a journal of personal fieldwork experiences and impressions
Back in Australia, and it’s time to catch up on my writing! I’ve just returned from an intensive 3 month period of fieldwork in the US, where I was attending events, interviewing, observing, and working with various actors in the space industry and its communities, including students, scientists, science communicators, aspiring astronauts, advocacy organisations, artists, and popular and social media personalities. I was lucky enough to be based in San Francisco for a large portion of that time, and spent the last month travelling through Arizona and New England. This period has been full of travel, stories, new friends and loved ones, and lots of exciting research. Even though, being primarily ethnographic, there is a strong interpersonal component to my research, the focus on data collection and recording has meant I haven’t been spending nearly as much time on actively connecting, sharing, and communicating my process, resources, finds, and ideas as I would like to. I am looking forward to more actively doing so in the coming months, and hope to start developing a collection of useful resources for others who might be interested in some of these research questions and methods! So stay tuned for more content and tags, and you can check out the obligatory travel slideshow reel here:
I’ve been thinking about stories lately, and histories, and about the roles of certain kinds of technology, especially global(-ised? -ising?), digital social media – something that strikes me more the more I delve into it is just how much these technologies of representation and communication do.
Being able to watch, hear, read, consume things as they happen and with many connected others is huge in the sense that so so much is being recorded that we are said to be drowning in a data deluge. And so much of it is, relatively speaking, widely and readily available and accessible, increasingly in real time. But these communicative and representational affordances mean that we’re not just capturing stories and histories as they are, but that we can participate in and change them, to varying extents, as they are unfolding. I don’t want to go all internet-chatrooms-as-utopian and Twitter-as-cause-and-home-of-social-movements here, and it is easy to get overexcited about the revolutionary potential of technology. Nevertheless, I think we are in an exciting moment, and that there is a lot worth looking at from a research perspective, especially with regards to the space industry and ideas of publics, access, knowledge, information, and presence. For example, if you have access to an internet-connected device, you can watch a livefeed view of the Earth from the ISS as it orbits above, you can now explore the ISS with Google Street View as you would any other location on Earth, you can watch livefeeds of satellite launches, you can remotely take MOOCs in space topics and delivered by space agencies like ESA, follow people, corporations, and organisations on social media and get news delivered to you, analyse astronomical data in crowdsourced citizen science projects to discover new exoplanets, go to space in VR, or explore plausible, procedurally generated models of the universe with simulation game Space Engine. It is kind of exciting. And presence and participation at such scale can actually shift the bounds and kinds of possibility – as a participant from a citizen science platform pointed out to me, it’s not just that more people acting now means that more classifications get done (on a given project), but that projects get to happen that never would have otherwise – you can only catch some ephemeral phenomena at all when you have people working at that scale!
I was lucky enough to attend the recent Spacefest in Tucson, an event for space enthusiasts that brings interested members of the public together with industry professionals including astronauts, scientists, journalists, and renowned space artists. One of the speaker panels I attended was Leonard David’s. Leonard David is a prominent space journalist and author (his site is here, and you can find his work in such publications as Space News and Aerospace America. At Spacefest, he was discussing his recent book on the future of Mars exploration, produced for National Geographic as a companion to their recent and wildly popular Mars series. He talked about how exciting and dynamic the present moment is for the space industry at a global scale, as so many countries are now players, but so too are many private companies and individuals, following the shift to the increasing commercialisation of space-related activities, and the rise of the NewSpace industry. He described the current moment, our time, with a really interesting turn of phrase – ‘now history’. Everyone (or at least a larger number of people) can now participate and pioneer in discoveries, projects, and developments in a way that simply was not possible before, through enabling technologies such as VR. I found the idea very intriguing, and wrote it down. I’ve since done a quick Google canvas and I can’t seem to find much more on this idea, or records of David speaking about it. I would love to know more about what, exactly, he means by the concept of now history, and why – if anyone can hook me up or ask him, please do!
Lite understanding aside, I’ve been thinking about the idea and what it could mean, about the ways stories and events get to unfold, when they are digitally-mediated and allow us unprecedented presence and access. How does this change how we think? How we act as individuals? How we act as collectivities?
I thought I would bulk out these musings by sharing some graphic visualisations from a social, and social media phenomenon I was prescient/lucky enough to collect earlier this year - a little bit of history I caught as it was happening. Here are some frames on the recent March for Science! It happened this Earth Day, on April 22, in DC and, Wikipedia tells me, in 600 other cities around the world, with over 1 million marchers. It followed the very visible Women's Marches, and it itself was very visible on social media - in terms of organising, logistics, debates, conversations, and scandals. Others have covered this better than I could or have time to in this post. What I do have and would like to share, is one piece of the conversations, and one angle on their unfolding.
These graphics are based on publicly available data that I collected from Twitter, for a particular set of simple queries (data is publicly available, but if you see your username here and don't want it to be, let me know and I'm happy to take it down). This is by no means a holistic or complete representation of all public conversation or action related to the March for Science event on social media, just some key topics, keywords and hashtags on Twitter. All the same, it’s pretty cool, and I think that when you start to put multiple things next to each other, layer the representations and visualisations, is when you start to get a bit more analytic or explanatory power. This also isn’t my main project, just some stuff I’ve been collecting along the side, so it’s not perfect or polished, but I thought it was interesting, and thought others might too!
I pulled from Twitter over April and May (and into June for some queries), using TAGS v6.12.
#MarchForScience March for Science MarchForScience
Included above and below is some of the data from the hashtag #MarchForScience and the two keyword searches March for Science and MarchForScience, over April and May 2017, cleaned up, processed, and visualised using the programs Tableau and Gephi.
Please let me know if you have questions or would like to know more about or see data or visualisations for the rest of the queries – I want to stack them all side by side and see what the conversations look like over time and from different word and topic angles, but that’s a project for another day. And if you think you can improve upon what’s here, critique, correct, or help me – please do! I’m just a student learning as I go and welcome any tutelage I can get! And a big thank you to the Digital Media Research Centre at QUT for their fabulous tutes on social media analytics which helped me learn how to do this last year!
Visualisation of the network of Twitter interactions including the March for Science hashtag and keywords. Interactions may be retweets or @mentions between users. The larger the node & name, the more interactions that user had with others in the network involving those key tags/terms, and the more connected/visible/possibly influential they are in this conversation
Looking at visualisations of data pulled from specific social media platforms, it's important to remember that these datasets are highly processed, and that they do not reflect the entire body of data within a specific platform, nor do they reflect the entirety of a social conversation or movement, nor do they necessarily tell us what things mean and why they happened.
That being said, such large-scale social media analysis and network mapping can be incredibly useful I think, in exploring trends, issues, activities from the top-down and the outside. As someone trained more in working deeply with individual people to learn about what they do and think and why, I can see great utility in these methods in terms of exploring and canvassing an issue, and figuring out where exactly to look and dig deeper (along with the obvious benefits of triangulation)!
For example, it was interesting and kind of surprised me a little bit how many of the interactions involving these key terms/tags centred around just a few tweets by celebrity Twitter users, prominent outside of scientific fields where most of the core conversation was happening - I wonder if this kind of celebrity signal-boosting had any effects in terms of driving up event attendance or motivating more people to participate in afterthemarch activism, or if it only represents peripheral conversation, and had little to do with attendance and activism. Conversations and prominent secondary hashtags in the dataset centred around Russiagate suggest that these two topics are related, or part of a bigger political dialogue happening in the US at the moment, and that understanding the dynamics of adjacent social movements and issues will be important in trying to understand what situated what people were doing and saying in the leadup to the March for Science, during, and after.
These specific trends and topics were not at the forefront of my mind when I was actually participating in the march, and some of the activism after the fact, and exploring some of the data at a zoomed-out level has been really interesting in gaining an alternate perspective on this social event and dialogue. Had I been a little more engaged with exploring this data right around the time of the march, I would have been able to start collecting data for other, adjacent topics, tags, and keywords as they popped up, and build a more comprehensive picture of the social networks and interactions involved. Being able to (even lite-ly) observe, track, collect, note trends in parts of history at such a large scale is so exciting! Being able to do so as-it-is-happening, and then use insights generated from this data to analyse or participate better in the ongoing event in the now is even more exciting - to me that opens possibilities for more intentional participation (data-driven?) and intervention in our social projects as they are unfolding.