As a researcher, I am driven to understand how individuals create identities in digital spaces, how communities are formed and maintained, and how the platforms shape individual and communal identities. In recent years, both compositionists and technical and professional communicators have issued calls for research in digital, informal, and social media spaces. One of the most often cited, Kathleen Yancey’s (2009) “Writing in the 21st Century,” urges scholars to investigate new forms of digital compositions as well as to instruct students in these forms of communication. My research considers both theory and instruction in social media spaces, and draws on approaches and traditions from the study of new media, composition, and technical and professional communication.
My dissertation project, “The Challenge of Anonymous and Ephemeral Social Media: Reflective Research Methodologies and Student-User Composing Practices,” integrates my interests in individual and communal identity, and the way social media platforms affect that identity. This project grapples with the difficulties of researching in social media spaces that do not provide clear indications of identity (usernames/profiles) and, in some cases, do not allow for mass data collection. Thus the purpose of this project is two-fold: first, to offer a strategy for learning more about these spaces when data is lacking, and second, to discuss how student-users are composing in these spaces. The project combines technical and professional communication’s emphasis on user-centered research designs with composition studies’ interest in student composition in digital spaces.
I was drawn to this project because of the work done for my article for Communication Design Quarterly, “Yik Yak and the Knowledge Community” (2016). While carrying out my research, I experienced first-hand the difficulties that arose when researching in a space that was both ephemeral and anonymous. I found that research methods from new media studies, technical and professional communication, and composition studies did not map onto these spaces easily. In the end, I chose to collect data from Yik Yak in the same way as human-computer interaction researchers, Erik Black, Kelsey Messina, & Lindsey Thompson (2016): by capturing screenshots of posts. These methods still yielded valuable results, but the focus of that article was on what students were composing instead of why or how.
By using a critically reflexive framework in discussing my previous project, my current project seeks to expand my research questions to consider not just content, but also intent and perception. My research asks how and why students-users are communicating on these platforms, and it considers how student-users’ perceptions of anonymity and ephemerality influence the types of content they produce. This project also considers anonymous and ephemeral platforms as a whole, using three platforms—Snapchat, Whisper, and Yik Yak—as representatives of their types. And without a simple way of mining data in bulk, tracing connections, and understanding identities, I found that I needed to ask the users themselves to fill in some of the gaps in my research.
For my project, I used a sequential mixed methods approach to determine how student-users communicate and compose on/in anonymous and/or ephemeral media platforms. First, I conducted an online survey of a sample of 625 of my university’s composition and technical writing students, in order to gain more general information about the platforms student-users participate in and the frequency and type of participation. Next, I interviewed six students who offered participate in the next step of the research process. These discourse-based interviews were structured in such a way as to gain a more nuanced picture of how students navigate these spaces and respond to other users.
Both composition and professional communication scholars can benefit from a more comprehensive view of the online spaces that users are frequenting. Even if they are not tied directly to a college campus, professional communicators for other businesses and organizations may find it beneficial to tap into the information in these spaces. My research goes a long way in discussing the ways in which users are communicating in these spaces, which will allow for communicators to have a better understanding of the types of information that are passed in these spaces. Additionally, it demonstrates how users privilege community, even in spaces where community maintenance is limited by a lack of “memory” and identity markers. Similarly, this research also contributes to discussions of how users adapt to composing spaces with system-imposed limitations: in this case, anonymity and ephemerality. Overall, my project shows much about how students-users compose and communicate in informal spaces and demonstrates one method of collecting data in unfamiliar research spaces such as these.
I am revising and developing sections of my dissertation for publication in Technical Communication Quarterly and Computers and Composition. For TCQ, I plan to use sections of my methods chapter to discuss how current methods for social media research do not perfectly align with spaces that privilege anonymity and ephemerality, and how user-centered research can mediate some of the issues that arise. For C&C, I will work to revise my literature review, which, in part, traces composition’s experiences with and reactions to anonymity and ephemerality. I will discuss how understanding the field’s early positive perceptions of anonymity and ephemerality can help prepare us to understand student perceptions of anonymous and ephemeral applications today.
My research on anonymous and ephemeral spaces has pushed me to consider broader issues that impact the larger world of social media, such as the role of platforms on shaping communities and identities, as well as the impact that our theories of these spaces have on pedagogy. In my future research, I seek to explore two avenues: first, I want to look more directly at how platforms shape users’ identities and communities by considering moderation in these spaces; second, I want to continue classroom-based research to better understand how students perceive and navigate social media platforms, and how instructors can integrate these tools for certain classes or at a program level.
Reflecting on my current research on social media platforms, a future project will interrogate how social media platforms use and enforce different types moderation. Continuing with conversations of moderation and online censorship, I will discuss how different moderation systems (user-moderated, community-moderated, or system-moderated) shapes community content and identity. I also plan to look at the ways in which communities subvert moderation, and the ways in which some communities are censored almost completely. I see this as a vein of research that I plan on continuing for some time, with implications for multiple platforms and spaces.
In addition, I will continue work with critical-reflective practices, this time in classroom-based research, by considering the implications of incorporating digital tools in the classroom. I will do this by continuing the reflective research I began in my article in Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, building on the findings from that work as well as recent findings in the larger world of writing pedagogy. At some point in the future, I would also like to consider how digital technologies can best be incorporated at a program-wide level, by working with others in the field to reflect on how digital rhetoric/humanities labs have supported program goals. Reflective research is a large part of my scholarly identity, and I believe it is key to developing sound methodological and pedagogical practices.