Lessons learned from Hollaback!: On the development of social networking sites for qualitative research
While social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have gained global notoriety for their influential stake in recent political movements, a recent article in the New York Times has shed light on another form of new media praxis that includes neither a “like” button nor a hashtag. The article, titled “Keeping Women Safe Through Social Networking,” brings attention to the success of an organization called Hollaback!, a project that, according to the website, “is a movement dedicated to ending street harassment using mobile technology.” Hollaback! began as a blog in 2005 and by 2010, has become an organized movement that includes various city-based sites covering areas such as Buenos Aires, London, and Portland, Oregon. Emily May, the organization’s current executive director, partnered up with Oraia Reid, executive director of the New York City-based RightRides for Women’s Saftey, “to launch a mapping project that would allow folks to map their sexual harassment experiences in real time for the first time in history.” If an individual experiences sexual harassment, the website offers three ways to share their story: through a phone application, email (through phone or computer), or submitting the story on the website. The ability to send in a story through an individual’s mobile device allows for instant reporting and allows the user to send in a picture of either the site or the perpetrator, or both.
Through its function as a database for collecting personal accounts of sexual harassment, Hollaback! is a project that is working toward not only awareness of these offenses, but their eradication as well. By contextualizing each incident through mapping, Hollaback! visually tracks reported offenses so that users can witness their material nature. According to the website, “By collecting women and LGBTW folks’ stories and pictures in a safe and share-able way with our very own mobile phone applications, Hollaback! is creating a crowd-sourced initiative to end street harassment. Hollaback! breaks the silence that has perpetuated sexual violence internationally, asserts that any and all gender-based violence is unacceptable, and creates a world where we have an option – and, more importantly – a response.” While the website does not offer a detailed strategic plan in terms of ending street harassment, it appears that their database will serve as evidence for policy change or the updating of current laws regarding sexual harassment. Along with larger plans for social change, the site offers a sense of immediate community for women who have experienced sexual harassment while alone on a business trip, traveling, or any other number of unfortunate experiences.
Aside from the site’s usage of new media technologies for the effect of social change, Hollaback! also raises interesting questions for qualitative researchers that have similar aspirations. What if researchers could map out the stories of their participants and share their experiences online? Would the networking platform change the impact of the data? Would the use of visual context offer more “weight” than a printed article and thus capture the attention of policymakers? Setting aside immediate questions of ethics and assuming that anonymity would be granted and that exact locations (mapping) may have to be less specific than the way it’s used on Hollaback!, it appears that the use of social networking sites may allow for multiple affordances: the generation of more data through global participation, saving money due to less travel, interactivity and feedback, and a visual representation of data to accompany journal articles. Of course, there are many questions left unanswered, but the growing success of Hollaback! suggests that with the right platform, individuals are willing to participate in a movement to support social change. Social networking has proven to be useful for social movements and those interested in increasing awareness, which begs the question: shouldn’t researchers find a way to utilize this interactive space (both during the data collection process as well as presentation) as well? While there may already be cases of researchers using social networking during data collection (not just lurking, but setting up a site themselves), it’s position as an exception needs to be evaluated.