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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Deciphering Digital Life Writing

My project on Deciphering Digital Life Writing just received funding from the Standard Research Grant program of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). I'm going to track my progress on the research here on this blog; as some of you have expressed an interest in what the project is about, I'm posting the Summary of Proposed Research, from the grant application, below.

The summary is meant to briefly describe the gist of the project, for a non-expert audience. I'd love your feedback on potential directions or sources you think might be relevant. Thanks!

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Deciphering Digital Life Writing

Widespread popular use of “web 2.0” (O’Reilly) technologies has produced—even required—a proliferation of autobiographical self-representation in online venues such as blogs, personal home pages, social networks, dating websites, YouTube, Flickr, and Twitter. Online banking services ask you to provide the name of your first pet; a dating website asks you to detail your height; photo-sharing websites want to map all the locations you photograph in, and link this information to your user profile. In this research project I decipher how and why individuals use Internet media platforms to fashion representations of themselves; how the affordances (Norman) of digital technologies enable and constrain, compel or restrict, these self-representations; and what impact the resulting autobiographical texts have in the larger context of users’ relationships online and off. That is, this project provides detailed and comprehensive answers to questions about why so many people provide so many details of their lives—photos, memories, feelings, desires, ancestry, and more—to an anonymous audience of strangers online, and how these strangers become communities, questions that animate most popular discourses addressing the social web.

This will be the first monograph-length study of “digital life writing” (Warley) that studies a full range of digital genres, all of which focus on individual, personal self-representation, in both established and emerging platforms. While existing book-length studies have considered the general question of what identity means in “the age of the Internet,” and while research articles have frequently focused on specific communities’ uses of particular digital genres such as Facebook or blogs, this study is unique in its comprehensiveness and its methodology. Aiming to avoid the obsolescence that rapidly befalls research focussing narrowly on one particular technology, this project begins always from the more fundamental but essential human questions of “Why do people do this?” and “How do social media support those purposes?” rather than the more technologically-inflected “What does Facebook mean?” or “How will location-based social networks impact personal privacy?” This study, then, focusses first and foremost on the “social exigence” (Miller) of the communicative act, employing surveys, literary close reading, and broad text sampling to understand digital life writing as a social practice rather than a purely technical one. Further, the project attends to the particular rhetorical strategies that underlie the composition of social media texts—returning a notion of deliberate personal authorship instead of the anonymous, massed “wisdom of the crowds” (Surowiecki)—while simultaneously accounting for the multiple media that undergird, support, and inflect these writings. In this way, the project will develop a robust, generalizable methodology for addressing social media of the present as well as the future.

This research thus brings together rhetorical genre theory, new media theory, computer-mediated communications (CMC) research, and autobiography studies, to propose a new theory of life writing as practiced online as well as a new, generalizable methodology of multimedia-aware close reading to undergird continuing work in the study of writing in ever-shifting online genres in an era of rapid technological change. This project offers the first systematic response to that call and aims to develop new methodological and theoretical frameworks to address these new kinds of texts.

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