Thursday, 24 January 2013

What lies beneath the digital surface of our screens: Tunisian Revolution Case Study

The second in our series of blog posts looks at new social media and the Tunisian revolution. Cyrine Amor is a doctoral student at Goldsmiths, University of London.

The issues raised by online research are numerous as we all know, and so are the new opportunities it provides. When it comes to the qualitative exploration of social media, the picture can be complex. Social researchers might seek to immerse themselves in a social media space in the way that traditional ethnographers would approach a physical space, but this is not a simple issue. Beyond issues with determining the boundaries of a space online and the relations between its inhabitants, we need to bear in mind that their online interactions cannot be isolated from an offline context and from the mediated structure that shapes their digital presence.

The ability to overcome spatial restrictions in online research should not distract us from placing social behavior within the social and cultural context of the spaces that online subjects physically inhabit in their everyday lives. Of course, not all social explorations of an online space demand involvement with these different layers of online, offline and mediated digital space. But an awareness of their respective implications can be crucial to attend to at an early stage of online research designs.

This awareness was demonstrated in my mixed methodological approach to the study of online social networking in Tunisia after the start of the revolution. This research provided not only a more nuanced understanding of the social and political role of a platform like Facebook, but an altogether different picture than what the study of that online space in isolation might have revealed.

Much attention was given to the role of social media during the wave of unrest that started to sweep across the Arab world at the end of 2010. Some Western academic circles were too swift to draw linear correlations between digital media and their revolutionising potential. I believe that this was partly due to an assessment of the online space in isolation in some of these countries and, at times, of the English-speaking online space only.

My research is ongoing and I certainly haven’t yet resolved all the methodological issues it has so far raised. However, preliminary findings certainly support the case for an engagement with social media space in conjunction with a physical immersion in the local community for prolonged periods of time and face-to-face interviews with participants. Amongst the most valuable of these insights may be the important role played by offline networks of kinship and friendship, the translation of their influence to the networked online space, and the implications of social norms that govern online activity and its visibility.

This is not to say that social media played an insignificant part in shaping the outcome of these protest waves, and they certainly do continue to play a fascinating role in the social and political landscape in some of these regions. But it is only to highlight that our eagerness to decipher social media spaces should remain wary of seeking answers that overlook what may lie beneath the digital surface of our screens.