A little more about #myresearch

Last week, I was really excited to see that friend, fellow scholar and local blogger Raul Pacheco-Vega had started something fun on Twitter — getting academics to describe their research in 140 characters and tagging it with #myresearch, in order to foster sharing and coordination in the knowledge-making process. I’m only now emerging from my bubble to weigh in. But hardly seems fair to just leave it at that though… so here’s the tweet, plus a little more.

#myresearch looks at how planning orgs have used & understand Twitter for public engagement on sustainability issues.

Why does Twitter matter for planning?

I’ve asked this question for a pretty good long while, as a consequence of not only using Twitter as I was learning about transit and planning, but also helping instigate Transit Camp (in 2007), learning about transit advocacy through the Vancouver Public Space Network (2009), reading bloggers and those familiar with planning (like Stephen Rees, Robert Goodspeed, Richard Layman, and countless others now that urban issues are enjoying a lot of attention — not to mention, the crew on Tumblr), and just tweeting what I was seeing and why I care about the experience of transit. I’ve previously spoken about this research at Barcamp a few years back, when I was just starting in the planning program.

As I’ve gone through planning school, I realized that I think planners are generally an awesome, fascinating and thoughtful bunch. But focusing solely on what they do or don’t do with technology wasn’t really squaring well with my interests in the social impacts of technology broadly. Planners think about technology through the lens of planning as work — so planners tend to use the frame “planning support software.” Planning is complex work, and technology helps them do many parts of it in more expedient, effective ways; so there’s a rich body of work around the use of different technologies (like PPGIS) for engaging the public on planning issues. But the approaches are generally still focused on practice — not on understanding how the lifeworld of the people engaged in using Twitter might help us reconsider public engagement.

For the most part, I operate on the assumption that citizens don’t see planning the way planners see it (by necessity). When the public talks about things that are relevant to urban planning on Twitter, they may or may not be variously interested in venting, gallows humour, letting off steam, sharing anecdotes, or getting to the point of becoming activists, advocates, and wanting to have some say in shaping the places that mean something to them. There’s maybe also some daring to hope, sometimes, that when we tell our story, that we’re not only coping through telling, but also hoping that something of our day-to-day experience could have some impact on decisions about what comes next.

Moreover, for those of us using social media regularly and integrating it with our offline lives (yes, it’s a false, long-standing dichotomy), it exposes us to multiple perspectives of the systems that we both participate in and are constrained by — be they social, economic, cultural, physical or otherwise. The affective dimension of the experience (which others have written very richly and persuasively about) is something we’re more able and (I argue) more compelled to voice and connect on, now, in ways that involved significant logistical challenges previously. This has potential for planning, but it’s not immediately obvious and there are plenty of challenges involved for the planner that wants to meaningfully involve Twitter in official work.

Twitter conversations about transit is a rich example of how tweeting — something pretty small and self-interested as far as doing things goes — might be interpreted as something bigger, more impactful and significant. To what extent are those persons working in and making decisions about transit1, seeing or understanding what this means to citizens (or being prevented, in various ways, from doing so), and what it could mean for their work? And what does this have to tell about how we talk about all issues related to sustainability, more generally, beyond transit? Those two questions, in a nutshell, are driving my thesis.

…and why Twitter?

On a somewhat practical level, there’s the simple fact that Twitter is slightly easier to work with than Facebook (there is some criticism of that, and I’ll grant it as a limitation). But on the other, there is, I think, a bit more of a sense of public-ness to Twitter. If you are posting publicly, using hashtags, and using Twitter in a way that nurtures any kind of notion of a public self, you will get people you don’t know messaging you, even if it’s just spam. Not everyone reacts well to it. (See StealthMountain, a cheeky Twitterbot provoking people with spelling corrections and auto-favoriting the snarky results.) That’s always been the exciting part of Twitter to me — that you get mentioned or retweeted (and sometimes, minsterpreted) by people who don’t know where you are coming from, and who are genuinely seeing what you say through their slice of experience, their interests, their bias. And as jarring as that is to experience sometimes, to feel that 140 character like a brick wall in your throat, some hope always persists that the conversation might turn into meaningful connecting.

I contrast that with my very recent experiences with Facebook, where I see in my News Feed my friends commenting on their friends posts — yet I’m not able to weigh in on the thread due to the original poster’s privacy settings. That drives me bonkers, frankly, to the point where I consider changing my settings so that I can’t see posts that I can’t myself comment on. It’s not all butterflies and roses on Twitter — I’ve broken some etiquette on responding to private accounts with my public account — but there is a feeling that it’s a semi-regular occurrence, that it happens, and that it is part of using the tool. The only places Facebook shows me people I don’t know, are in Events and sometimes, very rarely, in groups. (That said, what I find it most valuable for by far is showing me the sides I haven’t seen of the people I do know — and these are often sides that they might not feel so willing to share on Twitter, if they even use it at all.)

Progress

For a really, really long time, I considered but avoided making this topic the focus of my thesis for a whole slew of reasons, some involving how little work there was on it. Circumstances evolved, there are others doing work in this from a planning perspective, and now I’m committed whole hog to doing something interesting with this. I’m hoping to continue blogging the research as it forms beneath my feet (or, as the case may be, beneath my fingers, as I write it).


1 — And lest you think this is simple, there are a lot of them. Municipal governments, regional transportation bodies, provincial ministries, the federal government, entities doing economic development…all have a stake in what money goes where, to provide mobility for certain people doing different stuff.

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