We are members of a social science lab in Sydney, Australia, and we collectively research how social factors, such as gender or education, affect health and how people integrate digital technologies into their daily lives. We’ve looked at topics like smartphone use, women’s health and fitness practices, and how people use smartwatches to track self-improvement metrics. Observing people in their daily environment was an important part of our work. Being physically present has helped us understand people’s routines and relationships, as well as the social world around them.
And then COVID happened. This meant more face-to-face interviews or in-person research. Yet the need to understand people’s experiences – especially their health and their relationship to the digital world – seemed more important than ever. We had to quickly rethink our methods and improvise, so we started experimenting with creative digital techniques to capture different voices and perspectives (see “Toolkit”).
Here are summaries of three of these methods, along with what we’ve learned about them so far.
When the lockdown began, we noticed more people were walking, biking, and redeveloping outdoor spaces for recreation in our own neighborhoods. We decided to investigate people’s impromptu fitness practices during the lockdown. We wanted to include a participant-driven experience that would reduce the real-time demand for live interviews on the Zoom video conferencing platform, especially at a time when screen fatigue was rampant, allowing us to to capture meaningful moments outside of an interview. We asked participants to start creating digital agendas so that they could tell their stories through a combination of photos and text, instead of relying only on language.
Participants received a daily email with a link to the “Digital Journal Sign Up” form. They were asked to upload a digital image related to their physical activity and tell a short story about what the photo meant to them. We were concerned that people would provide very brief and descriptive answers. But attendees uploaded a wide variety of images and shared thoughtful and emotional stories. These stories provided rich insights into the background and challenges of daily life during the pandemic and underscored the importance of physical activity to maintain daily routines and provide respite from the stressors of the pandemic. Our results help us understand the benefits of physical activity beyond health and aesthetics. These include providing a sense of ‘escape’ from the stresses of everyday life during the pandemic, gaining a sense of control in times of uncertainty, creating daily routines and achieving a feeling (sometimes ephemeral) of calm. Digital photo books helped bring these ideas to life in ways that would not be possible for a virtual interview.
A second method in the series is the creation of a “zine”. Zines (linguistically derived from “magazines”) are do-it-yourself writing and visual arts publications. People make them to share their creative work and to circulate information about the community, much like an analog form of blogging. While zine workshops are often held in person, we have designed digital workshops that combine online and print creative processes.
Creating a digital zine works the same way as an online discussion group. We aim to collect diverse perspectives on a given issue, for example, mental health and social media. So we get a small group of participants together using Zoom to discuss the research topic. Plus, each person uses pens, paper, and magazine scraps to create one or two real-time pages that represent their opinions. They then publish them to us or email them to us, so that we can compile a single zine from the workshop that connects their different perspectives.
Standard focus groups can be dominated by one or two louder voices. It is also difficult for people to express their feelings verbally when faced with complex issues. Zine’s creation offers a creative process and an end product that distills the diverse perspectives of people and gives space to all voices. We analyze the recording of the discussion and the content of the final product to get a nuanced idea of how people understand social issues.
A third method in our series is to analyze YouTube videos. We were analyzing YouTube videos even before the pandemic as there is a wide range of communities active on the platform. As with many social media platforms, people socialize through YouTube. This makes it a valuable site for content analysis and virtual observation.
Studying digital communities works much the same way as in-person fieldwork – you need to familiarize yourself with the community, pay attention and take notes. First, we find relevant videos by keyword research, and we identify top creators by observing people’s uploads and engagement with their audiences. Then, for several months, we watch hours of relevant videos to determine content patterns and interaction patterns – performing qualitative analysis of what’s in actual videos and the types of conversations people are having in. comment sections. As with in-person observation, by studying online communities and their content, like that on YouTube, we gain a deep understanding of how digital interactions evolve over time, and we learn how communities develop over time. platforms that are becoming more and more important in everyday life.
These digital methods have helped us to continue our research throughout the pandemic. However, they offered much more than a “next better” option or a temporary quick fix. By fully embracing creativity and digital alternatives, researchers across all fields can gain rich knowledge and connections – which are especially important in these times of distancing. During the pandemic, collaboration and the sharing of resources provided much-needed support to many of us.
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