Podcast Season 4 Episode 2: Multimodal Research and Gen Z Online Identities

In this episode of the Media and Social Change Podcast, MASCLab members Xiaoyi Gabby Zhou, Joe Riina-Ferrie, and Lívia Barros Cruz chat with Catherine Cheng Stahl, a Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Curriculum and Teaching of Columbia University, Teachers College. She discusses how she used multimodal research methods to explore how Gen Z youth navigate their identities on digital spaces. This episode was produced and edited by Xiaoyi Gabby Zhou.

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Catherine Cheng Stahl  0:00  

The ways that they are navigating this interplay between so called online offline, physical virtual space, how they’re navigating this blurring of boundaries, especially as teenagers, young adults who are also struggling that childhood adulthood line.

(Opening music fades in)

MASCLab  0:38  

MASCLab is the hub for multimodal and digital scholarship that explores the relationship between media and our changing society.

We support, curate and create media intended to spark dialogue and social change, and the development of pedagogy that uses media to foster civic engagement.

MASCLab is located in the communication media and learning technology design program at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Gabby Zhou Narration 1:11  

Catherine Chang Stahl is a scholar at Columbia University Teachers College, she conducted a pilot study to find out research questions relevant to digital space and Generation Z’s identity. In her pilot study, she used a variety of online multimodal tools and methods. We had a conversation with Catherine, you heard that opening up the episode, to learn about her journey of multimodal research methods and initial findings in her pilot study. 

Joe Riina-Ferrie 1:39

Hi, everyone. We’re here today to have a conversation with Catherine Cheng Stahl about her pilot study, highlighting multimodal scholarship with youth using digital platforms. I’m Joe, and I’m here with my co-hosts, Lívia, 

Lívia Barros Cruz 2:01


Joe Riina-Ferrie 2:03

and Gabby. 

Gabby Zhou 2:03

Hello, everyone. 

Joe Riina-Ferrie 2:05

So thanks so much for being here. Catherine, we’re excited to talk to you about your work. 

Catherine Cheng Stahl 2:11

Thanks for just giving me this time to also share a little bit, it’s really great to be with all of you again. 

As of now, very broadly, I’m really interested in the ways that Generation Z youth who are born in 1997 and beyond, so they’re 23 years old and younger right now, how they construct and navigate their identities with the tools available to them through the internet through various digital platforms. I’m really interested in how they navigate this interplay of so called online and offline spaces and the ways that they make sense of their positionings of self in this very interconnected world. 

I was a high school teacher prior to doing research here at Teachers College. And so while I’m really comfortable with adolescent age youth, I think it’s different when you’re doing research. And so I wanted to have a feel for what it’s like to do research and how to play with different available digital tools and perhaps repurpose them for research. I use a variety of multimodal tools as a way for young people to communicate in different ways that do not privilege speech. I wanted my participants to feel very comfortable or as comfortable as they can, communicating and making sense of their identity navigation. 

Gabby Zhou 3:40

So I identify myself as the earlier generation of Gen Z. So this is such a relevant topic to me. How did you get here? Can you share with us a little bit about your journey of your pilot study? 

Catherine Cheng Stahl 3:58

My journey to the pilot study has been a winding one, but one thing has remained constant. And that has been my eagerness to really amplify the voices of youth. I think as teachers, as educators, as researchers, there’s been a lot of focus on the work of young people in school spaces, but I’m really interested in the things that we don’t typically see. And so that kind of motivated me to explore these almost sub-mainstream or less known spaces where this work lives, this identity work. And so digital space was a term that I had come across from literature to describe all these different spaces that young people can access through their digital devices through the internet. I would say that was my journey towards this pilot study.

Joe Riina-Ferrie 4:38  

We really were inspired to invite you to talk more because you presented at one of our general meetings for the media and social change lab, and you showed some really cool research methods. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the ways that you’ve been collecting and analyzing your data for this study?

Catherine Cheng Stahl 4:57  

I would say that one of the first things I did was recognizing that I’m working with youth and recognizing that I’m interested in their identity explorations in these online spaces, I wanted to utilize the tools that they’re already familiar with. Many of these youth I knew through my previous roles, but some of them I didn’t know. And so I wanted to start by building a relationship. 

I had created an Instagram account, that was my researcher one, and I use that as a way to connect with my participants and to learn about them through Instagram stories. I use Instagram stories as a way to survey my participants, instead of using the traditional Qualtrics form that most researchers use. I was able to pose questions that are open ended or “yes, no” questions, quick ones through Instagram stories, and my participants could respond to that. Their responses would only be available to me for 24 hours. And it was just a fun way for them to contribute without having to feel too serious. So that was one thing that I did. And that was one of my first research activities to get to know them. I learned a lot about the things that they consume as young people, the accounts that they follow, the YouTube channels that they subscribe to. So all that information I was able to use and do a little bit more research on my own to inform the questions I wanted to ask them through an interview. 

Something that I was I also played with to, again, allow for different ways of contributing knowledge was through zoom, I would often use screen share. With that I could pull up certain artifacts or things for us to look at together. So it was sort of like using visual elicitation methods with interview. 

In addition to interviews, I also had something called digital space tours. This language I came up on my own. But it’s not a novel idea. One of my professors at Teachers College, Professor Ioana Literat had introduced me to social media tours that I think she had done in her own research. And so the idea with a social media tour is that you have participants tour around their social media sites. And so when I was doing my study, even though I was interested in social media, I wasn’t trying to limit digital spaces to social media. So I called my tour digital space tours rather. So this was a way for my participants to lead me through spaces that they wanted to show me. So it was still using zoom. In some cases, they just use their phone and tour me through some of the apps that they’re using. So it was just a very easy way for me to see and have them narrate some of their journeys, and for us to have a casual conversation around the places where they spend time and how they interact in these different spaces. In many ways. It was similar to an interview, but the main difference was my participants were the ones guiding and I was just following along and asking questions every now and then. 

But in addition to that, I also use other tools that many of us use in our own teaching, things like Menti polls, to survey participants in other ways. So I had done that for a focus group just as a way for others to participate without having to talk. So with Menti, there’s a Word Cloud Function. So that’s another way of visualizing contributions, but also sharing. So those are some of the things that I lead with. 

Something that I had thought about with my study was to do like a Netflix watch party, I managed to still pull up clips from a Netflix documentary that was very relevant to my study. It’s the documentary called the Social Dilemma. It was all about young people’s behaviors and interactions on different online platforms. And so I was able to play clips of that during a focus group, and then have my participants comment, and add their interpretation. So it was a way for me to learn about them indirectly without having them share their own experiences, but talk about what they saw through the documentary. In some ways, it felt a little bit like a Netflix watch party without using that particular platform. So I got a lot of inspiration from all these activities that I was engaging with, with my colleagues during COVID times to stay connected. And so I thought about how can I use some of these ideas to also implement into my own study. 

In terms of data analysis. One thing that I’ve really enjoyed using is Padlet. Padlet is this online bulletin board space that you can arrange in different fashions. But I’ve been using the canvas option within Padlet to visualize my data and to create these kind of larger concept maps that I can move around. So I use it to collect my research or memos to collect artifacts, pictures, excerpts. And so it’s just a way for me to visualize my data and to move things around, hoping that certain ideas kind of pop up. Padlets typically not used for research purposes, but I found it very helpful. When it comes to working through my data and being closer with my data and moving things around to better see things. Those are some of the things that I’ve been playing with in terms of tools.

Joe Riina-Ferrie 10:59  

Just a few, just a few things. (Laugh)

Catherine Cheng Stahl 11:01

Just a few. That’s right. (Laugh)

Joe Riina-Ferrie 11:02

You’re doing so many cool, different, like multimodal methods over there.

Gabby Zhou Narration 11:06

In our conversation, Catherine shared and showed some data from her pilot study with us.

Catherine Cheng Stahl 11:14

I had his whiteboard space populated with all kinds of words, of platforms of game spaces, things that were mentioned during digital space tours, and also interviews and I had just listed them all out and place on this whiteboard, this digital whiteboard in some random order. And so I wanted my participants to go in and start to assemble little groups in terms of how they thought these different spaces could be organized, drag and drop some other words into different piles. And then afterwards, they explained to me: here we have kind of a video game pile; here we have a pile of spaces that are used for communication; these are all kinds of applications or platforms used for messaging for workspaces, social media, right. So this was just a way for me to learn about how Gen Z youth are making sense of these spaces in terms of what they’re used for. 

I think another is when I did a little bit of sharing of the Social Dilemma documentary. So this is my version of the Netflix watch party. And then I had my participant just comment on what they saw.

(Playing audio from documentary the Social Dilemma) 12:34 

The preteen girls who have very low rates to begin with, they are up 151%. And that pattern points to social media. Gen Z, the kids born after 1996 or so those kids are the first generation in history that got on social media, in middle school.

How they spend their time. They come home from school, and they’re on their devices. A whole generation is more anxious, more fragile, more depressed.

Catherine Cheng Stahl 13:14  

I chose that clip because it was framed as these adults, these experts, so called experts talking about Gen Z youth and how spend their time on social media makes them more anxious. This is just kind of these dominant discourses around Gen Z youth and digital spaces, or at least social media spaces. So then I kind of pose a question to my participants, all of whom are Gen Z youth, like, what did you think about how you’re being talked about? Do you agree with some of the things that were shared in this documentary? Do you have counter narratives to challenge some of these more dominant ways of thinking about Gen Z youth? So I’ll just play a short clip of one participant making sense of what she had heard.

Gabby Zhou Narration  14:07 

To protect identities of the minors, the following audio recordings has been voiced by producer.

(Playing audio recordings of research participants) 14:13

They presented basically every single possible bad thing they could have said about social media. And they didn’t consider any of the good things that could come out of social media, like being able to connect with people around the world, having it as like an easier way to learn new things. And my experience on social media, I honestly, I really have not come across anyone that’s extremely negative towards anyone. And maybe it’s just the platforms that I’m on. But I’ve never seen anyone say really mean things. And even if they do, usually, the people that I’m on with, usually they all started attacking that one person. It’s usually like, a community effort to just support each other. And that’s one thing they did completely leave out on there talking. Basically, you being an individual and having everyone looking at you, but it’s not just that, it’s you being a part of a community. And instead of you being the individual, you are part of a bigger community as well. And that’s something that did not at all highlight. 

I completely agree and I know that it’s nothing to joke about with suicide and self-harm, but the way that it was presented was very dramatic. In my perspective, I don’t think a lot of people react the way. And I totally understand that idea that a lot of people are motivated by likes and attention, even if it’s 200 people from their high school. But I don’t think that like what was previously said, I think a lot of it is very positive. And it’s not just that dramatic the way that it is experienced.

Gabby Zhou 15:54  

Thank you, Catherine, for your effort of bringing in the perspective from the younger generation, especially as your method shows that experts’ opinion from the video you show the students is not necessarily in accordance with what Generation Z was actually thinking of social media. 

This is such a unique way to showcase diverse voices. Multimodal scholarship has always been one of the main focus of Media and Social Change Lab. Through multiple literacy, we are trying to expand methods of teaching, learning and research through the creation of a variety of out of box projects. While we have many scholars and students interested, what would you say to those who are considering multimodal method?

Catherine Cheng Stahl 16:22  

I would say multimodality in my own research has been really generative for me and also for my participants. Gabby, what you said earlier about kind of multiple voices, I think that was really central to my study. And by multiple voices, I don’t only mean audio, right, or spoken words, but also voices through what my participants produce in terms of their social media content, blogging, their own podcasting, the ways that they make meaning through game spaces. So there might not always be a voicing of what they’re doing. Their identity exploration is not always narrated through what they say. But thinking about literacy or thinking about meaning making in ways outside of speech, I was able to get a lot more from my participants and to create openings for other ways of knowledge constructions. So in that way, I think, multimodal scholarship, I find to be very fruitful, and something that I will continue to play with. And I think to others who are considering it, play on, I think this is the time to really innovate and to experiment with things that you might not have done. But I think these are special times. And that calls for special ways of trying new things. 

Lívia Barros Cruz 18:09 

Hearing you, it sounds like you had a very positive experience with everything that you’ve been doing through your pilot.

Joe Riina-Ferrie 18:18

Very cool. I know it’s early, you’re in the midst of analysis now, which is really cool. Because normally we don’t talk to people, we don’t hear any output until it’s like, you know, a year after the data was collected, and oftentimes a lot longer than that, right? Are there any initial, you could call them findings, or maybe initial hints or learnings that you found interesting from your study so far?

Catherine Cheng Stahl 18:36

For sure. I think one thing that I am thinking a lot about as a theme is this idea of visibility. And this has come up in a couple of instances. And along with visibility, this idea of invisibility as well. So some of my participants really enjoy the anonymity of being in different digital spaces. So whether it’s a gaming space, or making up a name to create a Twitter account, right, there’s just the sense of freedom and eagerness to play an experiment when your real identity or your name is not attached to it. I think some of my participants feel more liberated to try out identities when they don’t have to have their names be attached. So there’s kind of that dimension. 

And on the other side, visibility came up in a couple of ways. One of my participants is playing with the idea of being an influencer, which I find really fascinating because influencers didn’t really exist when I was growing up, but now it becomes like a professional job. And so one of my participants is into theater and has all these interests. And from a very young age, they were told about the importance of branding, showcasing yourself especially in American theater, and this happens to be a participant who identifies as being part of the LGBTQ Community and being Asian American as well. And so this particular participant was just really eager to share the ways that they are navigating their multiple marginalized identities and trying to carve out a space to be visible to amplify their voice and the voice of others in their community. And so they see the visible potentials of these different social media sites and other digital platforms to do that work. 

I’ve been really interested in how one can be their true identity and show that while also have the mentality of branding. And so I think there’s just like a lot to navigate in terms of your personal life and your professional life, especially when those are blurred with being an influencer. And just this desire to be more visible and to represent your community, but at the same time protecting your family members and protecting the confidentiality of their identities and stories there. So I think there’s just a lot that young people are navigating, and they’re doing this in the open, more or less. And so that’s been something that I’ve been thinking a lot about is just the ways that these digital spaces really are very much an extension of their everyday physical space. They grew up with having access to all these spaces through their devices, and the challenges and affordances of playing out their identities there. 

I learn about research done on young people through the works of wonderful scholars. But I think it’s also necessary that I hear from themselves, from young people themselves. I’m finding myself really interested in working with Asian American Gen Z youth, just because many of my participants identify that way. And I think as someone who also identifies Asian American, I really wanted to yet another way to connect with my participants. How they’re navigating multiple boundary crossings, border crossings of sorts, and having that work be done, also at the interface of private and public. I think that’s how I’m understanding is just like lots of these between spaces that are often talked about as binaries or dichotomies, but I kind of want to go beyond that. And because they’re not talking about them in terms of this or that, it’s all together, both, and.

Joe Riina-Ferrie 22:52  

Thank you so much for sharing your work with us, Catherine. And best of luck as you develop it toward your dissertation. And I think I speak for all of us that we can’t wait to hear what you look into next and how you go about looking into it. So thank you.

All 23:02  

Thank you very much.

Gabby Zhou Narration 23:18  

Thanks for listening to this episode of MASCLab podcast. If you’d like to learn more about multimodal scholarship projects at Columbia TC, you can check out math lab official website at masclab.org/category/multimodal-scholarship.

Gabby Zhou Narration 23:39

If you have any thoughts about the episode or resources you’d like to share, give us a follow and tweet us @masclab. This episode is produced and edited by me Xiaoyi Gabby Zhou, a current graduate student and member of MASCLab Teachers College at Columbia University. Our theme music is Grandma’s Impala by Sarah, The IIIstrumentalist, available on YouTube no copyright music channel. Visit our website masclab.org to listen to our podcast series, read blog post, find out events and follow our research.

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