Mimesis and digital narratives (or, Ricoeur and my digital projects)

Part of my structured PhD involves taking classes for credit. This year I took a short module on narrative theory (there was some debate about what constituted a narrative). I wanted to explore Paul Ricoeur’s ideas of mimesis (mimesis1, mimesis2 and mimesis3) from Time and Narrative, to see how this might impact on the way that I explore/construct/analyse as I am building digital narratives.

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Presenting, unravelling, dredging

Last week I presented some of my research as part of the Digital Arts and Humanities research  colloquium at UCC. This work was loosely based on my “Unstable materials” series of blog posts (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 are linked here, and an outline of the presentation is uploaded here).

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Unstable materials. Part 6: Digital – fragile, material

Concerns about digital preservation, the fragility of the digital record, have been quite prevalent since the early 1990s (see a previous post – Unstable material Part 5 – and Brown 2013, 9). Some discussions of the digital record have been characterised by what Blanchette (2011) calls the “trope of immateriality”. Such discussions promote or reinforce the idea of unstable materials – with the digital theorised as immaterial, and evidently (consequently?) unstable.

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Unstable materials. Part 5: Thoughts on digital preservation.

This is part of a series of blog posts looking at memory, oral history, archives and digital preservation, and using “unstable materials” as a theme. Part 1 dealt with the relationship between memory and oral history, Part 2 was about individual, collective and cultural memory, Part 3 focused on memory and oral history archives and Part 4 discussed the power of archives, oral history archives, and the development of counter-hegemonic archives.

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Talking about the digital audience and getting feedback from colleagues

This week I am giving another talk about looking at digital audiences, this one for the Oral History Network of Ireland annual conference, Making Connections. A PDF of slides and notes is on my page at academia.edu.

Pathway through my presentation about Cork Folklore Project and social media
One slide from my presentation, showing the pathway of the talk discussing Cork Folklore Project and social media. (Created by P. Johnston using easel.ly.)

This time around I am concentrating on the use of social media, and how people within the Cork Folklore Project feel that it adds to their efforts to engage with a wider community around them – and beyond Cork.

I did a brief outline of the talk, with slides, for my colleagues before preparing the final draft of the talk. This was very useful since I was not even sure how I was going to wrap it up, and their ideas and questions helped to clarify this. They also gave me tips about what I should include, things that I had maybe taken for granted.

For example:

  • One person said “I don’t even know what a tweet looks like”, so I included a screengrab of a tweet in my slideshow.
  • Another pointed out that I should include follower numbers. While some Twitter stars might think our follower numbers are puny, anyone of those followers could have hundreds and thousands more followers – if they retweet our messages they have the potential to go stratospheric.
  • And finally, we are always thinking ahead and dreading that day where we fail to get any of the grants that we apply for. If such a time comes we may have to fundraise at “street level”. And an established following on social networks would be invaluable for getting our message out there if we ever decided to try out crowdfunding.

It was great feedback and has not only helped me to clarify the direction of my talk, but to suggest lines of questioning in qualitative research in the future. For me, it underlines the importance of working in a collegiate environment where people are ready and willing to give feedback and interact and comment with you on your work as it is progressing.

Digital “audience”

Getting to know your digital audience slide design
Slide design featuring a very cute version of a digital audience (designed by the talented Dermot Casey of the Cork Folklore Project)

I’ve just returned from the Oral History Society conference in Manchester Metropolitan University. I gave half a talk (the first half was given by Clíona O’Carroll, my supervisor in the Department of Folklore and Ethnology at UCC). We were looking at the idea of audience, and knowing your audience. Cliona talked of the main audience and community of the Cork Folklore Project, the “real life” people who interact with the project and contribute to the oral history archive. I gave some preliminary results from website and social media analytics tools. My notes and slides are available as a pdf on www.academia.edu (Getting to know your digital audience).  This talk had some crossover with the poster that I presented at DH 2014 in Lausanne (and blogged about here as Local, Digital, Global).

One of the things I wanted to get across was that these stats are not an adequate measure of value or impact in terms of the real community of users associated with a project like the Cork Folklore Project. In order to obtain a more comprehensive picture I will begin qualitative interviews in August 2014. I am also looking forward to doing some user studies, and I am also inviting people to take part in some surveys.

Audience questions after the OHS talk raised another issue: what about when hit counts include automated hits on your website? The visitor numbers were deal with are modest, so this issue is not one that we have had to deal with to date. Continuing promotion of the CFP sites could however, have the effect of attracting bots. It’s another argument to indicate that simple stats such as hit counts cannot be a real measure of impact.

Local, digital, global

This post is a modified version of a poster presented at Digital Humanities 2014 in Lausanne. 

Context

Audio, the primary “document” in oral history, is easy to publish in web-based media and it is now common to disseminate and access these materials online. But how are these used? What sort of value do they have for their users? Who are the users? Oral history materials are often very local; how are these relevant in a global and international context such as the web?

“Local Voices, Worldwide Conversations” is an ongoing research project that examines local resources within the context of a global audience, and asks how the value of niche projects can be assessed in a meaningful way.

Case Study

The Cork Folklore Project (CFP) is an Irish community-based oral history organisation that was set up as a collaboration between university and community and has been collecting everyday stories of life in Cork city since 1996. It is an archiving and collecting centre with multiple outlets, digital and analogue. One online initiative is the Cork Memory Map (corkmemorymap.org). Embedded audio and images are used to explore the narratives and stories associated with the landscape and “culturescape” of Cork city (see O’Carroll 2011, 184). Projects such as the Cork Memory Map have a local appeal, but how are these received in a global forum such as the web?

Graph of Memory Map bounce rates
Figure 1: Bounce rates for the Cork Memory Map for 4 months in 2014. Showing a slight but steady decrease in bounce rates for visitors from Ireland. Bounce rates are very variable amongst other visitors, & are higher than those from Ireland (the exception, in April, is based on one visitor from Iceland who spent significant time on the site.

Preliminary results

Statistics from Google Analytics indicate a clear dichotomy in the way that users from Ireland interact with the Cork Memory Map, as opposed to users from overseas. This is particularly evident in bounce rates (when someone enters the site and then leaves immediately). The aim is to reduce the bounce rates over time. Already the website metrics suggest some success in this amongst visitors to the site who come from Ireland. Amongst visitors from further afield (very low visitor numbers) the bounce rates remain high. As no changes are currently being made to the website this suggests that changes in use are driven by something else, very likely face-to-face engagement and public outreach, as CFP increased outreach activities during the months captured in these statistics.

Graph of comparison between session length figures for Ireland and for the rest of the world
Figure 2: Session length for online visitors to the Cork Memory Map for 4 months in 2014. Showing a steady increase in Irish visitors (the June decrease is still higher than sessions earlier in the year). There is a clear distinction between use in Ireland and the rest of the world. April figures are anomalous because of a single visitor in Iceland.

Why?

Researchers at CFP are interested in getting to know their digital audience better: they are aware that the digital projects need work/revision. They want to look at how their projects are working at the moment, and the steps they need to take to make them more effective. This work should also inform ideas about how the CFP collection can be disseminated in the future.

Local V Global

Anthropologists have suggests that, in the internet age, ideas such as “locality” are no longer bounded by territory, but instead are “something that people carry with them” (Lewellen 2002, 191). This is not reflected in use of the Cork Memory Map, where users are primarily local. What does this tell us about digital “locality”? Does it mean that local resources only have a niche audience? Or if the website metrics are changing as a response to public engagement, does it mean that these activities have to target and reach a wider group of people? A short questionnaire has been designed to look at how local projects are perceived in an international context. Please tell us your thoughts – all feedback is welcome!

 

References

Lewellen, T. C. (2002). The Anthropology of Globalization: Cultural Anthropology Enters the 21st Century. Greenwood Publishing Group.

O’Carroll, C. (2011). The Cork Memory Map. Béascna Journal of Folklore and Ethnology, 7, 184–188.