Content analysis, tagging, linked data and digital objectivities

I’ve tried to keep musings on research methodology & epistemology mostly off this blog (they are mostly to be found over on my just-out-of-stealth-mode ‘Open Data Impacts’ research blog), however, for want of somewhere better to park the following brief(ish) reflections:

  • Content Analysis is a social science method that takes ‘texts’ and seeks to analyze them: usually involving ‘coding’ topics, people, places or other elements of interest in the texts, and seeking to identify themes that are emerging from them.
  • One of the challenges of any content analysis is developing a coding structure, and defending that coding structure as reasonable.In most cases, the coding structure will be driven by the research interest, and codes applied on the basis of subjective judgements by the researcher. In research based within more ‘objective’ epistemic frameworks, or at least trying to establish conclusions as valid independently of the particular researcher – multiple people may be asked to code a text, and then tests of ‘inter-coder reliability‘ (how much the coders agreed or disagreed) may be applied.
  • With the rise of social bookmarking sites such as Delicious, and the growth of conventions of tagging and folksonomy, much online content already has at least some set of ‘codes’ attached.For example, here you can see the tags people have applied to this blog on Delicious.
  • Looking up any tags that have been applied to an element of digital content could be useful for researchers as part of their reflective practice to ensure they have understood an element of content from a wide range of angles – beyond that which is primarily driving their research.
  • (With many caveats) It could also support some form of ‘extra-coder reliability’ providing a check of coding against ‘folk’ assessments of content’s meaning.
  • The growth of the semantic web also means that many of the objects which codes refer to (e.g. people, organizations, concepts) have referenceable URIs, and if not, the researcher can easily create them.Services such as Open Calais, and Open Amplify also draw on vast ‘knowledge bases’ to machine-classify and code elements of text – identifying, with re-usable concept labels, people, places, organizations and even emotions. (The implications of machine classification for content analysis are not, however, the primary topic of this point or post).
  • Researchers could chose to code their content using semantic web URIs and conventions – contributing their meta-data annotations of texts to either local, or global, hypertexts.For example, if I’m coding a paragraph of text about the launch of, instead of just adding my own arbitrary tags to it, I could mark-up the paragraph based on some convention (RDFa?), and reference shared concepts.From a brief search of Subj3ct for ‘data’, I quickly find I have to make some fairly specific choices about which concepts of data I might be coding against, although hopefully if they have suitable relationships attached, I may be able to query my coded data in more flexible ways in the future.
  • All of this raises a mass of interesting epistemic issues, none of which I can do justice to in these brief notes, but which include:
    • Changing the relationship of the researcher to concept-creation – and encouraging both the re-use of concepts, and the shaping of shared semantic web concepts in line with the research;
    • The appropriateness, or not, of using concepts from the semantic web in social scientific research, where the relatively objectivist and context free framing of most current semantic web projects runs counter to often subjectivist and interpretivist  leanings within social science;
    • The role of key elements of the current web of concepts on the semantic web (for many social scientific concepts, primarily Wikipedia via the dbpedia project) where the choice of what concepts are easily referenceable or not depends on a complex social context involving both crowd-sourcing and centralised control (ref the policies of Wikipedia or other taxonomy / knowledge base providers).
  • The actual use of existing online tagging, and semantic web URIs as part of the content analysis coding process (or any other social scientific coding process for that matter) may remain, at present, both methodologically challenging, and impractical given the available tools – but is worth further reflection and exploration.

Reflections; points to literatures that are already exploring this; questions etc. all welcome…

Political theory 2.0

[Summary: Yes, it’s time for another 2.0 titled workshop idea. Political theory at BarCampUKGovWeb09 this time]

In a couple of weeks I’ll be heading along to BarCampUKGovWeb09 (you can find my blogging from 08 here) and amongst lots of talking about young people, the web, social network sites and positive activity information I’m hoping to host a session that take’s a step back, strokes it’s beard and get’s a bit philosophical.

But of course, in true social media style, the title includes the ever-used 2.0 designation. Here’s the pitch from the BarCampUKGovWeb09 Ning:

Political Theory 2.0

People have been thinking about government and democracy for thousands of years. But what does all the theorizing from Plato through to Hobbes, Rousseau and Rawls mean when we’re living in a digital world?

Can political theory offer us a framework for better understanding e-democracy and engagement initiatives? What sort of democracy are we building?

This would be a session to workshop an e-democracy/engagement/government initiative with a bit of political philosophy – so either bring your favorite e-project ideas along, or your favorite political theorist and we’ll explore what they have to say to each other…

I’ve already had some great conversations with Paul Evans in working up the session idea – and he has kicked of the discussion with some ideas of what major political theorists might think of today’s e-democracy world:

– Machiavelli would probably have advised his Prince against blogging (but would have told him to lurk and listen)

– Hobbes would probably have said that Machiavelli had a point

– John Stuart Mill would have wanted to see your qualifications before he read your comments

– Tom Paine would have wanted you to be elected before you had any influence

– Edmund Burke would have wanted to be assured that pressure groups had no ability to do anything apart from provide evidence that the elected representatives could sort through

– Schumpeter would have annoyed absolutely everyone in the e-democracy sphere

I’m inclined to think many political theorists might be able to offer us constructive as well as critical points – and I’m really looking forward to taking this exploration further.

If you’re interesting in this exploration too, and you are going to be at BarCampUKGovWeb09 (and even if you’re not…) then join us in planning for the session on the BarCamp network.

Should local authorities be on MySpace or Facebook?

Online communities mind map

Over on the BarCampUKGovWeb discussion list Ian Dunmore shared a question posted today on the Public Sector Forums:

“I've been asked by a couple of people in my council if they can use the
likes of Bebo and Facebook to add a group to, to encourage young people to engage with the council. Firstly, it's Libraries and secondly our youth
people who want to promote a youth portal that is being developed.”

In my reading for the Youth Work and Social Networking research I'm currently involved in, and in trying to prepare a series of briefing papers on Social Networking Sites I've been struck by how complicated an issue this turns out to be.

The answer depends on (at the very least):

  • Which Social Networking Site you are talking about
  • What you want to do through the Social Networking Site
  • What position you take with regards to certain examples of offline engagement with young people – that is, what professional judgments have you already made that you need to be consistent with online. (This isn't just about questioning the way we should interact online – it's about questioning some of the ways we interact with young people in general).

Thought experimentsAnd the answer to the straight question of 'Should our local authority be on my space of Facebook?' turns out to be a very qualified definitely maybe.

Some thought experiments and arguments by analogy may prove useful in exploring professional intuitions and sensible responses to Social Networking Sites. The following thought experiments are very provisional and under-developed at present – but I offer them in the hope they can in some way help further the discussions taking place…

Which social networking site?

What the community, norms and expectations in a particular Social Networking Site community are matter.

MySpace is visibly highly commercialized and seemingly chaotic. Think of it like a very commercial music festival. If your local authority were to set up a stall there to hand out leaflets, chances are you could be next to a stall selling occult looking statues and drug taking paraphernalia.

  • Would you be comfortable in this space?
  • If 20% of the young people you needed to reach with your message were there – should you get over any discomfort and be there?
  • What if 80% of the young people you need to reach will be there?
  • What if the festival has an area that is for over 18's only – but you know that all the young people you need to reach (who are under 18) are actually in that area? Would you go and set up your stall there? Should you? What are the issues in play?

Finale -

(Caveat: Most festivals are temporary – so you might think 'we don't need to be there -we'll catch people at another time in the year'. The my space festival is year-round, 24-7. Does that change things?)


FaceBook gives (at least) the illusion of a more ordered environment where setting up a Facebook page or group for your organization may perhaps seem like setting up and inviting people to join a community forum, with the added benefit that when they join the forum – all their friends are told about it. But any community forum needs facilitation and resourcing, and there is an expectation of meaningful dialogue. And on Facebook you're competing with many other groups and communities.

  • Do you have the resources to facilitate the sort of dialogue you want?
  • Are your expectations of return on investment reasonable given the competition in this space? What is a viable return on investment?
  • Is it enough to offer people to chance to sign as members of a 'community panel' if they only get invited to input once or twice a year?
  • Can you afford not to offer people in this space the opportunity to get involved in dialogue with you?

Bebo… well, I've not had an in depth look at Bebo yet – and I realist the Facebook analogy above also needs more work… so I'll come back to these soon.

What do you want to do?

What you're planning to do, and how you do it matters.

You might want to use a Social Networking Site to:

  1. Promote something that is going on.
  2. Provide important information, advice and guidance to young people.
  3. Engage in collective civic conversation and dialogue with young people.
  4. Build a mailing list of people you can contact.

You might think of (1) as like putting up a virtual poster, or running an advert.

A virtual poster? If 60% of your target population for an activity or project are going to a particular space, and you can advertise there for free… would you do it? What would you have to think about in making that decision?

You might think of (2) as setting up a one-stop information and advice shop in the town centre. Only, in this town centre exists online globally.

Q: If someone is already providing good general information advice and guidance – what is the unique additional offer you can bring?

Social Networking Sites can often create an expectation of dialogue and can be an effective platform for dialogue and discussion (3).

Setting up a space where you ask questions, but are not actively joining the discussion and providing answers, asking further questions, or showing evidence of change would be like holding a meeting where you invite young people to offer their views on a topic, and then sitting there in silence until everyone eventually goes home.

Like a public meeting or community forum? a group on a Social Networking Site is a very quick action. Groups can have a far better 'sign up' rate that an e-mail newsletter might (4). And the informal quick message to group members may be received better than the carefully edited and formatted eat-mailing. But a group is also usually a space for dialogue.

Q: If you've not got capacity to manage the dialogue – can you be honest about that? If you can host dialogues, but only in one place which isn't on this particular SNS, should you be setting up an 'outpost' on this particular SNS to periodically point people to your main discussion spaces?

From years of running consultations with young people – I'm also well aware of 'the suit question'. Meeting with young people – should you wear a suit? It shows respect – but it's not accessible. But then – should you try and dress 'cool'? Probably not. So how should you act? What image should you present? What image will your SNS space present?*

(*Hint: get young people involved in helping you create it.)

What are your pre-existing professional intuitions?

To MySpace or not to MySpace? Or //How to// MySpace and //how not to// MySpace?Question your hesitancy. Understand your reasons. Check against your aim and mission.

The thought experiments above may cause hesitancy about engaging with Social Networking Sites. My hope is that hesitancy helps in thinking through how to engage well, rather than blocks any engagement at all.

As Dave Briggs puts it:

There are masses of good reasons for engaging with these platforms, for
example the fact that they are already being used by the young people in question, and we aren't asking them to sign up for some new Council (or otherwise) sponsored affair that is bound to be considered gaff.

And so we definitely need to spend more time thinking about this…

Creative Commons Photos:

Finale by sama sama – massa

Marking by

Public meeting by lsgcp

Is there a ‘voice of youth’?

The idea that there is one 'voice of youth' is clearly nonsense. Yet this idea underlies many invitations to a small group of young people to participate in comittees and to 'represent the voice of youth' in those settings. Nevertheless, whilst there is no one 'voice of youth', that doesn't make it illegitimate for groups of young people to speak with one voice – and to make calls on behalf of their fellow young people.

Roger Schmidt has just added this this comment to my post reviewing the Civicus World Assembly 2007. The Civicus World Assembly included, for the first time this year, a youth assembly – which, as this post explains led to a 'Call for Intergenerational Collaboration' drafted collaboratively by the young people present. In effect, a youth declaration from the assembly.

Civicus World Assembly 2007 - Whole Group

Delegates at the 2007 Civicus Youth Assembly

Roger comments:

“…it is right to prepare young people for the participation in larger “adult” assemblies. But it is wrong to have a seperate youth contribution (declaration) or whatever because there can't be a unified youth opinion. Youth in itself is so diverse. I think that is another issue to discuss because it helps to clarify the sometimes conflicting goals of preparation and meaningful contribution.”

I agree with the claim that youth is diverse. Though the same claim can be made of any age grouping. It may be particularly interesting as a claim about young people, given a significant aspect of 'youth' (as a life-stage) is about experimentation with identity and identity formation which, it could be argued, increases the diversity of youth (as a generation). But the argument that diversity precludes collective declarations doesn't neccessarily follow.

Whilst inviting a few individuals to speak as themselves 'with the voice of youth' is flawed, young people often have shared interests: as a group collectively impacted by specific oppressions; as a group affected by age-related laws; and as those who will see the impact of decisions far beyond the time-horizons of most adult decision makers. And those shared interests can ground a specific youth contribution to a debate.

It's important that, on these issues of shared interest, young people are allowed to represent their claims as 'a voice of youth' (note, not 'the voice of youth', and not 'a voice of a young person'). Declarations that call for action from a collective young peoples perspective are a core part of forming political movements of young people to create change.

In conclusion

Individual young people claiming to speak with the voice of youth does not make sense.

Inviting a few young people to give their opinion on some issue which clearly affects different young people differently cannot be called listening to the voice of youth (it is listening to the specific views of some young people).

But where shared interests exist, and where a suitably large and diverse group of young people come together to discuss those shared interest and to articulate them, a declaration can be made as a voice of youth, and significant weight should be given to that declaration or call.

Quick reader question:

On topic: I've tried to untangle what I think are common confusions with respect to the idea of 'a voice of youth'. Does this work? Do you agree?

Meta-question: Are these 'philosophical' posts of interest? Should I just try and write up the conclusions… or is the reasoning of interest (this is already a heavily edited down version of what I first wrote…)?