This week’s post focuses on Dr Stijn Peeters. Stijn is now a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Amsterdam, working on research and research tools that focus on online political subcultures, as part of the Odycceus project and the Digital Methods Initiative.
Stijn completed his PhD with the Ego Media project. His study focused on the history of platforms like IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and Twitter, and the ways in which the features that shape how we present ourselves on these platforms have evolved through the years.
Before starting with the project, Stijn studied both Media Studies and Industrial Design. He was attracted to the Ego Media project because of its interdisciplinarity, and the opportunity it offered him to design his own research project.
Platforms and self-presentation
“My point of departure,” he explains, “was that when we present ourselves online, we always do so on a platform. So, this can be Twitter or Instagram, or if you go back a few decades it could be Usenet or ICQ. My project aimed to shed light on the relation between platforms and people’s self-presentation, or self-expression on them. The people and organisations that made those platforms obviously had some ideas about how people will use them, and what they could do with them. So they provided a certain set of affordances and features. My goal was to find out how that process works.”
“How do people start with ideas about what other people may do with the platform or the site they are making? And what happens when people actually start using that platform? Do they follow those initial ideas? Do they find our own uses for it? And is there a significant difference between platforms, between design philosophies?”
Stijn found that the combination of Twitter and IRC offered a useful set of differences and similarities to work with. “The idea was that I then could see how the design of those platforms and what people did with them relate to each other, and how that process works.”
Design & self-expression
His main focus was the role of the platform design: “that means the design in terms of the actual features: the buttons and the text fields and how the software is designed. And very practical things, like the character limit on Twitter, for example, which obviously has an influence on what you can do with it, how you express yourself.”
One of the issues that he – like many Ego Media team members – needed to contend with was the fact that he platforms he was researching are still evolving. “This was less the case with IRC, obviously, but Twitter is being changed all the time, and that affected my research in a very practical way. For example, I had a paragraph about character limits, and then halfway through my research that changed from 140 to 280 characters. So I had to rewrite part of my thesis! On one hand, that’s a challenge. But it also underlines how relevant studying and documenting all this subject matter is.”
Watch Stijn discussing his research
When Stijn started his research, he hoped that he’d be able to interview people at Twitter, and track down the people that created IRC. But this turned out to be impractical. “In the case of IRC a lot of the people either aren’t around anymore, or are very hard to find. And Twitter is now a very big company that doesn’t want to really reveal too much about itself and its design process.” But luckily, Stijn discovered a lot of material from the time these platform were designed. “Design documents, blog posts, mailing lists and netzines were still online. And, in a lot of cases, these hadn’t really been covered in research. So that was an opportunity for me, one which also provided great sources of data about what went into the design of the social media platforms, written by the people who did the design work, at the time that they did it.”
Stijn’s research – which looked at specific use cases including citizen journalism, memes, cybersex and online harassment – yielded interesting results. “Paradoxically,” he says, “there’s a limit to how far these platforms actually shape our expression and identities. While there are clear differences between the shapes these use cases take – Twitter, as it supports videos and images is, of course far more visually oriented than IRC, which is text based – you still find examples of citizen journalism on both platforms, and you find examples of harassment and organised harassment and ways of organizing that harassment on both platforms that are remarkably similar. Memes exist on both platforms and even though IRC has far less potential for things to go viral, there are still instances of humour and memetic content being shared in a very similar way to Twitter.
Testament to human creativity
So if you look at the specific genres within which someone may express an identity or express themselves, I think these exist on all platforms. And even if there are qualitative differences, people are remarkably creative in how they appropriate these platforms for their own needs.
My research is testament to our creativity in expressing ourselves.”