the road to Academia

Taught to question

Svenska 2015-09-17

Curiosity has always driven her. Not to mention pure joy and passion. As a child she wanted to know how both people and sewing machines work. As a researcher, Annakarin Nyberg investigates our behaviour on social media.

At first she wanted to become a secretary, because they wrote on typewriters and looked quite important, but her primary school teacher discovered that she was also good at expressing herself.

“I bet you’ll grow up to be a fine writer,” said Mrs Backgård in her Finland-Swedish lilt. Her parents spurred on her eagerness to read by paying for every book review she wrote.

To get her two kronor and fifty öre, she had to answer questions about the author’s intentions, what values she thought the book held or what it could offer other readers. A lot of work for little money, she already felt at the age of seven.

Today, Annakarin Nyberg is a senior lecturer (associate professor) at the Department of Informatics, Umeå University. She writes a great deal as part of her profession as a researcher. And yes, she also became an author.

Open-mindedness in family discussions

Annakarin Nyberg grew up in Vännäsby, a stone’s throw outside of Umeå. She played football, was in the scouts and never sat still.

Her mother was a school teacher in the subjects of history, social sciences and religion. Family discussions were very open-minded.

“On Saturday mornings, my grandfather arrived at seven. He sat outside the house and waited for us to get up and put on the light. Then he would stamp his boots to remove the snow and come in to talk about what he’d read in the papers,” Annakarin Nyberg tells us.

Her parents encouraged her to go her own way. “Just give it a try,” her father would say – even if it sometimes ended in the sewing machine breaking.

“I wanted to know how things worked and why people behave the way they do.”

Began researching and teaching

Annakarin Nyberg began studying information systems in order to find an argument for NOT working with computers – and because a boy told her it was nothing for her. Soon she was performing better than him in the exams.

“I hadn’t grown up with computers and wanted to explore the field. It was a challenge. Why wouldn’t I be able to do it?”

She became a teacher on the first-cycle programme for innovation systems immediately after graduating in 2000 and was enrolled in the third-cycle programme the following year.

“I found that academia is an environment in which you have to be curious and explore what you find exciting – and do it in your own way. There are also demands placed on what you do. I enjoyed going to that kind of workplace.”

Computers in the private sphere

Other third-cycle students investigated how professional life and organisations were transformed by new technology, but Annakarin Nyberg wanted to know what happens when computers enter the private sphere. Who welcomes the technology, and who keeps it at bay?

Her thesis, written in 2008, looks at a number of cases – one of which, a 25 year-old man who felt that the computer was just as essential a part of his home as his bed. One single mother, on the other hand, had chosen not to have the internet in her home at all, as she felt her children were too young.

The next study was about women that blog. The book Digitalt entreprenörskap [Digital Entrepreneurship] shows how bloggers have built up personal brands, despite having neither prototypes nor knowledge of technology or even entrepreneurship.

“The women were good at building relationships with their readers and transforming them into customer relationships. They were also generous to one another and good at collaborating. They didn’t just raise each other’s profiles, but also their own. It was refreshing to see,” Annakarin Nyberg tells us.

Strategies against cyberhate

The interaction between bloggers and their followers made Annakarin Nyberg take an interest in the comments. In collaboration with professor Mikael Wiberg, she studies both online profiles and normal users in order to find out whether or not they had any strategies against unpleasant posts.

The study made use of master suppression techniques, which Berit Ås defined in the late 1970s. Making invisible, withholding information from, ridiculing and heaping blame on/putting to shame other people – often women – are conscious or sub-conscious methods of exercising power.

The researchers found that the master suppression techniques have moved to the web, where the scatter effects are enormous. They also found that bloggers develop counterstrategies.

The simplest approach is perhaps to completely ignore the attacks or to remove any unpleasantness from the comments section. Or to block followers who write offensive posts.

Humour also works well. And kindness!

Potentially major consequences

“Technology is not neutral. When software is updated, our ability to act is affected. Small changes to computer interfaces mean potentially major consequences on freedom of action,” Annakarin Nyberg establishes.

Young and old, friends, neighbours and relatives meet today in different social groupings on Facebook, Instagram and other social media. Many of us find it fun to “tag” the names of people in our images on Facebook or Instagram, and most of us have nothing against being published in this way by relatives, friends and colleagues.

But it is also possible to put up an image completely anonymously of an ugly old man, for example, and tag the name of a person we greatly dislike.

“Both IT designers and users have a great deal of responsibility,” says Annakarin Nyberg.

Finding a balance

More and more young people are online for longer and longer periods each day. “I just want to have one more go, mum,” she hears her children saying.

“Technology is attractive and seductive. It is a challenge to find a balance between football, friends and the computer,” Annakarin Nyberg explains.

Her husband Rikard Harr is also a senior lecturer in Informatics, and just like other young families, they have a large number of mobile telephones, computers and tablets in their home. But they have no rules or bans to limit the time the children spend on the computer. ­

“Instead we try to explain why we think they should go out and get some fresh air,” Annakarin Nyberg tells us.

Children’s non-fiction

In order to stimulate children to fix things, grow things and bake, she has written do-it-yourself books together with blogger Clara Lidström.

“With children’s books, we want to show how to explore more senses; that there are other fun things to do without being online,” Annakarin Nyberg explains.

As an experiment, they marketed the books online. The first edition sold out before it even reached the shops.

Baka – steg för steg [Baking – step by step] became online bookstore Adlibris’ bestselling cook book in all categories in 2014. The next book is about Christmas treats and is due in the autumn.

Qualified teacher
Earlier this year, Annakarin Nyberg became a qualified teacher via a new career system at Umeå University. She is of course very pleased. As a deputy head of department, she is especially proud that her department has the highest number of teachers who are qualified and who have achieved excellence.

“It’s very positive that the university has decided that pedagogy is important. It should be meritorious to engage with the students and be involved in their learning processes,” says Annakarin Nyberg.

As for how she teaches, researches, writes, lives?

“I’m driven by joy and passion. I do what I find exciting and fun.”

Text: Carin Mannberg-Zackari
Photo: Emil Nyström