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I’m lucky enough to be the Program Chair for the 2019 Association of Internet Researchers Conference, to be held in Brisbane in October. During the last week, I have engaged in the next task as Program Chair and gone through each individual submissions as I assign them to reviewers. This process involves reviewing the title, the abstract and then matching those papers to most suitable experts within the Association.
For those non-academic folk reading this, the conference process usually involves responding to a conference theme as designed by the conference and organisation committees, where potential delegates submit a proposal of anywhere between 500 and 1200 words addressing that theme. This proposal is then sent to a number of reviewers who conduct a blind review (blind meaning they do not know who the author(s) is/are), and then the paper is returned to the program chair with a review and overall score. The papers that receive a suitable score are invited to submit their paper to the conference, while the others are rejected.
We are just about to send the papers out to the reviewers after they have been assigned, which has provided me with some unique insights into the state of the field of internet research. Granted, the proposals are responding to the theme of Trust in the System, which will skew the submissions slightly, but typically academics will usually make their research align with any given conference theme as one’s field usually moves towards a common trajectory. The research that has been submitted can be read as a very strong overview and indicator of where the field is currently, and where it is heading.
Of course the items below are seen through my eyes, which is the first parse of the content coming through the submission portal – the final version of papers that will be accepted and presented will no doubt differ slightly from these initial observations.
What are the hot internet research topics?
As you would expect there is a growing number of research papers in the area of algorithms and platforms. The concept of automation and recommender systems has spread beyond Netflix and permeates in the areas of news and journalism, smart cities, politics, and healthcare.
Platform research continues to be incredibly important with work critically looking at YouTube, Instagram and Facebook as the most popular areas. It is interesting to see the rise of focus on emerging Chinese social media platforms – while I didn’t notice any on TikTok, there was a focus on WeChat and Weibo.
Other very popular areas of research interest include governance and regulation of internet and social media, news and journalism related to the internet, social media and politics, methodologies, labour and things/bots. There is also a group of researchers interested in Blockchain.
Who are internet researchers?
One of the core roles of the review assignment was aligning the papers that were submitted with relative experts in the field. To assist in this process, members of the Association nominate the topics and methodologies of which they are experts. This information provides a unique insight into how we see ourselves as internet researchers.
I have not crunched hard data on this, and would not publish any sensitive data from the Association, so this is a broad observation of my aggregated insights. That is, these are the methods fields that kept popping up when I was assigning papers to reviewers.
One of the most popular internet researcher categories that was available from the pool was ethnographers for social media – participant observation across social media practices. I directly fit into this category and needless to say much of the work undertaken by these researchers could easily align with my own research endeavours.
An emerging category that aligns with the growing field is social media algorithm analysts. As humanities and social scientists become increasingly involved in data science alongside media and communication, the rise of algorithmic analysis has become not only popular, but essential to understand our field.
News and journalism experts are often coupled with social media experts, and the other interesting (and popular) couplings included discourse analysis with social media, and social media and textual analysis/content analysis.
There is a significant gap however, in those researching identities and activism – from what I can see across most of the communication infrastructure formats. A number of researchers are presenting work in this area, yet we still don’t see ourselves as a large cohort of experts in identity research – which seems odd. Perhaps this is just how the methodological categories appear in the conference system, or perhaps this is true of how we (don’t) identify as researchers?
So what does all this mean?
Well, these insights certainly won’t change the field’s direction but it does offer some insights into the gaps of internet research. I think we have platform research covered, while social media and ethnography is very strong. Social media and politics also has a very strong presence.
But there are areas that lack representation in internet research, that would be useful for researchers to pick up on in the next 12 months.
- Ethics – in both use of internet and how to research the internet;
- Algorithm analysis – the growing field here requires more people to apply data science to their existing work on platforms, social media etc.;
- Geography and geolocation – I didn’t notice any human geographers (I might have missed this) conducting work in internet research in this sample. There is a small group of researchers undertaking geolocation specific work, but there is room for more;
- Internet histories;
- Public sphere;
- Conflict; and
For me, a light bulb just went on with how to personally align my research after attending conferences. I guess I always thought of conferences as a chance to present my current work alongside the field. But after having undertaken this Program Chair role, I find it is better to also analyse the gaps in the field to position your work for the next 12 months.
Perhaps scholars have always worked like this and I am just catching up with the game, but having these insights has been incredibly useful to shape my thinking. Hopefully they are useful to others in some capacity.