Lately I’ve been getting a lot of questions from friends back home about what it is I actually study at Oxford….since a the “Social Science of the Internet” sounds like a masters of lolcats. I thought I’d respond en masse by explaining a bit more about my program, what I’m focusing on, and the Oxford Internet Institute. I just submitted my thesis approval form – so now seems like the best time to dig in.
The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is the only multi-disciplinary research centre focused on the Social Implications of the Internet. My masters program critically examines how humans shape the Internet’s development, how the Internet shapes us, and everything in between (from regulation, to technology, to research, etc.). We also spend (too) much of our time studying how to research the Internet. Since technology changes so rapidly (and legislation moves so slowly), we learn how to apply social science methodologies to think about how we think about the “Internet” to ensure that our work can be empirically/theoretically sound. This way, when people ask “You study the Internet?” you can respond with statistical/theoretical mumbo-jumbo that demonstrates that you actually know what you’re talking about.
My cohort is very diverse and comes from a broad mix of academic backgrounds so the first term (Michaelmas) was designed to get us all on the same page. We took the same classes and it seemed as though the OII felt that nothing promotes group identity like shared trauma! Even though a lot of the courses were review, I was still overworked and overtired. That said, I learned a lot from my cohort…even if learning came from political debates in the pub.
This term, we begin to specialize. We choose which types of research methods we want to specialize in(quantitative v. qualitative) and select two option courses to dig deeply into. While I’m really enjoying my courses this term, I must admit that it is a bit sad not being in classes with everyone. My favorite course is on Virtual Economies and Virtual Selves. The professor, a sassy Finnish man, developed a class hashtag to encourage us to share articles outside of class. As such, the cohort calls the class “Hashtag VEVS.” Such learning, so internet. I’m also taking a course on Digital Social Research(big data) and auditing a network theory class.
Outside of classes, I’m collaborating on two professors’ research initiatives. I’m working on the OII’s Age Verification Project and researching child protection in online social games. Our ultimate goal is to work with industry/policy makers to influence how we think about child safety (aka digital citizens v. over regulation) and I love feeling as though my work might make a difference. Additionally, with Dr. Vili Lehdonvirta, we co-launched a project that examines the sociological motivations behind participating in unpaid & paid crowdsourcing (i.e. GalaxyZoo v. Mechanical Turk). We’re starting with a preliminary qualitative investigation and then next term I’m going to expand it with quantitative analysis, under the support of the University’s Fell Fund. Hopefully one day I can apply this understanding of why we do what we do to help kids learn to self-regulate!
Speaking of self-regulation…my thesis….Last week we were required to submit our thesis titles and abstracts to the examination schools. It felt like a strangely significant moment, even though we are allowed to change our abstracts/focuses. The abstract submission forced cohort members to reflect on how each wants to leave their mark on the academic world. Picking a focus forces us to finalize our elevator pitch when we later try to get real-person jobs and so we want to be strategic about what others will find interesting while still being true to ourselves.
In the end, I chose to focus on teenage internet use. I’m really happy with my final abstract and thesis because it fuses the academic disciplines I’m interested in (developmental psychology and communications) with real world action (I’m partially collaborating with think tanks and industry). For my thesis, I’m going to identify how different macro-, exo-, and micro-level factors within a child’s environment influence the extent to which they are impacted by the Internet/social media. I will survey a nationally representative sample of British teens on how external factors linked to technology use, such as parental mediation approaches and social context, might predict outcomes from a child’s social media/internet use. I’m also hoping to include individual psychology measures to link findings to self-regulation and other personality traits. In a sense – you can also call it “How to Be A Parent,” since the projected outcome is expected to be “the more you trust your kid and speak openly with them, the better off they are.
I promise that I do more than study, even if it takes up more of my time. From here on out, I’m hoping to update once a week with that week’s exciting goings-on. In the meantime,