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Fruitful spontaneous cross-disciplinary collaboration results in free e-research tool

03 June 10

YouTube, the phenomenally popular video-sharing website, along with other social media such as Twitter and Facebook have become key research concerns within various academic disciplines, including Media and Cultural Studies.

Such web 2.0 platforms are increasingly playing visible roles within the shaping and development of public debate. The twitter-led ‘Take it Back’ campaign is a poignant example, run by a coalition of different groups and organisations in the call for fair votes following the recent result of the general election.

In addition to social media enabling political debate, recent research shows that the internet plays a key role in the ways in which people express and engage with religion and videos linked to Christianity and Islam in particular, form a significant cluster of material on YouTube.

For researchers studying such mobilizations using social media, establishing data reliability is often a real problem, despite the apparently ‘easy’ and ‘accessible’ public information on such sites. However, the material is in constant flux and the complexity of gathering the data or indeed what this data means is a real challenge to those researching it. In this context, Computer Science and Information Science offer possibilities for productive cross-disciplinary collaborations, specifically for data gathering, but scholars from Media and Cultural Studies rarely take up such opportunities.

Aiming to innovate in this regard is the ‘Fitna: the Video battle’ project, based at Loughborough University and led by Professor Liesbet van Zoonen.  It analyzes YouTube based responses to the online release of anti-Islam film ‘Fitna’, made by right wing Dutch MP Geert Wilders. The film caused international outrage and a global, predominantly young audience, to upload their responses online. The research considers the ways in which young people express their public and religious identities through these response videos.

The Fitna project team sought to not only reliably capture this online material, but moreover to automatically code the metadata associated with each video in order to save valuable time. The project’s Research Associate, Dr Farida Vis, took creative initiative and enlisted the help of Mike Thelwall, webometrics expert and Professor of Information Science at the University of Wolverhampton. He describes webometrics as ‘the study of web-based content with primarily quantitative methods for social science research goals using techniques that are not specific to one field of study.’

Thelwall developed a custom-made e-research tool for the project, which overcomes these serious issues of data gathering, stating that: ‘from a cybermetrics perspective, the project was an excellent initiative to be involved with because it involved large-scale web data collection and analysis, which is a cybermetrics specialism, with clear social goals. It was also valuable to gain experience of analysing YouTube, as a relatively new and high-profile web site that represents a novel and innovative web environment. The opportunity to develop and adapt cybermetrics methods was particularly exciting.’

Furthermore, in analysing the material, the team critically engaged with a set of methods frequently used within the Social Sciences, assessing their merits for studying YouTube. The team have recently presented on their methods at the Innovative Methods in the Study of Religion Conference, organised by the AHRC/ESRC funded Religion and Society programme, led by Professor Linda Woodhead at Lancaster University, which has funded this research.

In line with the open-access philosophy, the team have made the e-tool available for free to other researchers, which has been greeted very positively. Jasjit Singh, a PhD student at the University of Leeds studying young British Sikhs said:

“The Fitna project is a real example of cutting edge innovative research. It is always challenging to find structured ways of studying new media - what Farida and her team have done is to develop a clear method on how to study YouTube videos and even more importantly have made these tools available to everyone else. Like myself, I'm sure many academics will find the methods and the e-tool which the project team have developed very useful for their own research.”

Similarly, Professor Roger Hewitt of Goldsmith University, Scientific Co-ordinator of the international European research programme: ‘The Re-emergence of Religion as a social force in Europe?’ funded by NORFACE highlighted the value of such cross-disciplinary collaboration as, “…a really good example of the kind of work we were hoping to find going on.”  

 “The internet has become an important new location for religious activity and discussion and this is increasingly recognized but the way this team have gone about developing ways to subject it to serious academic analysis is very exciting.”

“Bringing Computer Science and Media Studies together in this way has clearly been most productive for the team and this can only have a positive impact on the wider research community.”

For more information on the e-tool, including a user guide and how it can be downloaded along with a set of other webometrics tools developed by Mike Thelwall, please visit: http://lexiurl.wlv.ac.uk/searcher/youtube.html

Further details on the Fitna project can be found here:

http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/ss/research/FITNA/index.html

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