Prologue to the Research #RaisingDissertation

#RaisingDissertation.001#RaisingDissertation is a way to keep me sane and connected to the outside world while working, at times in isolation, on my dissertation research. From time to time, and depending on my mood, I will post draft excerpts from my dissertation research to this public blog. I welcome dialogue from subscribers, readers, and lurkers. I acknowledge that ideas belong to the universe. That said, however, if you wish to write about my research elsewhere, you must cite my work here. For those in the press reporting about the media and technology uses among 'disconnected' youth, and youths involved in foster care and juvenile justice systems, feel free to contact me directly. I'd love to share my research with you; this should not to be confused with doing your research for you. For others researching in this area, I also welcome your insights here. As always, I'm happy to connect. The following is an excerpt from an ever-growing dissertation involving the mediated lives of vulnerable or 'disconnected' youth in New York City.

Prologue to the Research

While I was completing a master’s degree in Women’s Studies I spent long hours in my room reading and writing about people dislocated from their communities as a result of natural disaster and social conflict. Also during this time I was taking care of my father whose health was deteriorating. Throughout graduate school and while living with my father in rural North Texas, I became isolated and somewhat disconnected from the local community. Because of these social and familial circumstances, I retreated into reclusively, and likely as a result, I found affinity with a Macbook computer and online social networks.

Media were tools that I used to not only document research but they also provided a means of escaping, albeit temporarily, from the grind of graduate school and the solitude of caring for a dying parent. In 2006 I posted my first YouTube video online. There was something about performing in front of a digital camera and then uploading a four-minute video to a social media site (SNS) for strangers to comment on and ridicule that provided me with a sense of community and place. While locked in my room researching one day, my father, who was checking-in on me asked, "What are you writing on your computer?" His question, imbued with both care and wonder, has stayed with me years after his death.

My father was born in 1930; one year after the U.S. stock market crashed that subsequently gave rise to The Great Depression. He never used a computer, and it was only during his late sixties and throughout his seventies that he used a cell phone. He would have never described his relationship with a cell phone through affinity, but rather perceived the mobile artifact as an inconvenient sign of the times. As I reflect back to that moment when he asked me about what I was writing on the computer, I think about his orientation to technology. At the time, I would not have described what I was doing on my computer as writing. However, my father’s way of knowing how a computer functioned was intuitive, and in fact true. I do write on my computer, as in mark, produce, and compose—just not with a led pencil or ink pen.

Thinking too about my father, who was a writer and oil painter, and his relationship to the pen and paintbrush, these were technologies through which he found catharsis, just as the button and mouse are instruments through which I can connect digitally with others and express myself. As a child of the Great Depression, and a nomad of this digital world, my father and I, respectively, used the technologies and media of our generations to write our ways into knowing, participate in culture, and to find a sense of place in the world.

When I first began to work with young people who were involved in foster care and juvenile justice systems, I noticed that they too were finding ways to connect with others using social, digital, and mobile media. They were composing on and connecting to publicly mediated networks, engaging in what Alice Marwick, Ph.D. calls ethnography of display[1]. Some of these young people had lost parents at an early age, transitioned in and out of school, and had difficulty finding work. Despite lacking supportive ties to family, school, and work, these young people still managed to find ways to digitally participate in the circulation of culture and knowledge, even with limited access to computers, cell phones, and the Internet.  I spent time working closely with young people who, when given access to borrowed computers and Internet WiFi (wireless technology that enables connection to the Internet) would log on to Facebook or WordPress (a popular blogging web platform), connect with friends and share media artifacts like digital pictures and videos. These young people were not simply consuming media, but also participating—despite their circumstances, in the meaning making processes through relatively public and mediated social networks.

As I approach this research, I am again drawn back in time to the question my seventy-year-old father asked me nearly ten years ago. A question that at its core wants to know: What do we do with media and networked technology, and why do we do it, particularly during episodes in our lives when we seem dislodged from support networks that are meant to ground us? MIT specialist, Sherry Turkle writes in her book Alone Together (2011) that “[t]he network is seductive [and] if we are always on, we may deny ourselves the rewards of solitude” (pg. 3). While it may be true that relentless connection to networked technology can impose new communication challenges for people and our relationships, one might consider how networked technology can mediate information-seeking practices and connection, particularly for those who, during moments of difficult transition, find solitude a nuisance, whose offline supportive ties are scarce commodities, and for those whose privacy is complicated by federal legislation and institutional regulations.

This subtle consideration about our relationship to/with each other and networked technology, along with the question that asks what is it that we do with media guides this research. I am compelled to know more about how young people who are characterized as disconnected and vulnerable might find a sense of community and place, if at all, through media and technology. Furthermore, I think about what these findings might reveal about the organization and space of their social ties and networks. My inquiry here is motivated by care for and wonder about the lives of young people I have had the privilege of working with for nearly two years. This exploratory research is also an ode to my father’s loving question years before. And as Cris Beam writes in her book about youth in foster care, To The End of June (2013), this research is a way for me to look.

[1] On February 20, 2014 during a presentation at Teachers College, Columbia University, Alice Marwick, Assistant professor of Communications and Media at Fordham University described the writing and producing that we do via web media as “ethnography of display”. Marwick noted that during the earlier days of blogging and online journaling, text was the primary mode of displaying information. The current web landscape complicates what it means to write our ways into knowing and being because of visual media like images and video. The term “ethnography of display” encapsulates both how people produce publicly online and how these practices overtime tell a story about self-presentation.