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Alternative Social Media Preconference at AoIR

On October 18, at 8.30 am, a group of about 30 Internet Scholars gathered for a Association of Internet Researchers preconference, called “Building an Alternative Social Media Network.”

Organized by Jessa Lingel, Ashwin Nagappi, and myself, the preconference achieved one of its big goals: getting many researchers in a room to talk about alternative social media (ASM). Yay!

The other big goal was igniting a research agenda for ASM. Did we succeed?

ASM Research futures

I would say: “yes!”

The discussion during our roughly four hours was rich. First of all, Ashwin had the brilliant idea of building an ad-hoc timeline of social media, dating back to the 1970s through today.

A wall of post-it notes that creates a timeline of social media, starting with email in the 1970s through the fediverse today
The participants in the preconference remembered various social media, broadly construed, and posted notes about them to the wall.

This actually helped us see the variety of ways people were defining “social media” right away. It also showed us that there may have been bursts of activity in two key moments: the early 2010s (quite understandable) and right now.

What are ASM?

This segued into a discussion about a key question: what are “alternative social media”? From my corner of the room, I heard two key words:

  • relational
  • emergent

That is, ASM are always in relation to something typically considered mainstream. This actually replicates a paper Roel Roscam Abbing and I are working on, where we will conclude with a similar observation. ASM are in relation to a mainstream, a relation that can change over time. RRA and I presented an early version of that paper back in May of this year.

The other key word was “emergent,” in that alternative practices often appear across many locations, including on mainstream corporate social media. These practices can influence both corporate and alternative social media.

However, even with this relative consensus, much as the conception of social media was very broad, so, too the conception of alternative social media. Some of us felt that this would hinder the field, replicating the worst of the alternative media debates of the 1990s-2000s. Others of us felt that the variety of meanings could aid in research.

Methods and Ethics

We next turned to ASM research methods – which were immediately tied to research ethics.

First of all, since ASM is hard to define, then it struck many of us that ethnographic or participatory methods are called for. We agreed that often we have to listen to communities as they define themselves as “alternative.”

But we also noted that we should be free to reject a community’s self-definition as “alternative” – it could be mere marketing. Or it could be a self-serving gloss on unethical replication of mainstream practices.

Historical methods were also recommended, since tracing alternative practices (such as, for example, federated political practices) could shed light on contemporary social media.

We also discussed approaches like the walk-through method or software studies approaches.

If there was controversy, it was over data-scraping methods. Readers of this blog know I am adverse to them on the fediverse (and I am working on a paper on this topic). However, participants argued that scraping may be warranted in situations where we study the alt-right.

Ethics was, as it should be, a central consideration. The participants tended to agree with the basic idea of consent – a position I wholly endorse for the study of the fediverse.

The sticky bit, again, was in cases where researchers felt that consent would be hard to get, or interfere with the study: again, this tended to focus on studying right-wing alternative social media.

For me (and many of the folks in the room, I believe), there’s a major upshot to ethical engagement with many ASM groups: we researchers can make a difference! We can do work that resonates with ASM communities: we can ask them what they need and how we could help provide it through research. I really don’t think Facebook or Twitter cares a bit about critical social media research… but people on the fediverse, for example, might. If we do this right, we can actually help grow a more ethical social media.

I’m down for that!

Future steps

We are now building an email listserv for researchers interested in the field of ASM, as well as a Zotero library. I particularly hope that collecting a bibliography might shed light on the field.

We are also talking about meeting again, either virtually or in person. Watch this space for more!

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