Lovisa Broms, Malmö University and Flyinge
Susanna Hedenborg, Malmö University
Line Synnøve Larsen, Norwegian School of Sport Sciences
Aage Radmann, Norwegian School of Sport Sciences
In this feature, a new research project, “Stable Cultures in Cyberspace”, funded by The Swedish-Norwegian Foundation for Equine Research,will be outlined. In recent years, questions about horse-keeping and the welfare of horses have been debated in social media. Voices of researchers, elite and leisure riders are heard, and different ideas about horse-keeping meet, clash and are discussed. The purpose of this study is to analyze stable cultures in cyberspace in Sweden and Norway. Horse riders’ communication in social media in relation to horse-keeping will be focused.
Social science studies of the relationship between horses and humans are generally scant and only a few studies on this relationship and the use of social media have been published. In one study, Dashper (2017) analyses the content of blogs by English hobby and elite riders. In addition, and inspired by the auto-ethnographic method, she reflects on how she hunted for and found several sources of information when, in spite of the veterinary’s advice, she googled when her own horse had fallen ill. The study clearly shows that Internet forums are important places for tales about the relationships between horses and humans and important spaces for creating standards for horse-keeping. Dashper underlines that the Internet has become a great resource for horse-enthusiasts where anyone can keep up to date with what is happening in the horse world. Above all, the Internet is possibly extra important for this group, as traditional media does not cover the horse world to any significant extent. At the same time, she points to the problems that incorrect information may entail. On the Internet-based horse forum she investigated entries that may cause horse owners to doubt and, in a worst-case scenario, abstain from veterinary prescriptions.
In another study, Schuurman (2014) shows, by studying Finnish blogs, how relationships between horses and humans are created in stories where community, meaning and joy are combined for both parties. These stories are not necessarily based on scientific knowledge about how horses act and react. Instead they are built on an idea of horses and humans having emotions in common.
Byström et al. (2015) analyses how security aspects are addressed on 32 Swedish social media platforms (mostly blogs) for leisure riders. The study shows that safety aspects is seldom a pronounced subject, and when it is, it is primarily the safety of the horse that is emphasized. Furthermore, the study demonstrated that safety had different meanings for riders depending on riding style, experience and ideal image. In the results, it is emphasized that since the advice can be more or less reliable, it is important that inexperienced riders do not blindly rely on this advice. Furthermore, it is underlined that social media is both a major risk factor and a potentially valuable tool in the horse world’s pursuit of security. Byström et al. also believes that a conscious effort is needed to re-emphasize safety in the riding culture.
In an ongoing study of young riders’ thoughts about and usage of social media in their daily life around the horse, Broms demonstrates that the perfect picture of a life around horses that is often communicated in social media, for instance by professional riders, affects young riders and their self-confidence. They compare themselves to this perfect picture and realize that they are not as perfect themselves. The results also indicate that there is a strong urge among young riders to be able to relate to the content produced in social media (Broms, 2018).
As opposed to previous studies, the present project will combine the study of social media habits with analyses of social media content and interviews with riders of different age groups. The aim is to gain insights into riders’ motivations and explanations for theirmedia habits and how different kinds of information in social media is granted value in different groups. In addition, and also unlike previous studies, stable cultures in cyberspace will be studied in two different national contexts (Norway and Sweden) to identify whether there is a stable culture or several stable cultures in cyberspace. It is important to recognize the possibility that different groups and contexts affect what is perceived as valuable knowledge about caring of horses, in order to mediate between research and practice.
Purpose and research questions
- Which Internet sites are used by riders in Sweden and Norway?
- What kind of information about horse-keeping and the welfare of horses is found on these Internet sites in Sweden and Norway?
- How can this information be understood in relation to scientific knowledge and proven experience on horskeeping and the welfare of horses?
- What information is given value?
- Are there differences, and in that case which differences can be found, in the usage of social media and the giving of value related to age, gender and riding experience?
- In which way is the information influenced by different actors (scientific researchers, insurance companies, traders of market goods in the horse sector)?
- How can the information on horse-keeping and welfare of horses be understood in relation to research in social media?
- How can the information on horse-keeping and welfare of horses be interpreted in relation to previous research on stable cultures?
Theoretical and methodological framework
In this study, the concept “stable culture” will be used to analyze norms of horse-keeping and the welfare of horses. Previous studies have highlighted military norms as central to the European stable culture (Moore-Colyer & Simpson 2004; Hedenborg 2009; Thorell & Hedenborg 2015). While the horse’s behavior to some extent delineates our attitude towards it, not all stable cultures are governed by military norms and some stable cultures previously permeated by such norms have subsequently changed (Fox 2002; Case 1991; Moore-Colyer & Simpson 2004). Later studies have demonstrated that the military norms in the Swedish stable culture are somewhat questioned, and in present horse riding teachers/instructors discourse on their work, “economy” and “safety” have become important norms (Thorell & Hedenborg 2015). In addition, gender constructions have been crucial in the understanding of norms in stable cultures. Research has demonstrated that stable culture has been feminized in some countries. The socially constructed femininity present in horse stables is, however, complex and include norms related to strength, toughness and heavy work – norms that in other contexts are connected to masculinity (Hedenborg 2008, 2009; Greiff & Hedenborg 2007; Forsberg 2007; Plymoth 2012; Dashper 2012). In this study, stable cultures presented on the Internet and by riders about horse-keeping and the welfare of horses will be analyzed.
A broad definition focusing on communication and user-driven aspects, where users create, initiate, disperse information for the purpose of collaborative teaching and learning about products, brands, services, persons and issues, is used in this project (cf. Eek-Karlsson, 2015; Kavanagh et al., 2016; Mangold & Faulds, 2009). In the title and the purpose of the study the concept “cyberspace” is used. This may be seen as an old-fashioned term and has to be problematized. Media researcher Martin Berg argues that historically there has been a division between “virtual reality” and “real life” in studies connected to the Internet, and the term cyberspace has since long come to imply the use of the Internet as an escape from reality. Despite this, cyberspace is used here as a concept to underline that focus will be on thoughts, ideas, scientific research and proven experience presented in social media. Yet, and following Berg and others, the emphasis in this study is on the importance of understanding the Internet as a place that is integrated in human interaction (Berg, 2015). Social interaction on the Internet can not only be seen as isolated phenomena, as people move between social spaces both online and offline and that these spaces are interconnected and interdependent in peoples’ everyday lives (cf. Eek-Karlsson, 2015).
Social media has changed communication dramatically and today anyone can share anything any time. News, rumors, ideas, opinions are spread through Internet and in social media are interpersonal, intercultural and embedded in everyone’s lives. Bruce (2016) states that “the ability to access, create and exchange ideas and cultural artefacts outside the gatekeeping function of traditional media has exploded in the wake of Web 2.0 technologies that enable relatively cheap and easy sharing” (p. 368). In addition, social media can be seen as a stage for empowerment and democratization. According to Bruce young women today understand and use the power of social media; they tell and create their own stories, “creating Internet-based sites and media that tell stories traditional media have ignored”, and she concludes that this shift in media production can highlight female agency (p. 369). Research has, however, challenged this positive image and demonstrated that social media is also a stage for performance of power and gender struggles (Radmann & Hedenborg, 2018).
The importance of studying social media to understand human interactions is a starting point for this study. According to Berg (2015), it is increasingly difficult to understand social events, interactions, social processes, or anything that in one way or another relates to human life, without taking the Internet into account. Alan Bryman (2016) discuss four different types of online community studies. (1) Studies of online communities only, with no participation. According to him this kind of study is characterized by an analysis without the authors of the material being aware of the researchers’ presence. (2) Studies of online communities only, with some participation. In these, the researchers intervene in ongoing Internet discussions. (3) Studies of online communities plus online or offline interviews. In these studies, the researcher investigates the online interactions in combination with doing interviews with people who are involved in these interactions. (4) Studies of online communities plus offline research methods. The fourth type can be seen as a combination of the second and third type, and in this type of studies the researcher takes part in the online as well as offline worlds of the people studied. In this project, Bryman’s fourth type of online community study is used.
Three different methods will be used, a survey, focus group interviews and netnography.
A survey that reaches riders in Sweden and Norway will be used to map out the use of social media related to gender, age and horse and riding experience with focus on horse-keeping and the welfare of horses. The participants will be reached through the equestrian federations online sites and through horse riding clubs/centres in the two countries.
Focus group interviews
Twelve focus group interviews in Sweden and Norway will be done. Participants in the focus groups are riders at riding schools and riders owning their own horse. The questions posed in the focus group interviews will examine how people seek information about horse-keeping and the welfare of horses; what information about horse-keeping and the welfare of horses they are searching for online; and how information is granted value.
In each focus group 4–6 people will be included. Younger (16–25 years old) and older riders (from 40 years old) will be interviewed in different groups. One reason for interviewing people from different age groups is that previous studies have shown that there are differences in the usage of social media depending on time, age and gender. In the period 2010 to 2016 there was a significant increase in daily use of social media, from 28 percent to 58 percent of the population. The users estimate that they spend about one hour every day for social media communication – this is an increase of 50 percent in the last three years. Women use social media more often than men and women in the age group 16–25 years use social media the most. A majority use social media through their mobile phones. 76 percent of the 15-year-old girls use their mobile phones more than three hours per day(Davidsson 2016; Statens medieråd 2017). In addition, among young people, TV-consumption has decreased whereas the consumption of YouTube and videoblogs has increased (Statens medieråd 2017). Facebook is the most widely used social media. Yet, in the age group 9–16 years of age, Instagram has become more important than Facebook (Statens mediaråd, 2015; Eek-Karlsson, 2015, Davidsson 2016). In the age group 12–15 years Snapchat and Instagram are the most popular social networks.
Netnography is a kind of ethnography on the Internet (cf. Berg 2015). The netnographic method relies mainly on observation, often supported by online interviews. In this study, we will combine the online and offline communities – Internet sites and blogs and the actual life in the stables. For example, the researcher can start using the search engine Google and search for “the horse’s head-neck position”. In October 2017, such a search resulted in 9,930,000 hits, including images, YouTube clips, Wikipedia and various blog posts. A study of some of these more closely, as well as comments to videos and blog posts, allow the researcher to chart perceptions and actions that are present in social media. Thereafter, online interviews will be conducted with the commenters on different sites.
The benefits of the project for the sector and impact on the welfare of horses
Interest in horses and equestrian sports is growing in Sweden and Norway. Whether research and proven experience about horse-keeping and the welfare of horses is spread to all those that come into contact with horses today can be questioned. It is also reasonable to believe that traditional sources of knowledge, such as the practical learning in the stable environment (cf. Greiff & Hedenborg 2007; Hedenborg 2007, 2008), educational materials such as Arméns ridläraand Lilla Ridboken(Hedenborg 2009) and institutional education are challenged by information that can be quickly obtained through the new digital technologies.
In recent years, the influence of social media on the dissemination and quality of knowledge has become increasingly evident. An example related to the well-being of humans concerns unscientific claims that vaccination of children causes autism. These claims are widely spread on the Internet and have had a negative impact on vaccination rates. Another example is how misleading information about the effects of fluoridation is spread more than evidence-based research on the positive effects of fluoridation on caries. In a study by Hine (2014), the use of scientific knowledge in discussions of head lice in an online parenting community is analyzed. She found that scientific knowledge was often introduced in the discussions, but it was not privileged over personal experience and was sometimes given less credibility. In this project, special attention will be given to which information is given the highest value and why this information is granted value by participants in different age groups, gender and riding experience.
For the various horse riding stakeholders (e.g. insurance companies, veterinarians, riding schools) it is essential to understand what knowledge is attained by riders and horse owners on the Internet, in order to adjust and disperse correct information about horse-keeping and welfare of horses. It is of utmost prominence to the welfare of horses that information rests on research and proven experience, and not different opinions. The importance can be seen in FEI’s prioritized targets on welfare of horses and the “Code of conduct for the Welfare of the horse” (Welfare, FEI 2017); Code of conduct, FEI 2017). A goal of this study is to develop communication tools about horse-keeping and the welfare of horses together with the Equestrian Federations in Norway and Sweden.
The project was presented at the Horse-human relationship Conference in Leeds (18 -21 June 2018) and an online survey has been published in Sweden and Norway; so far, 1,250 respondents in Sweden and 380 in Norway have answered the survey.
Link to the online survey:
- Swedish survey: https://sv.surveymonkey.com/r/BPKWKPX
- Norwegian survey:https://no.surveymonkey.com/r/NSQNHSC
Follow the project in social media: https://www.facebook.com/stallkulturericyberrymden/
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Copyright © Lovisa Broms, Susanna Hedenborg,
Line Synnøve Larsen & Aage Radmann 2018