Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Wikipedia, News and the Murder of Meredith Kercher case

As some of you might know, I’ve become interested in the ways that the Wikipedian archives can be analysed to show how the reporting of particular events evolves over time. My essay which compared the English and Italian Wikipedia articles for the Murder of Meredith Kercher was published in Language and Literature last week. You can listen to a presentation of that research as a work-in-progress which is available on iTunesU.

One of the points I made in that essay is that Wikipedia makes it very easy to see how the knowledge presented in their articles is constructed. As Martin Poulter (the JISC ambassador for Wikimedia) put it at the EduWikimedia conference in Cardiff last year, looking at the archives of Wikipedia is like opening the bonnet of the car: it can help you understand how the car works.  In the case of the Murder of Meredith Kercher article, there are differences in how the events in this very controversial case were represented over time and which varied between the different language Wikipedias.

One of the ways in which the articles varied was in how they prioritised citations from different news sources as sources for verifiability. I did the research on the Murder of Meredith Kercher article over a year ago. Given that the verdicts from the retrial were announced 10 days ago, I wondered whether the recent news interest in the case would also influence how the article developed.

It’s too early for a substantial piece of research on this, but watching the article for the week following the verdict of the retrial, you can see several things.

1. There is a marked increase in the number of page views of the article as news interest in the verdict increased. The tool which measures the page views of Wikipedia articles shows the peak viewing for the English language version on 31 Jan with 281,167 page views and 81,445 views on the day preceding (30 Jan) and 88,165 views on the day after (1 Feb). This is much higher than in the preceding three months (by comparison, the most frequent views per day are only 6,071).

A similar pattern occurs in the page views for the article in the Italian  Wikipedia, though the peak viewing figures on 31 Jan is somewhat more modest at 19,821 page views.

2. There is an increase in editing activity for the week after the verdict of the retrial was announced.  Although the article has been edited regularly since it was first in November 2007 (see the Page History statistics for this article in the English Wikipedia and the Page History statistics for the article in the Italian Wikipedia), this has peaked at particular times: (1) in December 2009 (when Knox and Sollecito were first convicted) (2) in October 2011 (when Knox and Sollecito were acquitted) and now again when Knox and Sollecito have been reconvicted.

It’s a much smaller scale comparison, but here is the frequency of editing in the 10 days before and after the verdict of the retrial in the English and Italian Wikipedias.



3. In the English language Wikipedia, the editing doesn’t just include the addition of breaking news, but where it does, these are supported with citations from news sources. The verdict itself is added with a citation from the BBC News, reactions from the Knox family cited from the Daily Telegraph, Sollecito’s reaction cited from Sky News, and Knox and Sollecito’s plans for appeal cited from the Guardian Newspaper.

4. Other changes include substantially re-ordering the content of the material so that the first section which documents Prosecution process for each of the original suspects is no longer Amanda Knox, but is Rudy Guede.  I’ve argued in the past that the structure of the article had a particular focus on Knox (earlier this year the section documenting her treatment in the Prosecution was six times longer than that of Sollecito’s section or Guede’s section: this change seems to alter that perspective).

I should say at this point that my analysis of the Wikipedia article is not in any way making a judgement about the outcomes of the Meredith Kercher case: that’s not my remit. I’m a linguist, not a forensic specialist or a lawyer.


Nor does my analysis stereotype Wikipedia as a poor source of information. In fact, I think it is a very interesting source of information: information about how contemporary events are collectively documented in different cultural contexts and about where the editors of Wikipedia get their source material. So when you next type a search term into google and find yourself using Wikipedia as the first information source you find, don’t forget to ‘lift the bonnet’ and find out which resources the Wikipedia editors are using to support their points.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Reflections on 2013

The end of the year is always a good time for reflection.  Looking back at 2013, my working life has been characterised by collaboration, creativity, community-building and connections.  All four aspects have been rewarding, challenging and enabled me to work with people and complete projects I could never have done on my own.  Being busy with all of these is one of the reasons I don’t seem to have time to write on this blog!  So here are a few highlights....

Last January, I put in a proposal to the BAAL Executive committee to start a new special interest group for scholars working in Language and New Media. We held our first colloquium in September at the BAAL annual meeting and first workshop in Leicester in November. You can join our group by adding yourself to our Facebook page and emailing our communications officer Bettina Beinhof (Bettina.beinhof@anglia.ac.uk) who will add you to the mailing list.

Part of that work of building the community of scholars in the UK working on social media/computer mediated discourse has included co-authoring a student textbook with David Barton, Johnny Unger and Michele Zappavigna: Researching the Language of Social Media.  It’s been quite a challenge to pull that together in the timescales that Routledge wanted, but we’ve done it and that textbook will be out next year. I know considerably more about research methods now than I did 12 months ago. The book is much stronger because of the expertise that David, Michele and Johnny have brought to the project: it’s all the better for the work they put in.

The most creative aspects of collaborating with others have been brought about by the work I’ve done on the AHRC Research Network: Transforming Thresholds.  We’ve got another four months to run with that project.  It’s been one of the most energising, transforming experiences to work with the brilliant network of academics, museum practitioners and commercial partners. I’m especially thankful to Ross Parry and Alex Moseley who helped plan the events and who make me think more creatively about how to collaborate effectively with others, to Nathan Human of Citizen 598 who filmed everything, to the Digital Hub at the University of Birmingham who have felt like a second home through the first couple of events, and ‘Team Petrie’ (Giancarlo Amati from UCL, Tracy Harwood from DMU’s Retail Lab, Jo Sivell from the University of Birmingham, Angus Deuchars from Arup, Juan-Luis Sanchez and Maria Marot from Cosas Industries) who helped put together the case study that I was most closely involved in at the Petrie Museum. I’m always going to remember that baking hot day in July when the images and soundscape were installed in the museum’s stairwell!

I’m also incredibly grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to talk about my work at a series of different events this year (15 of them), and the connections that were created across academic communities and countries. Landmark memories will be the super-smart and super-nice bunch of graduate students who I worked with at the Summer Institute of Narrative Studies for Aarhus University, the equally super-smart and super-nice scholars and museum partners from Southern Denmark’s DREAM project (both of which gave me opportunities to visit beautiful places in Denmark); speaking at the 4th international Narrative Conference in Guangzhou (a privilege to see a remarkable city and to make new friends); within the world of narrative studies, speaking at the contemporary narrative panel at the ISSN Manchester Conference, and at the feminist narratology symposium in Cambridge; and in the somewhat newer-to-me world of Knowledge Exchange work I  also very much enjoyed the Creative Exchange’s Knowledge Exchange conference in Lancaster, especially singing an anthem of KE.


Looking back, I’ve much to be thankful for in 2013. I’ve met and worked with amazing people, and learned as much from what has gone wrong as well as the successes. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Research ethics: Check list for regulatory ethics

Along with Johnny Unger, David Barton and Michele Zappavigna, I'm writing a new student text book for Routledge: Researching the Language of Social Media.

I'm in the process of writing the chapter on ethics.  This feels like quite a responsibility to get right!  Each section of the chapter will end with a series of questions which students can use to reflect on their decisions made at different parts of the research process.

Here are the questions which I have drafted for the section on 'regulatory ethics'.  Are there any other questions about regulations that I should include?

  • ·         Are you carrying out your work in a context which requires your project to be approved by an institutional committee or review board?
  • ·         Will you be collecting data which is subject to data protection or copyright legislation?
  • ·         Have you consulted the best practice guidelines for your discipline?
  • ·         What ethical decisions did other researchers make about similar projects, and was this satisfactory?
  • ·         Is the material you want to study governed by site-specific regulations? Do these regulations restrict how you represent yourself, interact with others, collect or reuse data from the site?
  • ·         Who are the people in your academic community with whom you could discuss ethical decision-making?






Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Teaching Creative Writing Using Wikipedia

This morning I am teaching a class for our first year module: An Introduction to Writing Creatively.

We've been discussing how to write and publish material online, using Wikipedia as a case study. 

The students have chosen a controversial topic, written their own version, have compared this with Wikipedia's version of the same topic and are now editing each other's work.

The topics they have chosen include: Sir Jimmy Savile, Same Sex Marriage in the UK, the Soham Murders, the Watergate Scandal, and Mormonism.

We're using this experience to generate a list of top issues that emerge when (1) Writing about controversy and (2) Editing each other's work.  Here is a summary of the topics they raised:

Issues related to Writing about Controversy:

  • How much can you rely on your reader's knowledge?
  • It's hard to stay neutral because the cases are very big and well publicised. This influences your opinion.
  • The reliability of 'experts' can be questionable.
  • It  is difficult not to give undue weight to particular aspects of a case (in terms of focus and sidelining other material)
  • You need an explanation of key terms: jargon can exclude fair representation of a topic.
  • Repetition can be difficult to avoid - and repetition can be dangerous because you can obscure details and repetition can be used as a rhetorical effect which sways audience response.
  • The publication or use of controverisal material might have long term implications (e.g. what if Maxine Carr's child found they were studying the Wikipedia article for the Soham murder in class?)
  • If you are quoting newspapers, how you contextualise these can vary in terms of how biased the citation might appear.
  • It's difficult to provide enough information for your audience without overwhelming them with detail.

Tips for editing a non-fictional account of a controversial event:

  • Don't overload the lead section with detail: include the key facts first.
  • Be careful about how you structure giving information: think about how sections can be used to organise definitions and topics, and give focus to the subject matter.
  • Make sure that the information is logical and chronological: that it does not jump around too much.
  • Make sure that the opening sentence makes the topic clear from the outset.
  • Use signposting judiciously to guide the reader
With thanks and acknowledgement to Rob, Jordan, Alyson, Lauren, Sarah and Charlotte.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Article on Counter narratives and Wikipedia


So I have been hopelessly, shamefully bad at posting to my blog.  I haven't fallen off the face of the earth, just really busy with lots of different things.  Here's an abstract for an essay I've just finished writing and is under review for a special issue of 'Language and Literature'. If you'd like to read the full draft, please email me.

Counter narratives and controversial crimes: The Wikipedia article for the ‘Murder of Meredith Kercher’
Narrative theorists have long recognised that narrative is a selective mode of representation. There is always more than one way to tell a story, which may alter according to its teller, audience and the social or historical context in which the story is told.  But multiple versions of the ‘same’ events are not always valued in the same way: some versions may become established as dominant accounts, whilst others may be marginalised or resist hegemony as counter narratives (Bamberg and Andrews, 2004).  This essay explores the potential of Wikipedia as a site for positioning counter and dominant narratives.  Through the analysis of linearity and tellership (Ochs and Capps, 2001) as exemplified through revisions of a particular article (‘The Murder of Meredith Kercher’), I show how structural choices (open versus closed sequences) and tellership (single versus multiple narrators) function as mechanisms to prioritise different dominant narratives over time and across different cultural contexts.  The case study points to the dynamic and relative nature of dominant and counter narratives.  In the ‘Murder of Meredith Kercher’ the counter narratives of the suspects’ guilt or innocence and their position as villains or victims depended on national context, and changed over time.  The changes in the macro-social narratives are charted in the micro-linguistic analysis of structure, citations and quoted speech in four selected versions of the article, taken from the English and Italian Wikipedias. 
I argue that site architecture of Wikipedia is structured in such a way to suppress or foreground narrative controversy in different ways.  The article’s front page is default view for readers where the dominant narrative is likely to be foregrounded and controversy is obscured.  In contrast, the talk pages document a meta-narrative of conflict between contributors as they negotiate which material might be included in the account.  Between the front page and the talk pages is a third, liminal narrative space: the revision pages of the article.  As the prior, but less visible versions of the ongoing narrative-in-progress, the archive allows the recovery of previous retellings, but always subordinates the polyphonic controversy of earlier retellings to the pages hidden behind the hegemonic, superficially unified narrative which is given precedence on the article’s main front page. In this way, Wikipedia is able to manage the tensions of controversial narration, simultaneously acknowledging that no single version of events can tell the ‘whole story’ of these controversial crimes (by allowing access to previous versions of the article), but giving primary position to the version of events most in keeping with Wikipedia’s own values of ‘Neutral Point of View’.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Google Plus and Student Feeback

Following in the footsteps of my colleague Alan Cann, we’ve been piloting the use of Google Plus to support our first year undergraduate module (History of English) at the University of Leicester.

One of the ways we have used the stream is to encourage student feedback on the module on a week-by-week basis.  Traditionally, module feedback is taken once the teaching has finished and used to feed forward into the redesign of the module for the coming year.  We have not found a satisfactory way of allowing students to see what we do with their feedback, and only a small sample of students (10% of the cohort) usually completes the surveys.  But we know that feedback is vital, should be formative, rapid and dialogic.

Last week we posted our first ‘#Fridayreflection’ question, asking students to reflect on the role of Powerpoint presentations in lectures as part of their learning.  Only nine students (of the 160 signed up to the circle) posted to the stream on this topic, but still, the feedback was very useful. It has mean that we could modify the presentations right away (we are only in week 3 of the course) and, more importantly, we could talk with the students immediately about their comments.

I’m hoping that more students will join in, and I want to find a way of encouraging higher levels of engagement.  We are not assessing their contributions, so the feedback is voluntary.  If you’ve got suggestions, please let me know!

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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

It's all about you? Celebrating a year of BBC Woman's Hour on Twitter

Earlier this week I got a call from the producer of BBC Woman's Hour, who had read the press release that the University of Leicester recently ran about my new book (Stories and Social Media).  Later this month (27th December), BBC Woman's Hour are running an item on Twitter and women. Very exciting!

So the linguist in me couldn't resist taking a peek at the tweets @bbcwomanshour have posted over the last year and seeing how their vital statistics matched up with some of the patterns I've observed in celebrity, corporate and 'ordinary' use of Twitter.  And this is what I found:

Followers v. Following:
The profile information for @bbcwomanshour lists 26,354 followers and 2,590.  Like celebrities and 'ordinary' Twitter members, there are more followers than those that @bbcwomanshour follows.  But the scale of the asymmetry is a ratio 10:1 (followers: following), so closer to the asymmetry that you see on average between 'ordinary' Twitter members (6:1), rather than the disparity on celebrity accounts (60:1).

Types of Tweet:

Like other members of Twitter, @bbcwomanshour use more updates (one-to-many broadcasts) than either directly addressed messages which appear in the public timeline or retweets. Based on the type of tweet, it would seem that @bbcwomanshour is not very conversational.

But that belies the way that @bbcwomanshour seems to be using Twitter, which is not only to promote upcoming features, but to ask the audience for their opinions.  If we look more closely at the pronouns that appear in the tweets, the updates use the pronouns 'you' and 'your' (that focus on the audience) far more frequently than 'us', 'our' or 'we' (that focus on the show's producers and presenters).  And this difference is especially obvious in @bbcwomanshour if we compare it with the way corporate accounts, celebrities and 'ordinary' members of Twitter talk, and if we compare it with large offline corpora (like the British National Corpus or the Contemporary Concordance of American English).


High frequency words and Hashtags
It's not surprising that the most frequent lexical items that appear in the word list for the @bbcwomanshour tweets are topped by 'tomorrow' (which is usually followed by information about an upcoming feature) and 'women' (which appears three times as frequently as 'men') and signals the main themes that the features address.  When we look at the hashtags which are used in tweets we can see that this focus on the show and its featured themes is still present: 8% of all the hashtags used by @bbcwomanshour were directly making the term '#bbcwomanshour' more visible.  The choice of hashtags also shows @bbcwomanshour engaging with current events (like #spendingreview, #tubestrikes), but more than anything else (even more than the #ff tag), the hashtags are about food: (#cooktheperfect, #cooking, #recipe, #pasta, #italianfood, #Maryberry and so on).

It's refreshing that @bbcwomanshour are not simply using Twitter to 'broadcast their brand'.  Their tweets show engagement with their audience (especially in the use of retweets which forward on audience comments for wider response).  And perhaps they hint of the importance that food has for 'women's talk'.  Given that I'm married to the wonderful @tobizzy2bake, talking about, making, eating and sharing food has a key place in family life and the friendships that surround our home. All we need now is for a form of virtual #cake that would actually taste good too.

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