Feminist Approaches to Social Media Research Workshops

I’ve just returned from ICA (the annual conference of the International Communication Association), where I and a group of feminist scholars convened a workshop on feminist approaches to social media research. The session was excitingly well-attended; I’d say we had 40-50 people in the room at 9am. It was the second workshop I ran on the topic; the other happened at Console-ing Passions (a conference on feminist media studies) in April. Aside from these workshops, there were two “sister” sessions run by other awesome feminist scholars, one at CSCW (Computer-Supported Cooperative Work conference) initiated by Libby Hemphill and another at NCA (National Communication Association conference) organized by Amy Hasinoff.

The session Amy ran at NCA has since been accepted as a Forum in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies. Amy was kind enough to ask me to write a response to the papers, so I’ll be in there too. The collection is in production right now, so I imagine it will appear in the next issue of the journal.

The workshops I ran haven’t been converted to anything material yet, but I think they were quite successful in starting conversations and planting the seeds of a network of scholars interested in this specific topic. At both sessions, we discussed political concerns, theoretical issues, methodological questions, opportunities for engaging the public, and practical applications of our research. While a lot of ideas were sparked at these sessions, one of the biggest takeaways for me was the need for training and mentorship for people who are new to feminist research. There are a vast number of early career researchers (and probably later ones too) who want to engage questions of gender and power in their work but don’t have specialized training in feminist theory or methods. And realistically, they may not have the time or resources to become specialists in those areas. Personally, I’d much prefer to have a ton of social media researchers know even just a little bit about feminist methodology than to have just a few of us bringing that knowledge into our work. So I want to think about how we who do have years of training in this area share our knowledge, skills, and experience with those who at least want to make a start down this road. In the process I think we can improve social media scholarship in general by imparting this flavor to it.

To give just one example, at one point our conversation at Console-ing Passions turned to the importance of critical ethnography for social media research, but it was clear that not everyone in the audience was familiar with this tradition. I wasn’t surprised, because communication and media studies departments have enough trouble teaching qualitative methods, let alone ethnographic methods, double let alone critical ethnographic methods. (Not blaming the departments here – these aren’t methods you can really teach in a semester-long methods survey course. I was fortunate enough to have an advisor who did a directed reading with me and coached me through years of acquiring knowledge and skills in critical feminist ethnography.) Very specialized methods and literatures like this–and there are many others in addition to critical ethnography–are things that some of us are lucky to know a lot about and I think we can and should share this knowledge in an accessible way with people (like feminist graduate students, or even undergraduates) who are just starting to design studies into social media.

So that’s a mission I’m going to be thinking about for the next little while. If you’d like to think about it along with me, shoot me an email and I’ll add you to the email list I gathered at these sessions!