Last week, I was contacted by a researcher and invited to participate in a study related to people who write about experiences in their personal lives in their blogs. In the process, the researcher informed me that the project would include analyzing my public posts. While we all know that what is posted on any social media, especially the Internet, is not private, and indeed, one assumes we want others to read it or we would not be posting it publicly, it has still been unsettling, and I cannot quite put my finger on the reasons for that feeling. I tend to want to help PhD students with their dissertation research, having myself depended upon people's willingness to help me with mine. I clicked on the survey link to just see what it said, not at all certain that I would participate, and got an error link, so that solved the question for the moment.
I suppose part of the discomfort for me is that I do not consider this blog a personal journal--said she who is writing some pretty personal stuff here right now. I do, obviously, write about my personal experiences, and from my perspective, it is usually to inform, educate, address some inequality or injustice of the system, bring issues to light, and yes, to connect with other like-minded individuals. I like that the stories and experiences we share connect us with each other, and that we learn from each other, and it humanizes us and our experiences to share those. I do not think of that as a personal journal--that is the one that I write in my own handwriting, and no one sees but me until I die and will probably be trashed by my unemotionally-attached-to-sentimental-things son, no doubt while rolling his eyes if he perchance even opened one of the journals that occupy a full shelf in my bookcase.
So, in my thoughts these past few days (especially every time I think about posting) is the question of "Will this get analyzed by a piece of software, trying to ferret out some pattern? Will a human being read it, and think thoughts about the questions raised, and will it matter that said human being read it?" And then, what is it that bothers me so much about this, if indeed I am posting these essays, or stories, or experiences in a public space on which people can comment? Obviously, it cannot be my sense of "privacy" or some concern about having my thoughts, words, and analyses on issues scrutinized, because that could be done without my even knowing about it. Is it the knowing? Is it like when we do not know something is happening, then it does not enter our conscious thoughts to concern us?
Or is it the software angle? That my life and words and experiences and thoughts and analyses of important-to-me and sometimes to the world issues gets relegated to an impartial, inhuman analysis to determine what it says about society? Is it the thought that something that matters to me gets chunked into the categories determined by a computer program, and the conclusions of an academic who interprets those computer-generated categories, but that human eyes have not observed the content nor construed meaning nor participated in understanding that world and its relevance?
Now as one of those academics who has done qualitative analysis and published from it, I fully understand that you cannot analyze massive amounts of data solely with your one brain. It takes too long. I am old school, and was trained on qualitative when it was new to my profession, and not very highly thought of by some academics. We did not have software--we had to do the painstaking coding and categorizing and pattern seeking and understanding from the standpoint of the population and their lived experience all by hand and human critical thinking. And that is how I still do it. I think of the police officer I worked with back in Texas who once opined that yes, there were computers that could generate profiles and tell you about the likelihood of what your "perp" was going to do next, etc., but that he did not think there was a substitute for reading it, looking at your clues, thinking like the "perp" might be thinking, and trying to put your human self into solving the problem. Remember the movie Three Days of the Condor
when Robert Redford is an analyst (using computers) that analyzes books to locate code for the CIA (or whomever it was) and he goes out for coffee and comes back to the office to find all of his colleagues dead? The story then revolves around trying to figure out (as a human) what had been uncovered in the computer analysis that made someone think they were on to the plans to do whatever foul and evil deed it was that was a big enough threat to kill an office full of computer analysts.
Yes, that is probably a bit overdramatic, but then, there was that whole actress gig in my early life, which is also probably interwoven throughout my blog posts along with the serious essays and stories about Rio and my family, and of course, that the Lottabusha County Chronicles was born because of the experiences of moving to Mississippi and at mid-life, having my ideas upended in unbelievable ways due to those experiences.
I am probably way over-estimating the importance of either the research project or my tiny little spot in it. So, on that "experience" I have to go to my day job--researching evidence-based assessment. Ironic, isn't it?