Mastering the Internet

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,

That Went Fast

Well…I did it. I started a blog.

For some reason, while I can talk about myself for hours on end, the idea of setting pen to paper, or fingers to keys, to begin reflecting feels unnatural and forced. And yet, perhaps to prepare me for a “publish or perish”-type future or perhaps because I know that in 50 years I’ll want to remember my time here or perhaps I just want to encourage friends to stalk me in a track-able venue…I have started a blog.

I’m not sure whether this will focus on my time at Oxford, my random Internet-related musings, or on something else entirely.  For now, I’m going to offer a short photo-recap of Michaelmas Term and will save the deeper reflections for after my finals.

My first term at Oxford has been the most exciting, intensive, and exhilarating 8 weeks of my life. Every day I learn something new from my amazing cohort, my advisers, and from learning to navigate life outside of home. I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity and hope that through my words and photos, I can share some of the lessons that I’m learning.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m currently getting my Masters at the Oxford Internet Institute in the Social Science of the Internet. Yes. That is a real thing. Yes. It is a mouthful. Basically, I’m studying all of the ways that the internet potentially influences us and the ways that we study the internet. Alternately, I study lolcats.

Given the broad range of backgrounds that both students and faculty at the Institute come from, I’ve been incredibly impressed and thrilled by everyone’s willingness to work together and learn from their peers’ work/research methods. Every week I attend optional seminars, lectures, and brown bags where the faculty and students challenge each other to think broadly about the social implications of technology and to apply a huge variety of academic disciplines to the task. I’ve never been this academically excited or fulfilled and it is due, in large part, to the open conversations that my department encourages and my cohort’s collaborative spirit.

Rather than waxing poetic about my term and my love for the Oxford Internet Institute (henceforth known as the OII), I’m going to share a few photos. The next few posts will go a bit more in-depth but I promised myself that I would do this this year, and I only have a few more hours until 2014.

I Matriculated! (Officially became an Oxford student)

I Matriculated! (Officially became an Oxford student)

Matriculation, an ancient Oxford ritual, involves dressing in funny outfits (called Sub Fusc and Gowns), waiting in a lot of lines, and being spoken to in Latin. Upon completion, you became an official student. The internet is about 23 years old…Oxford is a few years shy of 800. Despite the unnecessary pomp of the procedure, there is something exhilarating about studying the Internet at the birthplace of modern academia and matriculation binds the whole University whole community together. Plus, we got free lunch afterwards.

Princess Diaries

Late one night, as the Oxford weather matched my study-induced melancholy, this was playing at my local Chinese food restaurant. No matter how stressed I get, some things never change. I stepped inside the restaurant, inhaled the scents of a generic hole-in-the-wall that could have been anywhere, watched some of my favorite scenes, and was transported back home. Serendipity is magical and this movie saw me when I felt invisible. (My apologies for the horribly cheesy pun).

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Invited some friends from my program over to plan some extra-curriculars. Wine and cheese produce the best ideas. More importantly, I love my classmates. Given the broad range of backgrounds that both students and faculty at the Institute come from, I’ve been incredibly impressed and thrilled by everyone’s willingness to work together and learn from their peers’ work. I learn as much from my cohort as I do from my program and spend the vast majority of my time with my cohort, either working, playing, or some hybrid combination of the two.  IMG_20131031_215524

Two friends from my program got into a chalk-board fight about their Oxford-accomplishments. Still trying to finish my list of Oxford-goals.DSC02814

Went to a Black Tie award’s dinner and was seated next to the winner (notice the unfortunately-named trophy manufacturer. The event defines the Oxford experience – silliness coupled with unnecessary pomp. Fortunately, the seating arrangement paid off and now I’m working with one of my professors on a project studying Galaxy Zoo (the world’s largest Citizen Science Project and what they won for).

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I studied. A lot. And apparently my study-habits mimic those of a 10-year old from the 1950s. I’m one of the only people in my program who hand-writes and prints everything.

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I’m still Allison and so clearly pulled an all-nighter before one of our final assignments. Oxford is pretty as the sun rises. IMG_20131208_232243

I hosted the ThanksgOIIving dinner! This year, we were all thankful for our time at Oxford and felt incredibly blessed to be in such a supportive community. We celebrated with some old-fashioned party games….IMG_20131209_001653

Slapsgiving anyone?

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We sit for formal examinations in our Sub Fusc and Gowns. This term, I’m taking 4 classes, 3 of which require exams. (Exams are 100% of your grade for the class). Here I am happily surviving the first exam. (My next two are in January).

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The cohort has a champagne toast at my department after the Stats exam. Everyone say OII!

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I think I’m going to Like it here.