Category Archives: Scholarly blog post

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Community formation that transcends politics in the age of filter bubbles – an example from Facebook

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The recent fires in the Christchurch Port Hills caused enormous destruction and disturbance to those living in the area. Tragically a life was lost fighting the blaze, and there was major disruption when about 450 houses were evacuated, 11 homes destroyed, and over 1800 hectares scorched in the region between the suburbs of Cashmere, Westmorland, Kennedy’s Bush and Governor’s Bay.

Ross Younger Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Concerned citizens during the crisis created a Facebook group named “Evacuation housing” where people could share information, and offer food or shelter to those who had been evacuated. I wanted to understand who participates in such social media responses to a crisis, so decided to study the political affiliations of the people who joined this group. I did this by examining publicly available information about each member’s past behaviour on Facebook to determine their political orientation, and then plotted this data on several graphs to help visualise the findings.

Findings

Fig 1.0. This graph shows the aggregated political orientation of everyone in the group. Political orientation is determined by the individual users like-history.

 

Fig 1.1. This graph shows the aggregated political orientation of everyone in the group relative to the country average on Facebook. It shows political groups that are either over- or under-represented in the group.

Fig. 1.2. This network diagram shows all the interactions between individual users who are part of the Facebook group “Evacuation housing”. The color of the nodes correspond to the same political affiliation as in fig. 1.0 and fig 1.1 Names are omitted from the nodes in the network in order to preserve privacy.

 

A quick look at the method

The method behind the study is simple, though not easily implementable. First, data was collected using the public Facebook Graph API 2.7 https://developers.facebook.com/docs/graph-api/reference/v2.7/. I collected data on all individual users who had been active on any of the public Facebook pages represented by a politician currently in parliament. All users who had not liked at least 7 posts from any of the pages were filtered out, which produces a little less than 200,000 unique users in New Zealand. Each user’s political affiliation is based on the political party from which the users has liked to most post on a percentage basis. Almost 1100 users could be identified with a probable political affiliation out of the 3500 members of the public group “Evacuation Housing” https://www.facebook.com/groups/1199742336810603/.

Conclusion

At the outset Fig 1.0 shows a fairly balanced distribution of affiliation with the political parties. On Fig 1.1 we see that Green and Labour are somewhat over-represented. Fig 1.2 shows that interactions within the group do not form clusters of users who are only affiliated with the same party.

In the age of filter bubbles, echo-chambers and behaviour-altering algorithms we see that online spaces still allow different people to come together and help each other in a time of crisis. This very small, very limited data-driven look into a spontaneously created Facebook group shows how political orientation is not overly skewed toward one particular group when it comes to issue based community formation. Even though some political groups are overrepresented it is not enough to constitute a so-called echo chamber, a place where only likeminded people interact. The actual significance of over- and underrepresentation by political groups in this case will require deeper analysis.
This study is also a peek into how the public behaviour of individual users can be applied to create segments and find out how these segments are mobilized for a certain cause. Future studies could involve the same political segmentation to be used to in other contexts or other segments could be created using the same basic method.

Blog-based assessment protocol

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The following assessment protocol was produced by Dr. Chris Jones, with input from Dr. Lyndon Fraser.

Context:

The University of Canterbury offers an internship programme (ARTS395) for upper-level undergraduate students. The internship is intended to enable students to gain experience in a ‘real world’ working environment, with the intention of improving their overall employability. Each internship consists of three parts: experience in the working environment (150 hours; 20% of course; assessed by a site supervisor); a common core academic module (40% of course; assessed by the internship director); an individually-tailored academic module (40% of course; assessed by an academic supervisor).

Blog-based assessment offers students the opportunity to present research findings connected with their ‘real world’ work experience via a digital platform. The exercise is designed to enhance employability by acclimatising students to working in the digital environment. At the same time, it seeks to hone their presentation skills and ensure that they understand the importance of producing work that meets professional standards both within the tertiary environment and the workplace.

The blog-based assessment outlined below was originally conceived as part of a tailored academic module designed in connection with an internship in which students undertook their ‘real world’ experience working in the Rare Books Collection of the University of Canterbury Library. The site supervisor was the Special Collections Librarian; the academic supervisor was a member of the History Department with a research specialism in Rare Books and an interest in the development of digital projects.

Formal Course Requirement:

Establish and maintain a blog that highlights and discusses the relevance of Canterbury specific material for the history of Early Modern Europe (minimum of 15 entries; approximately 1 entry per 10 hours of the project) [50% of academic assessment]

Aim:

Each entry in this blog is intended to provide the student with an opportunity to reflect on a particular academic aspect of their internship. Entries may focus upon student research into individual items in the UC collection or groups of items. They may also include considered reflections on broader topics. Part of the student’s task is to determine which topics will be included in the blog. Their aim should be to create a well-balanced, well-structured series of entries. By the end of the project the student should have produced a blog that clearly documents their project, and that will serve as a useful starting point for professional researchers and members of the broader public who may wish to engage with the particular aspect of the UC collection explored in the internship.

Entries are of no particular set length but should be appropriate to a web-based blog format. Illustrations are encouraged where relevant but any illustrations added to the blog should respect copyright, be of a professional standard and be labelled appropriately.

The blog is intended to be a mix of expressive writing and transactional writing. It provides students with an opportunity to present their research findings but also to reflect on their internship.

Most of the writing exercises we assign to students in tertiary institutions are transactional in nature. Transactional writing aims to persuade, inform or argue a particular viewpoint in the familiar form of essays, tutorial papers, examination scripts and so on. It is an effective method for teaching students to think critically, comprehend course materials and apply theories or concepts to a range of social phenomena. Other types of writing have quite different functions.

Student blogs will also involve an element of expressive writing. Expressive writing is personal, reflective and less formal in tone and mood. It aims to build confidence in the writing process through an exploration of values, thoughts and experiences. And, it is designed to help students become better readers and writers, while extending their appreciation of historical research.

Students writing a blog should employ a professional writing style, that is a style that reflects the mix of expressive and transactional writing involved. A ‘professional writing style’ is less formal than that used in an essay or exam paper; at the same time it is more formal than a personal journal, Facebook page, etc. Part of the student’s task is to find the right balance of ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ in their writing. Students should aim to present their thoughts using clear and correct sentence structure, good grammar and correct spelling.

General references to primary and secondary literature employed in research should be provided where appropriate but blog entries do not require footnotes or the equivalent. The policy regarding plagiarism is the same as it is for all university level exercises: students must not reproduce either the exact words or ideas/concepts of others without due acknowledgment.

Preliminary Exercises:

Before beginning work on the blog project students are required to complete three preliminary exercises in order to encourage good practices:

  • With regard to the preservation of data and good practice: Students should complete the free Institute of Historical Research online course ‘Digital Preservation’ (www.history.ac.uk/research-training/browse/online). Students are required to submit a brief report summarising what they have learned [this is assessed separately as part of the student’s overall internship grade].
  • Concerning the presentation of images on the web and good practice: Students should complete the free University of Canterbury online course ‘Preparing Images for the Web’ (http://www.canterbury.ac.nz/web/images/). This is assessed as part of the blog project.
  • Students are required to investigate and assess appropriate host services for their blog. They are required to write a brief report comparing at least three potential providers and outlining the benefits and drawbacks associated with each. This is assessed as part of the blog project.

Criteria for Assessment:

  • Ability to evaluate options for blogging, selection of an appropriate blogging environment and the planning and setting up of a professional blog.
  • Quality and relevance of topics selected for individual blog entries.
  • Quality of academic research.
  • Quality of presentation of research and communications skills.
  • Quality of professional writing.
  • Overall coherence of blog project.

Explanation of Grading:

A-/A/A+ Grades: Students in this grade range will have:

  • (1) responded fully to the assignment
  • (2) presented clear, reflective and insightful blog entries
  • (3) used language in a fluent and legible manner
  • (4) maintained a level of excellence throughout and
  • (5) shown originality and creativity in realising (1) through (3).

B-/B/B+ Grades: Students achieve (1) through (3) completely and demonstrate a good understanding of issues raised in the course, but lack originality or creativity.

C-/C/C+ Grades: Students achieve (1) through (3) adequately and demonstrate competence, but blog entries contain some errors. The blog may be lacking in critical reflection.

D Grade: Students fails to achieve some aspects of (1) to (4) adequately and the blog contains a number of serious errors.

E Grade: Students fails to complete the task to a satisfactory standard.

Procedural Safeguards:

Many blogs are hosted via independent sites over which the University of Canterbury does not exercise any control. As such, and in order to minimise any unforeseen issues that might arise, the following procedure is implemented where blogs are hosted through a non-UC platform:

  • Students are required to deposit their username and password with the academic supervisor.

In all cases:

  • All postings are subject to a ‘two tick’ approval system prior to publication. One tick belongs to the academic supervisor, the other to the site supervisor. This process allows for academic editing of content where necessary.