Am I procrastinating or is it research?

Image from Knowyourmeme.com

Researching the impact of the Internet on the communication of climate change for my PhD has been an interesting experience. In one sense my activity online broadly can be considered research and the line between ‘work’ and procrastination does not really exist to me anymore. You never know when that hour I spent looking at an emerging meme may be used to inform a section of my thesis, a talk, or even end up an example in a publication. I do wonder how other researchers in my building see my research at times. I must look like I rarely work.  It does not help that when I give talks about my research I like to choose wonderful and weird examples from Internet culture.

So why do I research the impact of the Internet on the communication of climate change rather than just researching newspaper coverage?

The significance of the Internet? 

The Internet is significant in our daily lives and is still a relatively recent development. The virtual environment which we inhabit is significantly different from the natural world. It has changed how we engage with media from being passive to active in the creation and sharing of online content. While at the same time the Internet has absorbed every form of media and created new ways to engage and communicate. There has been large scale adoption of the Internet, but only relatively recently with the number of Internet users in the UK rapidly increasing from only 7.39 per 100 people in 1997 to 87.02 per 100 people by 2012.

Number of Internet users per 100 people: 

Data set from http://databank.worldbank.org/data/views/reports/tableview.aspx Global average is calculated by averaging the 214 countries within the data set

Data set from http://databank.worldbank.org/data/views/reports/tableview.aspx
Global average is calculated by averaging the 214 countries within the data set

The way we use the Internet has also changed from originally being an imitation of paper to the development of Web 2.0. Web 2.0 was a new phase of website design based around user interaction and user generated content, with this we saw the emergence of social media.The growing use of social media sites can be seen with examples such as Facebook which has grown from 145 million monthly users in 2008 to 1.35 billion monthly active users in September, 2014. This was rapidly adopted in particular by young people, but there has been a wide adoption of social media across society.

Example of US adoption of social media by age groups:

These changes to society are particularly interesting as anyone can produce content, but users have freedom of choice on what they view and interact with. Along with the rise of the Internet we have seen a decline in the daily circulation of UK newspapers. Despite this major societal change the vast majority of published research into climate change communication focuses on newspapers and in particular they focus on broadsheet newspapers. As a result we know little on the impact of the Internet on public engagement with climate change or how it has shaped public understanding.

So while my research may appear strange at first glance there are large gaps in the communication of climate change literature. The Internet is a significant part of our lives and how we interact with information. That said there is still times I cannot tell the difference between when I am procrastinating and doing actual research.

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An Introduction: exploring the impact of the Internet upon public understanding of science

Starting this blog: 

I am a politics PhD student at the University of Exeter based at the Environment and Sustainability Institute on Penryn Campus. I have been intending to start a blog for a while now to communicate my research with a wider audience. Also to discuss some interesting examples that emerged from Internet culture that have emerged through my research. My research focuses on public understanding of science and the impact of the Internet. In particular, my work focuses on public understanding of climate change and the impact of junk information from climate sceptics.

Some of the areas that my research covers can be seen in a talk I gave at a postgraduate research conference on Penryn campus on the challenge of Internet research. The video is low quality as it was taken by a fellow PhD student with their phone. This talk was given to an audience of PhD students from a range of subject areas with the majority being from the bio sciences. So the talk was designed to be accessible and entertaining with some wonderfully weird examples from Internet culture.

Focus of this blog:

This blog will focus primarily on sharing my research and exploring interesting things that emerge from Internet culture. There will also be the occasional post on my experiences as a PhD student and teaching in the department, but the primary focus will be on Internet culture and its impact upon public understanding of science.

My main research focus on the Internet has resulted in my developing interest on memes, user generated content, and online communities. Memes are essentially anything online which has viral spread including images and videos with most people being familiar with cat memes. An example of a cat meme can be seen with Grumpy Cat (see below). Grumpy cat is a great example of this as this meme has achieved success outside the Internet with books published and even a film ‘Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever’.

Grumpy Cat meme example

Memes could potentially be shared to spread information on serious political issues, but the majority of the popular memes are spread mainly for entertainment. Memes can often be in jokes within online communities.

Another key interest I have developed is on the subject of online communities as the Internet has enabled people to set up groups surrounding any interest. This has led to health support groups being formed for patients to support each other while on the other hand communities have emerged surrounding video games. My particular interests in online communities focus on video gaming communities, such as World of Warcraft, and the Brony subculture.

The term Brony refers to an adult fan of the show My Little Pony. The majority of these fans are men. This unexpected fan base originally emerged on the website 4chan around 4 and half years ago with the reboot of the show. 4chan is best known by the majority of the public with the sharing of naked celebrity images and harassment campaigns, but the website is core to Internet culture with many memes emerging from this anonymous chaotic environment.  The Brony subculture has produced a huge quantity of user generated content from original music, mods for video games, original video games, fanfictions, animations… The Brony subculture has also produced a huge quantity of memes (see examples below). These online communities are particularly interesting to my work as the way people choose to use the Internet and social media is important to understand.

The Internet has produced a wide range of seemingly random content and online communities. This blog will as a result explores user generated content, interesting memes, and discuss online communities for the majority of posts. I will also post findings from my PhD research on the impact of the Internet upon public understanding of climate change.