and participant observation: the project room filled with colored sticky notes on the walls, black and red sharpies strewn over the table, and white boards full of diagrams.

We are haunted by the people we interview—the woman whose hands trembled as she told a deep secret that she had never told anyone else or that kid who showed so much joy when he started leveling up.

The meaning of these experiences, these stories, and every minute detail of the research is clear to us. We know the weight of our analysis.

All the client sees: one powerpoint.

With the client’s myopic focus on insights, ethnographers may mistakenly think that clients don’t need to see the messy stuff. Fieldnotes, stories, and analysis seem less important.

Both clients’ focus on insights and ethnographers’ acceptance of this had led to an undesirable outcome for the field of business ethnography: many of the core practices of ethnographic observations and analysis become invisible and devalued.

Our hope is to offer more examples of how ethnographic research can contribute to amazing design decisions. Great stories from the field inform our actions in the development phase of our projects. For this month’s story edition, we wanted to showcase the strength of amazing stories that can go a long way to inform insights and actions.

This month’s Stories to Actions theme was inspired by a panel that I curated at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP.

I had asked several researchers to share a specific story from their field experience, the insights gained from the story, and how those insights shaped their projects. This edition will feature posts that will further explore important stories from ethnographic research that have led to important insights from prominent ethnographic researchers:

In addition to the stories shared at the Social Computing Symposium, we also have a guest post from Adriana Young Valdez about how she used stories gathered from ethnographic work to design games.

The posts in the Stories to Action Edition will shed some light on the important stories behind ethnographic research that may sometimes be overlooked when clients are only looking for big picture insights.

OTHER POSTS IN THE STORIES TO ACTION EDITION:

 

footnotes:

[1] This post is primarily about ethnographers who produce reports for clients, though the points also would apply to academics and their published research findings.

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We’re looking for guest contributors for Nicolas Nova’s Ethnomining edition in April. Check out the upcoming themes to see if you have something to submit!

Check out past posts from guest contributors! Join our email groups for ongoing conversations. Follow us on twitter and facebook.

Why Ethnography Matters for me: Reflections on our 1 year anniversary

Ethnography Matters is one year old this month! Pick CC BY NC SA by jacsonquerubin on Flickr

Ethnography Matters is one year old! Anniversaries are always surrounded with a quality of epicness and grandness. But I don’t feel so much epic or grand today as I feel grateful.

When Heather Ford asked me to join her, Rachelle Annechino, and Jenna Burrell to start a group blog about ethnography, I immediately said yes. Honestly, it’s not too hard to get me blogging – I already have like 20 blogs. I would’ve agreed if Heather asked me to blog about doggies. Though it did help that Heather, Jenna, and Rachelle are really wonderful people 🙂

But I said yes to Ethnography Matters because I recognized that the space we were carving out was important because nobody was talking about and celebrating ethnographers who weren’t bound by the traditional boundaries of anthropology and sociology.  Most conversations about ethnography were taking place either inside industry doors, academic conferences or departmentx, or blogs that fell along industry or field boundaries.

We felt that ethnography should be understood by a wider audience of non-specialists.  At the same time, we recognized that ethnographers needed a space to talk about the new challenges and opportunities that digital tools posed as objects of study, as analytical tools, and as a medium for conducting fieldwork.

When I joined Ethnography Matters, I didn’t realize how important it would become for my own work.  I was in the middle of an 18-month fieldwork trip that was the last phase of my 7 years of fieldwork in China. I was feeling a bit isolated from other forms of ethnography as this was my longest stint of academic research.

Since my first post in October 2011, I’ve come to rely on Ethnography Matters as a place for me to be exposed to other ethnographers’ experiences.  I have learned so much from Heather, Rachelle, and Jenna over the last year.

Heather’s Wikipedia posts are always illuminating and her post on Coye Chesire’s seminar on trust is super helpful for my own research on online trust. Her interview with Stuart Geiger on the ethnography of robots really pushed me to think about ethnography in a whole different context, and even now I can’t totally wrap my mind around it – like really – ethnography on robots?  Read More…

We’re growing! Nicolas Nova Joins Ethnography Matters as a Contributor

Editor’s Note: When we launched  Ethnography Matters one year ago in October 2011, we wanted to create a place for ethnographers who were fluid in their practice, ideas, and theories. And so far, the interactions in the comments, on twitter and facebook, and along with our amazing guest contributors, have reflected our original goal. We’re excited that you’ve all made this possible by reading, contributing, and tweeting. While we come from different disciplines, backgrounds, and industries, it doesn’t mean that we can’t build conversations that stretch outside our institutional circles for support, new ideas, and collaborations.

To celebrate our one year anniversary, we’re very excited to announce that Ethnography Matters is expanding! Nicolas Nova is joining EM as a regular contributor. You may be familiar with Nicolas as he has written several guest posts already for EM. He brings a lot of experience and expertise in design research, interaction design, and speculative applied ethnography. Nicolas is based in Switzerland, teaches at the Geneva University of Arts and Design, and works closely with design and corporate firms throughout Europe, so we look forward to expanding EM to the European community of ethnographers. He co-founded Lift, a conference that has often been described as the cozier & smaller version of TED. He’s been blogging about his research since 2003 on Pasta & Vinegar.
We thought it would be fun to introduce Nicolas by asking him some questions about, of course, ethnography! And if you have any more questions for Nicolas, ask in the comments section below. 
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How did you discover ethnography?
I “formally” discovered ethnography during my undergraduate degree in Cognitive Sciences when studying in France. Aside from classes in experimental psychology, we had courses in linguistics and cultural anthropology which is where I ran across this field and its approach. I remember that the lectures were fascinating, and the assignments were even more intriguing. We had to run interviews and observe curious topics such as how car-makers named auto-parts and their color, or how people make sense of the spatial environment. What caught me as interesting at the time was the approach, as it was totally different than the controlled experiments we had to run in Cognitive Psychology. Now that I think about it, the gap between these research endeavors is also huge in an epistemological sense, and I’m not sure that people in our program got that from the outset, but it was a marvelous opportunity to understand ethnography.
What did you enjoy about it when you started to learn about it? 

What I enjoyed was that it framed the way I was curious about the world, artifacts, people, and what they were doing. It basically corresponded to a more rigorous approach compared to something I use to do as a kid with my brother: going anywhere, sitting on a bench and looking at people, trying to make sense of what they were doing… an activity we used to called very naively “street physiognomy” (which, in retrospect, wasn’t physiognomy at all since we were focused on people’s activities).
Read More…

Ethnozine: August Edition – the tools we use, ethnography of Occupy, EPIC12 preview, men peeing, & uprooting assumptions

As far as fieldwork tools go, hardly anything drives an ethnographer more crazy than trying to find the most appropriate fieldwork tools.  That is why we decided for the August issue of Ethnography Matters, we’d talk all about fieldwork tools and launch a new series called “The Tools we Use.”

Heather Ford starts us off with a discussion of the software she uses for her Wikipedia research, followed by Jenna Burrell’srecommendations for software she has tried and wants to try in the field. Rachelle Annechino suggests a few Android appsalong with colored markers and Tricia Wang tells us about her anxieties of not knowing which tools she’ll use for her analysis process.

“Tools we Use” is an ongoing series, so if you have a fieldwork process or an app review you’d like to contribute, please contact us!

Rachelle Annechino also offers another post this month on the fears and delights in using ethnography to research drug use. She reveals some assumptions around drug consumption. And she throws in Lady Gaga to her post!

This month we have a lot of exciting guest contributors. First up is John Payne from Moment in NYC, NY. Gasp! John is not a formally trained ethnographer, but he’s a designer who relies on ethnography and trains all his designers at Moment to use it. This month, in Teaching Ethnography For User Experience: A Workshop On Occupy Wall Street, John shares his process on a two and a half day training he held for a group of designers in NYC. The training aimed to improve communication for the participants of Occupy. John’s 3-part reflection shows us their entire process from research questions, observations, post-fieldwork analysis and to design solutions.

As the co-chair of EPIC 2012 (October 14-17), John gives us a preview of their upcoming conference in Renewing Ethnography: Exploring The Role of Applied Ethnography At EPIC 2012. Did you know that EPIC will have two amazing keynote speakers this year? John tells us about keynoters Emily Pilloton of Project H Design and Philip Delves Broughton, author of The Art of the Sale: Learning From the Masters about the Business of LifeIt’s not too late to register for EPIC.  And for those of use who can’t get to EPIC 20212, readers of Ethnography Matters can look forward to a special post-conference review of notes and highlights from EPIC panels and workshops.

Our next guest contribution is an incredibly beautiful and personal essay, Men Pee Standing Up: The value of an anthropological perspective. Anthropologist Robbie Blinkoff co-founded the global research group, Context-Based Research Group in Boston, USA, but he doesn’t talk about his industry work in his essay. Instead, Robbie shares with us his process of discovering his anthropologist identity and how it helps him see the world.

Journalist and researcher, Luisa Beck closes out our great guest contributor line up with a post on the joy of having one’s assumptions turned upside down. She shows us that good ethnographic inspiration comes in all forms, from blog posts to talks. 

NEXT MONTH

  • Gabriella Coleman will share with us her process for conducting ethnography on Anonymous.
  • Mike Gotta will tell us about ethnography and enterprise software.
  • John Payne will tell us about the history of EPIC.

TIDBITS

ANNOUNCEMENTS

Would you like to be our next guest contributor? Ethnography Matters is your space. You can feature a project/paper/book/syllabus,  provide a fieldwork update, or share your thoughts.  Here are some more ideas for how you can participate. We’d love to hear from you.  Email us!

The tools we use: Gahhhh, where is the killer qualitative analysis app?

For the August issue of Ethnography Matters, Jenna, Heather, and Rachelle have written great posts about their fieldnote tools in the Tools we Use series. Now I have all these new apps I want to try for data analysis!

So this is when I admit here that I have no perfect process. I really don’t. Sometimes this upsets me and sometimes I just say whatever.  I’ve only figured out parts of the process. For example, last month, I wrote in depth about my use of Instagram to live fieldnote. But that’s just one part of the long path of fieldwork analysis. Now that I’ve finished data gathering,  I am no longer in the excitement of fieldwork. I don’t have a team of people to work with as I usually do on projects. For my China research,  it’s just me. And all I can think is, how am I going to analyze all this data without going crazy?

I’ve tried all the coding software possible for qualitative research, but there is no app that fulfills my needs. I have developed an aversion to anything that claims to be a “qualitative analysis tool.” These tools are lacking in user friendliness, collaborative features, platform diversity, and service support. If it doesn’t run on a mac and if the software’s website is unusable – that’s already a clue.

As far as fieldwork tools go, hardly anything drives an ethnographer more crazy than trying to find the most appropriate fieldwork tools. Of all the ethnography courses I’ve taken and all the books, dissertation, and papers I’ve read, none of them go into depth on the tools that ethnographers use to support their process. I suspect that one of the reasons why ethnographers don’t write about the tools they use is because they may use an ad hoc process that is messier and less structured than they’d like to admit. Read More…

July Edition of Ethnozine – Ethnography of Wikipedia Sources, Live Fieldnoting, & 4 guest contributors for The Ethnographer’s Reading List

Ethnozine: July ’12 edition

Just because summer is here doesn’t mean that ethnographers slow down.This month Heather Ford updates us on her Wikipedia research. She shares with us screenshots from her digital ethnography of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, revealing how Wikipedians manage sources in breaking news events. Tricia Wang finished up a few years of fieldwork in China and shares with us a new process for writing ethnographic fieldnotes, live fieldnoting. We have four guest contributors for The Ethnographer’s Reading List. Sam Ladner’s list mixes creativity with time, religion, and humor. Nicolas Nova’s list takes us back to objects, public spaces, and lines. Christina Dennaoui’s list brings us some science, emotion and pain. Elisa Oreglia’s list gives us something new, something blue, and something borrowed.

 Other tidbits:

Jason Antrosio at Living Anthropologically compiled a list of anthropology communities with a facebook page. We saw familiar communities like Savage Minds, but we also discovered new ones like Neuroanthropology,  ALLA (The Association of Latina/o Anthropologistsa) and How to be an Anthropologist.  We’ve added several their blogs and a few new ones to our blogroll. Do let us know if you would like to suggest a site to add to our blogroll!

Do you have a post that you would like featured on Ethnography Matters? Or would you like to be our next guest contributor? Here are some ideas for how you can participate. Email us! We’d love to hear from you.

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Writing Live Fieldnotes: Towards a More Open Ethnography

I just returned from fieldwork in China. I’m excited to share a new way I’ve been writing ethnographic fieldnotes, called live fieldnoting. I spoke about live fieldnoting in a recent interview with Fast Company that also featured a slideshow of my live fieldnotes. I want to elaborate on the process in this post.

At one point in time, all ethnographers wrote their notes down with a physical pen and paper. But with mobiles, laptops, iPads, and digital pens, not all ethnographers write their fieldnotes. Some type their fieldnotes. Or some do both. With all these options, I have struggled to come up with the perfect fieldnote system.

I have experimented with the Livescribe Pen, regular old notebook, and a laptop. The Livescribe digital pen didn’t work for me because it’s really uncomfortable to use after a half hour of writing and its dependency on digital paper makes it inflexible for fieldwork outside of the US and longterm extended fieldwork (my review of the pen on CulturalByt.es). The notebook seems like the most practical solution. But I can’t seem to find the “perfect” notebook. Do I use a really small one that fits in my pocket? A medium size one that allows me to write more? If it’s too big then it looks like a “notebook.” And what should this notebook look like? Does a black moleskin look too nice for my fieldsite? Does it look too official? Does my notebook allow me to fit in with teens? But the notebook with bears and hearts that I use around teens doesn’t work for my meetings with government officials. And in the end no matter what kind of notebook I use, I still have to type all my notes to Evernote. So using a laptop is inevitable as all notes eventually end up there and are cleaned up there. Read More…