Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sense and Sensibility

The conference was starting to wind down by the time Jeffrey Bardzell gave his talk on "Developing a 'sensibility for the particular'" yesterday. Because Bardzell is very comfortable in the chats-with-stats genres that I associate with scholarship from the social study of science or human-computer interaction, I was surprised to find out from his faculty web page that his PhD was actually in comparative literature. Thus, although he did have the obligatory "methods" section, he was able to make a larger argument about how the scale of participatory culture makes truly representational sampling impossible and how researchers need to have "a capacity for critical judgment" that goes beyond number crunching. For example, Bardzell asked when 65,000 videos are uploaded to YouTube every day, what would a representative sample of YouTube videos even mean. Internet subcultures thrive on micro-jokes, secret languages, and frequent disbanding behaviors, so statistical approaches may not be all that viable, Bardzell argues.

To ground his approach Bardzell uses the research of Löwgren and Stolterman in the domain of professional designers. According to Bardzell, these authors of Thoughtful Interaction Design: A Design Perspective on Information Technology examine categories like "retrospective reflection," "reflective thinking," "a developed language," and "a sense of quality" in ways that can be used to understand individualized intentions in digital media practices, which he reads against Bourdieu's concept of the "habitus" or system of dispositions. Thus both digital designers and digital researchers must align their sensibilities to their communities through concrete engagement.

Bardzell's actual survey of four open-ended questions about researchers' research methods for understanding participatory culture is still available on the web here. But in his talk he presented some of his initial results that showed how Internet researchers find interesting examples. Respondents commented about entertainment value, novelty, and utility, with "WTF" being a common response that ultimately suggests further study. As one researcher admits, "I stumble on just about everything initially." Often the most important "community metric" is the urge to forward a link to others, and the mainstream media and commercial search engines were discounted as sources of information. Given some of the stories that have appeared in the press since I started this blog two and a half years ago, I understand Bardzell's attitude toward increasingly conglomerated news sources all too well.

In closing Bardzell looked at the question "Who is allowed to speak?" and the ways that academics make compromises to address specialized audiences, particularly peer-reviewers expecting formal analysis. Rather than serve as traditional academic historians, many Internet researchers must be active participants in Internet subcultures, because they depend on their social networks and the daily practices associated with them to provide fresh material for their scholarship.

In the session that followed, Bardzell presented the research of his wife Shaowen Bardzell. Coming into the room, I was actually lukewarm toward her scholarship, based on having heard her present her work once before, which was on sadomasochistic sexual communities in Second Life. I must say I was pleasantly surprised by both the more original and the more academically useful turn her that her research on virtual worlds has taken of late. She is now examining how the designer is embodied in Second Life in ways very different from being parked in front of a Maya work station. In the "Sandbox" areas of Second Life she observed many different types of novice and intermediate designers at work, including a user making a couch and then bringing her house into the sandbox to check its dimensions and another designer building a fighter jet with virtual graph paper below. As she pointed out, there were griefers there as well as researchers, although her research indicated that their interventions and bombardments could also be understood as part of the sandbox creative process in which digital designers move not only between Photoshop and the scripting tools of SL, but also in the virtual space of observation and interaction.

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