Social Media in Social Research: Blogs on Blurring the Boundaries

Thank you, thank you, 23 Things – without you, I would never have discovered the value of Twitter as an academic tool and resource and would never have discovered #NSMNSS – New Social Media, New Social Science and the NatCen publication Social Media in Social Research. As it is, my mind is full of the rich possibilities of not just using social media to represent my own writing or reading the work of others – but to employ it far more explicitly as a tool for research.

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The e-book is a collection of blogs written for #NSMNSS and replicated or reframed for this SAGE publication. It contains reflections, advice and academic writing on the practicalities, principles and ethical challenges of social media in social research. Overall, the message is clear: further research is essential as the world of the academy catches up with the world made smaller, more accessible and (frighteningly?) public through platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

Some of the texts explore the possibilities, largely yet untapped, of the vast, messy data source that social media represents: Francesco D’Orazio comments on the implications that ‘social data is not quantitative data, rather qualitative data on a quantitative scale’. This is idea is picked up by Jessica Owens as she reflects on the needs for rigour in social media research – including the need to ‘qualify your quant’… quantify your qual insights’.

The work of Phillip Brooker and the Chorus Analytics project picks up the need to re-evaluate these terms of quant /qual. One of the most exciting things to have discovered through the book is this free analytic resource which has suddenly made the possibilities of using data gathered from Twitter a genuine consideration for my research planning.

As someone involved in planning research in the spirit of ethnography, I was interested in the articles dealing with the need to find a suitable language for ethnographic research in the worlds of social media. Randall Clemens writes eloquently of the tensions in ethnographic principles of place, time and cultural group in moments where participants are ‘both here and somewhere else’ when they use social media. Equally, temporal boundaries are blurred in ‘asynchronous communication’ where responses may be in real time or ‘seconds, minutes, hours old’ and more. The cultural groups represented in ‘Neighborhood Ethnography 2.0’ are also fluid and emergent as cultural content is constantly being viewed, uploaded, edited and shared.

Perhaps one of the key contributions this collection makes is further debate on the complexities of applying rigorous ethics in social media research, especially following the outcry about methods and practice in the Facebook ‘Emotional Contagion’ project. Lisa Sugiura writes on the challenges of virtual ethnography whilst Amy Aisha Brown provides an account of her practical approach to managing ethical problems. Of particular value are the reflections of ethical considerations by Kelsey Beninger and the recent NatCen report on using the views of social media users.

Right, I’m off to think about the ideas presented by Deborah Lupton on using Pinterest as a tool for gathering visual and reflective data with participants…

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