COVID-19 and the myth of the digital ‘shift’

Photo by Allie on Unsplash

Clare Southerton

After the COVID-19 pandemic had changed the way many researchers live and work, I started to see a lot of questions and discussion on social media within the academic community about taking research ‘online’ because it could no longer be conducted face-to-face. This is a bit curious because we’re having these conversations on social media platforms, using smartphones and computers, connected via the internet. I have a feeling we’ve missed the whole ‘taking this online’ moment…

But I understand what people are talking about – there are lots of researchers who want to do research using digital tools or research on digital communities, now that they can’t do ‘traditional’ research IRL. COVID-19 restrictions have completely upended academic life as we know it, leaving researchers scrambling to find alternative ways to do research.

And I also understand the frustration of internet scholars who have spent years developing digital methods and theorising digital sociality only to have the platforms and technologies we’ve long invested ourselves in become a hasty stand-in to replace face-to-face methods. This can present the digital as a kind of ‘next best thing’ for physically co-present interactions and neglects the complex conditions of these communities that exist in their own right. There’s also a long history of digital interactions being unfavourably compared with face-to-face interaction, and digital social researchers have often attempted to interrogate the assumption that in-person interactions are more ‘real’.

Um yes Dad, it is hard. It’s a real job.

Perhaps we’re all a little extra sensitive because we’ve also spent years trying to convince more traditionally minded scholars (and also our parents) that our research is legitimate. I’m sure every internet scholar has had a senior colleague make us feel our research was silly. It’s been a long struggle for social media scholars to have their work taken seriously, when the more readily touchable, tangible and ‘observable’ so-called “real” world is problematically positioned as a more legitimate source of knowledge.

All this said, I don’t believe we as digital social researchers should be gatekeepers at this time. Digital methods are a complex and ever changing field. We ourselves are always learning and getting it wrong, disagreeing with each other and figuring out how to we can be better scholars. What makes digital methods so exciting is that things change so quickly, new platforms emerge and old platforms disappear – new methods have to be created and changed and adapted to keep up. There have already been some great efforts made to help each other in this space. Deborah Lupton’s crowdsourced Google Doc – Doing fieldwork in a pandemic is a rich resource that provides a fantastic place to start with so many great recommended readings from researchers who are familiar with different digital methods. At the Vitalities Lab we’ve also been making our Breaking Methods Webinar Series on YouTube and hopefully these are helpful for anyone interested in experimental and digital methods. We all have to learn to work together and help each other, especially at times like this where research is under pressure from all sides.

Published by Clare Southerton

Clare is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Vitalities Lab, Social Policy Research Centre and Centre for Social Research in Health, UNSW Sydney.

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