Data on the move

I’m Stefan Vollmer, a doctoral researcher at the University Leeds. In this blog post, I explore how social media data in migration contexts traverses different spaces and reaches different audiences, and how ethnography is ideally placed to explore the temporal and spatial trajectories of such texts.

When and how we use our smartphones to ‘go online’ in daily contexts has drastically changed over the last years; figures from the UK’s Global Mobile Consumer Survey show that more than a third of their adult respondents look at their smartphones within five minutes of waking up, while 34% use their mobile devices during meals with family and friends. These numbers confirm what most of us witness day to day: smartphones are used around the clock within social settings that range from the formal, to the informal, to the very intimate. The constant availability of smartphones has made possible an unprecedented blending and intermixing between ‘the online’ and ‘the offline’. Therefore, mobile technologies and the affordances they bring have an impact on the dynamics of mobility, space, and time, adding more potential, but also more complexity, to contemporary language use.

I regularly encounter this ‘added complexity’ within the data-set of my ongoing PhD project, a linguistic ethnography concerned with the digital literacy practices of newly arrived Syrian refugees in Leeds. Here, I find data – which often traverses from ‘the offline’ to ‘the online’ and vice-versa – especially challenging to interpret. The following data extract, posted in an open access, multilingual Facebook group, illustrates this.

Data Extract: St. Giles Trust flyer (March 2017)

This data extract documents the trajectory of an A5 front-and-back printed flyer (see picture below), as it traverses between ‘the offline’ (a church/community centre in Leeds) and ‘the online’ (an open access Facebook group).

Data on the move_1

St. Giles Trust flyer (front)

The flyer provides information on programmes and services run by the St. Giles Trust, a charity supporting disadvantaged adults. During my fieldwork phase, I observed this flyer being handed out by Saad (pseudonym), a long-time Syrian resident to Leeds, at one of my data collection sites. Shortly after the flyers were circulated, photos of said flyer and additional commentary in Arabic, concerning the flyer, were uploaded onto a Facebook group (“The Syrian Community of Leeds”) by Saad. This open access Facebook group, which is administrated by Saad, is much frequented by newly arrived Syrians to Leeds and elsewhere, as it circulates relevant information for newcomers to the area (e.g. on employment opportunities, ESOL classes etc.). The following excerpt from my fieldnotes (16.03.17) provides further context.

[…]. Saad is here today. He comes towards me and says hello. He hands out flyers. […] Later, Saad sits down next to me. He starts taking pictures of the flyers he handed out earlier. I ask him, if he’s going to upload the pictures onto the Facebook group. He’s doing exactly that. He tells me that someone from the St. Giles Trust has approached him and now he’s putting the information on Facebook. He is adding/writing an Arabic description, to make the flyers more accessible for the Facebook audience. […]. Saad is casually doing this, whilst drinking a cup of coffee. […]. Some time later (maybe 20 minutes), I look at my phone and see his new post about the flyers on the Facebook group. The post has already gained some attention (2 likes).

The table below holds an edited screenshot (left column) and its English translation (right column) that is part of a larger ‘Facebook Group’ data set, which comprises approximately 150 screenshots, collected systematically over a period of nine months.

Facebook Post (16.03.17) Translation
Data on the move_2.png Do you want to obtain a certificate equivalent to Level 3 in providing advice and assistance? The duration of the programme is 12 weeks. The programme begins in June, two days a week with paid transportation. In these two days, you will be exempt from putting the signature in the Job Centre. For those interested, contact me.

This data trajectory outlined above offers rich ground for discussion and analysis, especially in relation to the earlier outlined dimensions of mobility, time and space. Here, the following points seem particularly pertinent to me:

  • The flyer, as an artefact, undergoes a process of transformation and remediation, all accommodated for by Saad and his smartphone (e.g. the uploading of photographs and the adding of Arabic text). As the flyer traverses from the ‘offline’ to the ‘online’, we can observe distinct changes, such as to the flyer’s audience (from a situated/local community centre in Leeds to a translocal Facebook group with <1000 members).
  • Jan Blommaert (2018: 81) argues that different modalities (e.g. a ‘no-entry’ traffic sign, opposed to Chinese writing below the traffic sign) can have different semiotic scope, as the modalities select different audiences and have different reach. He argues that “[w]hile the visual shape of the [traffic] sign is quite generally understood (the sign can be found across the world with the same meaning), the Chinese text [below the sign] is not understandable for all (even if the co-occurrence with the sign may offer plausible hypotheses about the meaning of the text)”. In a similar way, we can approach the flyer and its online presence; the St. Giles flyer itself is a deliberately designed, multimodal piece of advertisement, featuring image, colour, text (in English), numbers, different fonts, etcetera.
  • Moreover, Saad adds Arabic text, using his smartphone. He contextualizes the flyer further, ergo changing and widening the semiotic scope for the multilingual Facebook group audience, of which, presumably, many are novice speakers and readers of English.
  • This data extract also illustrates how semiotic artefacts can have histories or ‘previous lives’ before appearing online, with specific audiences in mind. In this instance, I was able to capture parts of this trajectory. More than that, Saad’s Facebook post ‘lives on’ on the Facebook group and could by now, roughly a year after the data was collected, have garnered more ‘likes’, ‘comments’, ‘shares’, etcetera.

Thinking about this data foregrounds the benefits of ethnographic research and prolonged fieldwork; first and foremost, I was able to witness how people make use of mobile technologies in their daily lives and how literacy practices traverse space and time. Here, other ethnographers (e.g. Catherine Kell) have observed and theorized the trajectories of literacy practices through time and space in greater detail.

In conclusion, this data extract suggests to me that we need to account for these temporal dimensions when collecting data from social media platforms such as Facebook. Ethnographic data collection techniques seem to provide the breadth and width needed to trace and document these data trajectories. Moreover, it seems to me that binary dichotomies (e.g. online/offline or real/digital) fail to adequately address the trajectories and histories of contemporary communicative practices. This is an issue which was also debated at the Language, social media and migration seminar, organized and hosted by the TLANG team earlier this year at the University of Birmingham.

Stefan Vollmer (University of Leeds)


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