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Focus On: Kathleen Scheaffer

January 30, 2014

Highlighting research by members of the Canadian library and information management community.

Librarian, Outreach and Instructional Services Coordinator,
Faculty of Information, University of Toronto

Photo of Kathleen Scheaffer

What is your research topic?

My most recent project explored how Facebook is used for mourning and grieving by examining how the platform’s terms of use and features both shape and constrain our online bereavement practices and the deceased’s digital self-curation. However, broadly defined, my research curiosities are sparked by the ways humans connect to information, ideas, and each other through physical and digital environments. By studying concrete and emergent polices, terms, and guidelines that inform the practices of those in online and physical spaces, I believe we can begin to make sense of various cultures and communities and the ways in which we navigate or, in some cases, avoid them.

What interested you in that topic?

In 2010 and 2011 I lost a couple friends and family members that are quite dear to me. These loved ones were also Facebook users. Immediately after their passing, I observed bereaved Facebook users that the deceased had established connections with prior to passing had began posting comments on the deceased’s wall, updating their own status about the death, changing their profile to a picture of the deceased or one of themselves and the deceased. These Facebook friends were not alone, as I too found myself engaging in these mourning activities. There was a bubbling up of emotion that began to materialize that was captured through the content that was being created and shared on Facebook. It wasn’t until I witnessed erroneous information being posted about the deceased’s living activities and engagement that I became interested in Facebook’s policies, the notion of digital self-curation, and questioned if the sharing of our subjective memories alter a personal online reputation of intention. When I spoke to Rhonda McEwen, with whom I co-investigated my last research project, about my observations, she relayed that she too had loved ones pass that were on Facebook, had witnessed similar Facebook mourning practices, and that the questions I had relating to the social, cultural, and legal implications of these practices had also gained her attention; thus, a research project was formed.

What impact would you like to see your research have on LIS practitioners?

The majority of our survey and interview respondents indicated that they were not aware that on Facebook their digital estate decisions after their passing are left in the hands of friends and family. These findings positioned a bright light on an apparent gap in users’ knowledge of how terms of use and policies affect their digital estate and digital footprints. I believe that as information and heritage professionals, we should turn our information and cultural literacy attentions and efforts towards educating our communities about the importance online literacy. More specifically, we should concentrate our instruction on deepening our communities understanding terms of use on digital informational and social platforms to ensure users understand the ins and outs of how their online account subscriptions and content creation on those platforms are being used and archived by the platform and 3rd parties. By educating the masses on who owns and uses the content they have created and shared and how that content is handled after their passing, my hope is that as a collective, users and media will reach out to digital social and informational companies to place pressure on them to make certain their terms of use are rooted in integrity.

What emerging topics do you foresee in the future of LIS research?

Perhaps from an invested bias, I believe digital estate and digital footprints will gain even more traction. My Grandmother always told my mother, and she passed it on to me, “Never put something in writing you don’t want someone else to see.” Unfortunately, in the digital era, many believe that when you write a text or an email and delete later that they have completed “erased” the content from the Internet. However, others that were recipients of that content may have archived their content and many of the popular platforms where the content was created have a repository where that content has also been indexed. So, that message you wrote to your boss or ex and saved, never sent, and then deleted, may not show up on your account, but your email hosting service, likely still has a record of it on their servers. So my message is, “Do not digitally or physically compose text that you do not want anyone else to see or retrieve later. The same thing applies to other media (photos, voice recordings, and videos).”

I also believe that as the availability and creation of solely electronic information increases and the creation and preservation print decreases, digital curation and surveillance will become the core focus of LIS practitioners and researchers. The lack of standardization of digital formats and preservation techniques will prove to be a challenge for creating access to content where the tracking of that access does not exist.

What advice would you give to LIS students or practitioners hoping to engage in research?

Those who are embarking on research should choose a project/research topic he or she is invested in and willing to commit to for an indefinable amount of time, as there are several variables between research conception to research publications. Additionally, at all stages of the research process, it is important to enhance the flavour of your work by consulting your colleagues and mentors through conferences and informal meetings. Those consultations are the salt and pepper of your work and will yield a more flavourful project – and really, who doesn’t like salt and pepper?

Select Bibliography

McEwen, R. and Scheaffer, K. (2013). Virtual Mourning and Memory Construction on Facebook: Here are the Terms of Use. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society doi: 10.1177/0270467613516753

McEwen, R., & Scheaffer, K. (2012). Orality in the library: How mobile phones challenge our understandings of collaboration in hybridized information centers. Library and Information Science Research, 34(2), 92-98. doi:10.1016/j.lisr.2011.08.001

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