How to research new media production

Quynh Tu Hoang, University of Amsterdam

This is a short reflection on research methodology for new media production culture. There are two main groups of the methodology presented here:

  1. Ethnography and interviewing
  2. Discourse/textual analysis.

The methods and objects of study here are illustrated by academic research papers that have been performed in areas such as politics, media, cultural studies, organisation and management studies.

Ethnography and Interviewing

The ethnographic method is suitable for studying a particular group of people who have the same interest, identity, and culture. Researchers who employ the ethnographic method immerse themselves in the environment or culture with the subjects of their research for an extended period of time. While “living” among the subjects, researchers observe and document their patterns of communication, behaviour and the social structure of the group (Evans 9). Researchers also employ interviewing to assist with their observation and documentation. In other words, by interviewing, researchers gain a better understanding and interpretation of their observations from their subjects’ point of view.

Andrew Ross employs ethnography and interviewing to understand the attitudes and perspective of employees towards their workplaces. He spent eighteen months deep inside two prominent New Economy companies, Razorfish and 360hiphop, in New York’s Silicon Valley. He also interviewed employees in the technology industry in other cities. By immersing himself in their daily working life, he is able to “learn from employees while they were on the job” (3). For example, through observation and interviewing, he realizes how first-generation websters viewed their own companies as an example of how capitalist society could be reformed, and identifies the costs (i.e. overwork) of what are seemingly the good and humane jobs (18-20).

Interviewing is specifically important to understand movement and conflict as Brophy states in his research of labor conflict in digital capitalism (634). Brophy’s aim of the research is “to prioritize the fears, hopes, and desires of high-tech workers themselves over the strategies of established labour”, thus interviewing is the most appropriate approach to capture their emotions, conflicts, and pressure (634).

Similarly, drawing on ethnographic research in an Internet healthcare start-up company in Boston, media labs in Berlin, and startups in Bangalore, Christopher Kelty explores the cultural significance of Free Software movement (n.p). With the aim to conceptualise geeks’ social imaginaries, Kelty carefully selected a few interviewees based on their background and experience, and then conducted extensive interviews with them on a wide range of topics (72-91). This approach is slightly different from Ross’s study whose interviews focused on specific issues because Kelty’s object of study is broader and more philosophical. Kelty, who is an anthropologist himself, successfully shows how geeks make use of the Protestant Reformation as a metaphor for their position by looking closely at the words, tools, and stories that geeks use (72-91).

Another topic that has been explored by interviewing and ethnography is the cultural infrastructure for new media production, researched by Fred Turner (73). By participating in the Burning Man festival, Turner has a close look at how the festival in Black Rock City became a social model for project-based production in new media industry which is “driven by the pursuit of self-realization, project engineering, and communication” (91). The research consists of an archival research and interviews with long-time participants including computer programmers and software engineers who worked for Silicon Valley information and design firms. Hence, it not only answers the question at the start of the research: “How does Burning Man appeal so much to them?” but also reveals that the spirit of the festival lingers throughout the year and plays a central role in motivating both the common-based peer production and commercial product development (89-91).

While most of the ethnographic research above is conducted in the workplace contexts, Marwick’s highly anecdotal research on the social order in new media industry includes participation and observations of social media platforms and social gatherings of the San Francisco’s tech community from 2006 to 2010 (73-111). To better understand the hierarchy implied behind the interactions in the tech community, Marwick also conducted qualitative interviews with some of the tech scene’s entrepreneurs, “micro-celebrities”, tech journalists, and bloggers (73-111). These interviews then help her to see the implications of the hierarchy, such as the technology scene’s idealism status is earned through creating something that can change the world (82).

Furthermore, a study on the identities and culture of entrepreneurial labor by Neff, Wissinger, and Zukin shows that research in new media industry is not necessarily limited to observing and interacting with workers in this industry but can be expanded to other cultural industries; for it could provide a cross-disciplinary perspective on the object of study (308). The participant-observation in New York City and the interview data from 100 workers in the fashion media and the technology fields allow the researchers to identify the forces that led to entrepreneurial labor and to establish a model of “good work hierarchy in new media” (308-330).

Ethnography and interviewing complement each other in most studies, for interviewing is to understand the perspective, experience, motivation, feelings, and expectations of the subjects of study (i.e. employees, geeks, entrepreneurs) while ethnography allows the researcher to look critically at the new media industry (i.e. workplace, jobs, and free software community) from an outsider’s perspective.

Discourse/textual analysis 

Discourse/textual analysis is an approach which involves deconstructing written work to examine its relationship with the ideologies and social norms of a particular society, culture or community. In other words, researchers who perform textual analysis on a text would try to make sense of the ways people in particular cultures at times see themselves and the world they live in (McKee 1).

An important aspect of new media production studies is contemporary business culture, which is analysed by Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski, since it is fundamental to the organisation and economic activities of new media companies (n.p). Chiapello and Boltanski trace and observe the changes of organisations over the past 30 years by analysing published works from the field of management studies, which are argued to influence the thinking of employees and play an important role in corporate organisation reforms (164-165). The researchers choose texts written in French from the 1960s and the 1990s that were endorsed by professional management reviews (164). This is argued to be “an easier option than studying changes in practices that can be disparate and dispersed, of varying magnitude, and which can affect the organisation of the companies” (162). While this research’s object is similar to Brophy’s: post-Fordist work structures, this work’s goal is to provide a theoretical framework for better understanding of the transformations that capitalism has experienced. Both studies showed how organisations can be changed by employee initiative. However, Chiapello and Boltanski’s study aims to provide a model of change based on pragmatic analysis.

Another structural research is Alan Liu’s study on the mix structure of “politics for the really cool”. Since this cyber-politics exists almost everywhere in our activities on the Internet (the digital everyday), Liu chooses to use a data set of various resources (i.e. Wired magazines, Internet technology news sites, news and commentary of the leading activist organisations, critical commentary, etc.) to identify the elements of the free cyber society and the underlying structure of cyberlibertarianism (239-241). Although Liu’s book was published in 2004, he uses many resources from the 80s and 90s (i.e Processed World magazine “Bad Attitude” edition) to make historical critique of the digital everyday (278-282). Liu explained in an interview with Geert Lovink that “the now and the far past are necessary to each other” and ”can be brought into meaningful engagement” when positioned in the generational changes that “made us what we are today” (n.p).

Besides published works, magazines, online commentary, etc., researchers can also analyse the technical artifacts written and coded by the subjects of study (i.e. computer programmers, hackers, etc.). Coleman studies the ethical and aesthetic values of free and open source software developers (also called hackers) by closely reading the developer collective (technical documentation, coding, help messages, warning messages, communication on developers’ IRC channels, etc.) (91-158). Coleman’s object of study is similar to Kelty’s: the free software movement. Yet, by looking at the technical artifacts, Coleman is able to explore hackers’ clever code, aesthetics and effects, and how hackers organise themselves via the process of labor.

Conclusion 

In general, ethnography is most appropriate for research questions that aim to obtain insights into people’s views, feelings, motivations and actions, as well as the nature of the settings (i.e. workplace, social gatherings). It is usually a combination of detailed observations and interviews. Depending on the scope of the study subject, researchers may select a few interviewees and develop multiple extensive interviews with them, or design a broad range of questions focusing on specific issues for a number of interviewees.

In contrast, textual analysis is suitable for research that aims to understand the underlying systems, structures, and ideologies. Outcome of research using textual analysis is usually a framework or model that can be used to solve contemporary problems.

 

References

Boltanski, Luc, and Eve Chiapello. “The New Spirit of Capitalism.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, vol. 18, no. 3/4, 2005, pp. 161-88.

Brophy, Enda. “System Error: Labour Precarity and Collective Organizing at Microsoft.” Canadian Journal of Communication, vol. 31, no. 3, Oct. 2006.

Coleman, E. Gabriella. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 91-158.

Evans, Sarah. Qualitative Research Methods Bibliography (2017). Web.

Kelty, Christopher. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Duke University Press Books, 2008, pp. 64-94.

Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. 
 University of Chicago Press, 2004, pp. 239-282.

Lovink, Geert. “Interview with Alan Liu.” Institute of Network Cultures. http://networkcultures.org/geert/interview-with-alan-liu/

Marwick, Alice E. Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age. Yale University Press, 2013, pp. 73-111.

McKee, Alan. Textual Analysis: A Beginner’s Guide. 1st ed., SAGE, 2003.

Neff, Gina, et al. “Entrepreneurial Labor among Cultural Producers: ‘Cool’ Jobs in ‘Hot’ Industries.” Social Semiotics, vol. 15, no. 3, Dec. 2005, pp. 307–34. Taylor and Francis+NEIJM, doi:10.1080/10350330500310111.

Ross, Andrew. No Collar: The Humane Workplace And Its Hidden Costs. Temple 
 University Press, 2004, pp. 1-20.

Turner, Fred. “Burning Man at Google: A Cultural Infrastructure for New Media 
Production.” New Media & Society, vol. 11, no. 1–2, 2009, pp. 73-94.

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