To start the interview, could you say a little about how you came to be so professionally active online?
It was a combination of factors, some going back a long time, some more recent. I have been interested in the sociology of computer use and cyberspace for quite a while. In the mid 1990s and into the early 2000s I conducted several studies examining the embodied nature of computer use, people with disabilities’ use of computer technologies (with Wendy Seymour) and the use of PCs in the academic workplace, including how people personalised these technologies (with Greg Noble). More recently I have become interested in researching how digital and social media are used in the medical and public health arenas. So it’s an area I have been pursuing in terms of research for many years.
My interest in using social media myself for academic purposes began with a desire to engage more with the general public. I had been thinking about how best to do this for a while. Earlier this year I eventually decided to try writing an article for an online news and research website that we have here in Australia called The Conversation. Only academics can write for this website, but it is designed for public readership and has a wide readership among the general public. Once my piece was published I was amazed by how many people read it in a short space of time and how many commented. It seemed clear to me that the best way to engage in the public arena was to publish online.
So then I decided to start my own blog (This Sociological Life), which went live in May this year. I have greatly enjoyed writing blog posts on my own research and other topics I have found interesting. Following setting up the blog I looked into ways to let people know about it and signed up to Twitter as a means of publicising it. I found Twitter to be not only an excellent way of publicising my blog posts as I published them but also of connecting with other people sharing my research interests globally and of sharing bits and pieces I had found on the web with them. Australia is a long way away from where most of the research in my fields is happening and researchers within this country are also separated geographically from each other, scattered around a very large continent. Twitter is a great way to connect quickly and easily, and in real time, across these vast distances.
I was then quite intrigued with the other different social and other digital platforms available and how they can be used for academic purposes, and investigated various tools, including Pinterest, Delicious, Scoop.it, Pearltrees, Quora, infographics tools, SlideShare, Storify, Mendeley, Paper.li and Facebook. I even made a (very simple) sociology app using an online wizard I discovered. And as I was investigating all these digital platforms I wrote a series of blog posts outlining to other academics what these tools have to offer. I have collected these posts together in a short e-publication, Digital Sociology: An Introduction, which I published on my university’s open repository for anyone to access.
What do digital tools have to offer sociologists?
My experiences of using the digital tools I have mentioned above have taught me that they are an excellent way to find, collate and curate information available on the web, to share it with others, to make connections and let others know about your own research.
I use quite a lot of the material I find on the web in my own research. For example, I have created a number of Pinterest boards on the specific topics I am researching at the moment. I have begun not only to use the images I have gathered on Pinterest in my research but to embed the links to these boards in journal articles and books I am writing, so that readers can click through and quickly view the material I am discussing. This material is also invaluable when I present the research in conference papers, as I can easily find images for PowerPoint presentations (or even call up the boards themselves if there is an internet connection available).
I also find a sense of creative achievement in using digital media. Such activities as writing a blog post, illustrating it and publishing it, or creating a Pinterest board or a Storify is a satisfying process not just because of content but also because of the way it looks. Many of these tools are very easy to learn to use and create a good-looking product. It is also very satisfying to be able to monitor how many people have viewed/read your creations and to receive comments on them.
I make sure that I use as many tools as I can to disseminate what I have written/made across various social networks. A blog post, for example, can be publicised via Twitter, LinkedIn, Academia.edu, Paper.li, Scoop.it, Delicious, Facebook, and Pinterest, just to name a few possibilities.
You’ve written recently about ‘digital sociology’. What do you mean by this?
In my view there are four major aspects to digital sociology:
1. Professional digital media use: using the kinds of tools discussed above for academic purposes.
2. Sociological analyses of digital media use: researching the ways in which people’s use of digital media configures these sense of selves, their embodiment and their social relationships.
3. Digital data analysis: using pre-existing digital data for social research, either quantitative or qualitative.
4. Critical digital sociology: undertaking reflexive and critical analysis of digital media informed by social and cultural theory.
The second of these dimensions of digital sociology has been undertaken for quite some time — since personal computers were invented and brought into popular use. The other three have yet to be taken up to any great extent in sociology. I believe the fourth dimension, critical digital sociology, is an area in which sociologists can really take the lead, given the theoretical and methodological tradition in sociology of social and cultural critique.
Is there a risk that digital activity can serve as a distraction from more traditional activity? It’s easy to imagine many people accepting your argument that there are valuable opportunities here but nonetheless wondering where and how they will find the time to engage online.
There’s no doubt that engaging in digital media use can take away time from more traditional scholarly pursuits. But the point is, such engagement enriches these pursuits. There is a wealth of material out there available on the web; there is a huge audience who are eager to engage with and share the ideas of sociologists and other academics; there are other academics you can find via social media networks and connect with who you may never had known about; and these media offer great potential to get your research out there and encourage a greater number of people to read it and know about it. It is a matter of investigating the various tools, finding out which ones work for your own purposes, and developing a way of incorporating them into your daily work routine that does not swallow up too much time. You can use them as little or as much as you like: you have full control over this!
Deborah Lupton is an independent writer and researcher in sociology and cultural studies, located in Sydney, and an Honorary Associate, Department of Sociology and Social Policy and the Biopolitics of Science Network at the University of Sydney. Prior to this she was Professor of Sociology and Cultural Studies at Charles Sturt University, Australia. You can follow her on Twitter @DALupton and at This Sociological Life.