Monday, 17 December 2012

SRA Conference on Social Research in the Digital Age

The Annual SRA Conference on Social Research in the Digital Age was held at the British Library on Monday 10th of December 2012. Katie has written a really good summary of the event which you can find here: . This is the home for our NSMNSS group on the Methodspace forum so do take the opportunity to have a browse and add your thoughts.

You can also see the twitter stream of the conference events here:

We're winding down for the holidays now but we'd like to take a moment to thank everybody who's helped make the network such a success. Whether you've come along to an event, joined in a twitter chat or added a comment to the forum you've helped us to create a new collaborative space for sharing our experiences and reflecting on how social media are affecting social research today. We've got lots more activities coming up in 2013, so we'll look forward to seeing and hearing from you all then. Have a great break!

Kandy, Gareth, Grant and Katie

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Twitter chat transcript - qualitative methods

The latest transcript from our series of twitterchats, this time on qualitative research and new social media. If you couldn't make it, or if you did, but missed out on a link or snippet, the transcript is available after the jump. 

Thanks to everyone who joined - and apologies for the lateness in posting! 

Friday, 23 November 2012

Knowledge Exchange Seminar 3: Programme

Arrival and lunch
Session 1

Opportunities and challenges of ‘Deep Data’
■   Janet Salmons
Session 2

Netnography: understanding behaviour and networks
■   Gachoucha Kretz
Session 3

The changing role of the qualitative researcher online
■   Kandy Woodfield & Dr Sarah Quinnell
Session 4

Key messages for qualitative methods in relation to:
■  Opportunities and challenges of ‘deep data’
■  Methodological challenges of netnography
■  Developing appropriate relationships and engagement with participants

■   Led by NSMNSS: break out groups to consider one each of the three sessions, plus where there are skills gaps, or further development projects needed.
Close and next steps

Our next KE Seminar

We are delighted to announce that the third Knowledge Exchange Seminar of the New Social Media, New Social Science (NSMNSS) network will now take place in January 2013.

The 'Qualitative Research and Social Media' seminar will bring together specialist speakers to discuss a range of topics, including opportunities and challenges of 'Deep Data', understanding behaviours and networks through the lens of netnography, and the changing role of the qualitative researcher online. Please find attached a detailed programme.

When? Monday, 28th January. Arrival and lunch from 12:30, sessions from 13:00-16:30.
Where? Etc. Venues, The Hatton, 51-53 Hatton Garden, London, EC1N 8HN
For a map to the venue, please visit The Hatton.

R.S.V.P. Please contact Claire Ashby at NatCen Learning, to  confirm your attendance by Friday, 14 December. Please include in  your email whether you require any special considerations to attend the event.

First-come, first-served. We have very limited spaces for this event so places will be allocated on a first-come first-served basis, preference will be given to participants willing to contribute a case study or example from their own experience to one of the sessions, and provide their thoughts in a blog piece or through a short video which can be shared with the wider network.

We’ll ask contributors to share their experiences at the event by providing a descriptive case study - a short 2-3 minute description of your experience using qualitative methods in social media research. Please identify which of the suggested themes in the programme you think your example would fit under and we will ask you to share this during the relevant session.

Visit Methodspace ( or the
NSMNSS  Blog ( to read the latest discussions on social media in the social  sciences, and to view past videos capturing case studies for inspiration on preparing your own descriptive case study.

We look forward to seeing you on January 28th!

If you can’t join us at the event then we will be holding a webinar looking at the same range of issues on February 5th at 16:00 GMT/UTC, 17:00 CET, please reply with this message: ‘I would like to reserve a seat at the webinar on 5/02/13’ and we will send you details of your login for that session in the New Year.

Best wishes,
the NSMNSS network team

Friday, 16 November 2012

Deep Data: Digging into Social Media with Qualitative Methods

The ever-growing use of social media -- and the resultant Big Data-- excites quantitative researchers.  The potential to use social media to collect rich data that can generate new insights excites qualitative researchers.  Quantitative methods allow researchers to reveal and follow patterns of posts and responses by users of social media sites. But at some point we need to ask “why?” in order to discern users’ motivation, understand the significance of behaviours and learn how the experience is significant to their personal or professional lives.  Qualitative researchers have the ability to do so. Qualitative research approaches allow us to dig below the surface to explore how, why or what, and to explore relationships and connections not readily evident in Big Data—which is why I’ve taken to describing it as Deep Data.
While quantitative researchers typically collect data or track movements posted at a previous time, qualitative researchers can use asynchronous, synchronous and near-synchronous approaches. Social media sites allow researchers to develop new interpretations of classic qualitative data collection approaches: observations, interview and document analysis. (For more on social media communications and qualitative data collection, see my video blog here.)
We have a lot of options when it comes to the type of study to be conducted with qualitative research on, about or with social media. We can look at the online behavior as the research phenomenon itself, or we may look at the online behavior in relation to other thoughts, experiences or attitudes related to life on- or offline.
For example, as researchers we may be interested in how cancer survivors cope, and decide to conduct interviews with a text or video chat function in a social media platform because it allows us to select a more geographically dispersed sample.  Or, we may be interested in how cancer survivors use social media to build networks that help them cope. In this case, to understand participants’ choices, communications and patterns of usage on that platform, we may use observations of community events, such as a webinar with a guest speaker, analysis of posts, and/or interviews with community members to collect data. In the first example the social media platform is a means for communication that allows us to understand a research phenomenon. In the second example, the social media platform itself is part of the phenomenon being investigated. This fundamental choice about the research purpose and researcher’s motivation for using social media influences the entire research design, sampling and mode of data collection: what data to collect from whom, how, using what synchronous or asynchronous communications (Salmons, 2012). 
Clearly, varied combinations of social media tools and qualitative methods offer a wide range of options for social science researchers. There are many opportunities in the yet unexplored ways to think about qualitative research and social media—as well, there are many unanswered questions and challenges. A few intriguing areas for consideration are:
  • Ethical dilemmas. Qualitative researchers will always need informed consent for interviews and direct exchanges with research participants. But the situation is fuzzier when the researcher is conducting observations or drawing content from posted materials in online settings where it may be hard to distinguish public from private. 
  • Diverse data types. Communication in social media settings may involve a mix of visual, verbal and text-based exchanges. Qualitative researchers need to decide which types to use, and how to analyze them. As well, they need to consider intellectual property rights of images, or pictures that include other people who have not given permission for their use by the researcher.
  • Non-neutral platforms:  Most social media sites are commercially owned. They are designed to generate revenue, not simply for a social good. Features are designed to encourage users to navigate and participate in certain ways. This means participants—unless they program their own online sites or interactive spaces—are not functioning online independent of  technical and other constraints.
What opportunities and obstacles do you see for qualitative researchers in the digital age? Please join NSMNSS in Methodspace, Twitter chats, virtual seminars and a coming Knowledge Exchange Seminar to share ideas and strategies.
 Janet Salmons, PhD

Kozinets, Robert V. (2010). Netnography: Doing ethnographic research online. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Lindgren, Simon. (2012). Introducing Connected Concept Analysis: Confronting the challenge of large online texts through a qualitative approach to quantity. Paper presented at the IPP2012: Big Data, Big Challenges, University of Oxford.
Salmons, Janet E. (Ed.). (2012). Cases in online interview research. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. (For more on the E-Interview Research Framework, see here)

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Network news for November

Sadly we have had to postpone our 20th November knowledge exchange session due to be held in London because of low uptake.  We are re-scheduling this session for early in the New Year and hope more of you will be able to join us at that session. In the meantime we are keen to keep the conversation going and we will be running another twitter chat on 20th November from 5-6pm GMT where we will be discussing the issues facing qualitative researchers using social media in their research projects.

These are the three key questions we will be discussing next week, do join us and share your experiences:

  • What are the biggest methodological challenges when using qualitative methods in social media research?
  • Are social media affecting the way we go about qualitative research, if so how? 
  • Does qualitative research using online social platforms change the relationships we have as researchers with our participants? In what ways? 

You can read more about how to participate in our twitter chats here. Taking part is really simple, just log onto your Twitter account and follow @NSMNSS for reminders running up to the start of the session. You can follow the discussion by following the hashtag # NSMNSS.

COMING SOON - we'll shortly be letting you know how you can sign up to take part in  virtual seminars online which will pick up the key themes arising from our recent knowledge exchange events which we hope will give our network members from outside of the UK another way to share your views and experiences.

Looking forward to hearing from you all soon

Kandy Woodfield
NatCen Social Research

Friday, 19 October 2012

KES 2 - Data Visualisation

The third session at the Knowledge Exchange Seminar on quantitative methods on the 26th of September was from Scott Hale of the OII. The topic was Data Visualisation and he gave a quick run through of some of some of the pitfalls and problems encountered using visualisation software without really thinking about the story you want to tell with your data. He also showed examples of really helpful visualisations that made it possible for large, complex data to be viewed and understood. One key theme here was that, due to the challenges of representing the temporal dimension of social media data, interactivity was often required. Again, this raised the real issue of skills and expertise needed in the world of social media research and the requirement for working in multidisciplinary teams.

The question was raised about whether the network could provide details about data visualisation platforms and blogs and as there are already some great resources out there, I agree this is worth trying to pull together. I’ve begun compiling a list below and urge members to share theirs too!

Nathan Yau’s blog, Flowing Data (Nathan is also author of the book Visualize This, a practical guide to visualisation )
Andy Kirk’s blog, Visualising Data  (Every month, Andy pulls together a list of the best visualisations on the web)
Moritz Stefaner’s blog, Well-formed Data
David McCandless’s blog, Information is Beautiful
The Award Winning Data Journalism Handbook, which has excellent chapters on data visualisation  

Thursday, 18 October 2012

KES 2 - Populations and sampling

The second session at the Knowledge Exchange Seminar on quantitative methods on the 26th of September was from Grant Blank of the OII. The topic was Populations and Sampling and he asked the questions; What is the “population” on social media platforms? How do platforms differ in population characteristics? How can we select cases or sample on social media?
One of the key issues in terms of sampling online is that it’s difficult to develop a sampling frame; Grant pointed out that a biased sampling frame was unavoidable in much online research. However, despite the potential problems, the advantages of online data collection often outweigh the challenges, not least because it’s cheap and fast. 

Since Twitter data are so easy to collect, much of the discussion following the session was around the challenges in sampling Tweets. How can we get a random representative sample of tweets, especially if we’re interested in looking at more than just a snapshot of time? It seems to me that a potential aim for the network might be to put together some guidelines around sampling from Twitter for new researchers who are looking for guidance. Again, the question was raised about what kinds of questions Twitter data can really help us to answer, if we know that Twitter users are not representative of the whole population and that even getting a random, representative sample of tweets is problematic. Some case studies and examples of research questions where Twitter data has been used to good effect could also be helpful to network members.
Little time was spent discussing sampling from other social media platforms, but an interesting reference was provided for Gjoka et al (2010) which promotes a Random Walk technique to obtain an unbiased sample of social network sites, see:

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

KES 2 - Big Data

On the 26th of September, we met at the OII for the second Knowledge Exchange Seminar for the Blurring the Boundaries network. The topic this time was quantitative methods.

Session 1 kicked off with a presentation from Ralph Schroeder and Eric Meyer from the OII on Big Data and raised the question, is the availability of Big Data changing the kinds of questions social researchers are asking? Is the Big Data tail wagging the research dog?

From the discussions after the presentation and throughout the day, a common theme emerged. And that was that there was still a great deal of uncertainty about what kinds of questions Big Data is useful for. If we want to ensure that we’re doing high quality social science research and not letting the Big Data tail wag the dog, then we need to think carefully about questions first and appropriate methods and data sources (big or small), second. It seems clear that the potential for companies to learn from their data and to predict consumer behaviour and increase sales, for example, is great. However prediction is not the only concern in the social sciences, and the questions we might want to keep in mind are, what do we potentially lose with a shift in attention to Big Data? How is Big Data changing the questions people are asking and the ways in which we do research? There seemed to me a consensus that it’s still relatively early days in terms of Big Data’s role in social science research and at the moment there are some examples of researchers grabbing onto the ‘low hanging fruit’ and that it’s up to social scientists to, over time, show how Big Data can be used in a way that aligns with the goals of social research.

A second common theme of the day was the idea that data fusion is a key issue for the social sciences. It may be that the potential for Big Data to be useful comes not from having lots of the same type of data, but in finding ways to integrate different types of data. What Jim Hendler calls Broad Data, in that it’s about the overlaying of many different types of data sets; structured and unstructured, big and small, public and private, open and closed, person and non-personal, anonymous and identified, aggregate and individual. It’s about finding the structure in all this data and a way to link it all together so that it becomes meaningful. He said the goal is integrating data assets. How do social scientists learn these skills?

In thinking about skills, another common theme emerged around the training of social scientists in the UK in quantitative skills. The ESRC is pushing for better quant methods training at undergraduate level for social scientists, but there is certainly a question as to whether our researchers are equipped with the statistics skills to understand what kinds of questions can be answered with Big Data. There is also the question of whether what we now need are social science researchers who are also computer scientists, rather than traditional statistics skills. Certainly a common theme that emerged from the day was that we absolutely need more multi-disciplinary teams if we’re working with this type of data, involving social scientists and computer scientists. There are issues then around research funding for collaborative research and questions about whether the REF does enough to encourage truly multi-disciplinary working when pressure to publish in discipline specific journals is substantial in many fields.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Twitter chat transcript - quantitative methods

Thanks to everyone who joined us on Twitter to discuss quantitative methods in social media research - it was great to have a range of people involved. If you weren't able to make it, or if you want to take another look at what was said, the transcript is below - scroll to the bottom and work your way back up..

We'll be holding another Twitter chat in October and we'd love to hear your thoughts on what it should cover. Do let us know on Methodspace.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Twitter chat Monday 24th Sept.

We'll be kicking up a twitter storm on Monday 24th 4-5pm BST. We hope you'll be able to join us to discuss the challenges of using quantitative methods for social media research. Some of the questions we'll be discussing include:

  • What is different when we use quant methods for social media research to when we use those methods for non-digital research?
  • What value do data visualisations add to statistical analyses?
  • Is big data changing the way we do research?
  • What challenges does social media research pose for quantitative researchers wanting to draw robust samples?
Join in the debate by following #nsmnss, you can read more about how to join the chat in our earlier post: 

Do join us and please spread the word.We'll also be arranging our first Blackboard session on the same issues for early in October for those of you who aren't able to join face to face events, we'd love to involve some of our international network members in this forum so if you'd like to be involved drop us an email More details shortly.

Kandy Woodfield, NSMNSS team at NatCen Social Research

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Using Quant Methods for Social Media Research - knowledge exchange event 26th Sept, Oxford.

We're delighted to announce our next round of free NSMNSS network activities.

We will be holding our second Knowledge Exchange Seminar, hosted at the Oxford Internet Institute on September 26th.

This half-day session (12.30-4.30pm) will focus exclusively on using quantitative methods in social media research, please see the programme below for more details. We have very limited spaces for this event so places will be allocated on a first-come first-served basis and preference will be given to participants willing to contribute a case study or example from their own experience to one of the sessions.

If you would like to attend the seminar please email:  confirming your contact details (email and phone number). We would hope attendees are able to share personal experiences using quantitative methods in social media. Although the Seminar is free, space is limited; if you do not attend after reserving a place we will make an administrative charge to cover the costs of catering and administration. Please only reserve a space if you intend to attend.

Our Knowledge Exchange Seminars provide an opportunity for researchers, practitioners and policy-makers to share ideas. Each of the four sessions will be interactive, with lots of opportunity for open discussion. You can volunteer to:

Lead a themed session – by preparing a 5 minute introduction on one of the seminar themes, which poses key questions for the group to discuss. You will co-facilitate the following discussion with one of the NSMNSS team and write a summary blog post after the event.

Tell us about your experiences by providing a descriptive case study– a short 2-3 minute description of your experience using quantitative methods in social media research. Please identify which of the suggested themes in the programme you think your example would fit under and we will ask you to share this during the relevant session.

If you would like to contribute to the event on 26th September please reply to by 19th September giving details of what you would like to contribute.
A video of the introductions to each theme will be available shortly afterwards, if you are unable to join us please  share your thoughts and insights with tweets and comments on our  Methodspace forum. You can join in network activities there at any time:
We will also be hosting a virtual Blackboard session for international participants later in September. More details to follow. 

Knowledge Exchange Seminar 2 – Quantitative Methods in Social Media Research, 26th September 2012, Oxford Internet Institute

12.30pm Arrival and lunch – networking

1.00pm -  Session 1 Visualisation:
Social media data can often be analysed using visual methods. How can we visualise data collected by social media? How does visualisation relate to statistical analysis? What are the payoffs from using visualisations?

1.50pm - Session 2 
Populations and Sampling: What is the “population” on social media platforms? How do platforms differ in population characteristics? How can we select cases or sample on social media?

2.40pm Break

3.00pm - Session 3 Big Data:
Social media research can involve very large datasets. What do we gain and lose with big data? How is big data changing the way we do research?

3.50pm Session 4 Drawing together key messages for quantitative research:
Exploring existing frameworks, identifying gaps and additions.

4.30pm Close and next steps

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Policy, practice and new social media tweetchat - transcript

We ran our second tweetchat yesterday on whether new social media can make an impact on policy and practice. We had a good discussion with some great points and resources being shared. You can see the entire transcript from the tweetchat after the jump.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Making an impact on policy and practice with social media research – exciting news about our next tweet chat

We have decided to run a monthly tweet chat following the success of our first chat at the end of July.

Our next chat will be held on Wednesday 29th August 5-6pm BST and the topic will be how we can ensure that the research we conduct using social media is being understood, appreciated and used by stakeholders and decision makers in policy and practice.

We hope you can join us on Twitter, just follow the #NSMNSS to join in. Read our earlier blog for more detailed guidance on taking part in a tweet chat.

Gareth Morrell, Senior Research Director at NatCen Social Research, has posed a set of interesting questions for us to address during the chat so please get your thinking hats on and spread the word!

The questions:

Q1. How can social media data help to inform policy and practice?
Q2. How can researchers engage better with policy and practice on this issue and vice versa?
Q3. Is there an appetite for using this data among policy-makers and practitioners?
Q4. What concerns do stakeholders in policy and practice have about these new methods?

We will continue the discussion after the chat on our Methodspace pages and are looking to compile a series of case studies and lessons learnt by network members from their experiences of making use of social media platforms and methods for applied policy research.

The tweet chat, and the examples we gather, will help us in building a picture of how new social media research is being adopted or used in policy and practice and will contribute to an additional event that the NSMNSS team are planning with NESTA around how useful new social media methods might be to applied policy research in the future. This will be a great opportunity to demonstrate the value of these new approaches and methods to research commissioners from a broad range of organisations so we will really value your input.

You can read the transcript from our first tweet chat here.

Kandy Woodfield

Friday, 10 August 2012

Walled gardens or gushing brooks? Public and private data online

“For me there are no answers, only questions” wrote P. L. Travers, “and I am grateful that the questions go on and on”. For each of the ethical pressure points of social media research - harm, copyright, data protection – we are uncomfortably close to Pamela Travers’ fantasy. 

One of the sorest pressure points of all is deciding what is private and what is public online. What data is sacrosanct and what is, as they say, ‘fair game’? A lot pivots on this question: when and how privacy is invaded, the importance and role of informed consent, the protection of identities and persona. In sum, the art of identifying and mitigating the harms inflicted by researchers tapping into vast corpora of social-digital data.

I can’t – and won’t – offer a clear-cut answer. But I can point to one of the reasons that the move towards answers has been so difficult, and that is the role of metaphor. Social media is a new social technology and new common habit. As so often happens when grappling with something new, we resort to a series of metaphors to relate social media to something older and more understood. Three powerful metaphors play a decisive role in conceptualising the private/public problem. 

Space – The Internet is a network of public thoroughfares, semi-public alleyways and cloistered ‘walled gardens’. Understanding privacy spatially in this way nudges certain factors into prominence, especially the local laws – or privacy settings - that govern a particular territory. 

Flow – The Internet is also understood as a network of rivers of information – with gushing rivers, smaller tributaries, brooks and lake. More prominent here are questions about expectations about where the information is going – how it is used, shared and disseminated.

Text – Finally, there is the idea of the Internet as a series of interconnecting texts, a library of libraries. Privacy in this sense implies the relationship between author and text, and especially the terms under which each text was published.

None of these metaphors are altogether wrong, but none are right. When you over-extend metaphors, you also inherit a great deal of unwanted baggage: false dichotomies, half-apt analogies, and blocked off possible solutions. These metaphors have framed our approach to social media research ethics and restricted our responses to them, in powerful, if often unseen, ways.

So a suggestion: the work that must now be done in social media ethics must recognise that the social media is a new thing, Joining a group on social media is not necessarily like joining an offline group. Publishing a tweet is not necessarily like publishing a book. And a discussion on a forum is not necessarily like a discussion down the pub. New concepts, new vocabulary and new approaches to research ethics – not metaphors – are needed now. Perhaps then, pace Travers, we’ll get some more answers.

Carl Miller is an Associate at Demos. 

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Ethical Guidelines for Researchers

Before our first knowledge exchange event we gathered some ethical guidelines for social researchers using social media. We found three guidelines which you can access below:

What do you think of these guidelines? Do you think they cover everything you’d need to consider as a researcher? Are there key gaps that you feel they’re missing? Are there any other guidelines that you’ve found that you’d like to share with the network? Come and discuss and share them over on our forum on Methodspace.

Different platforms? Different ethics?

We held our first knowledge exchange seminar at the Oxford Internet Institute on the 24th of July. Focusing on the ethical issues that arise in social media research, we looked at issues around understanding digital identities, the ethics of platforms and public and private data. This is the first in a series of posts detailing the discussions we held as part of the breakout session.   

Within social media user-generated content has become ubiquitous, given this it is not surprising that marketers and social researchers began to focus more attention on social media as a channel to communicate with consumers and to commission social or market research to gain insight into the opinions, attitudes and/or behaviour of social media users.  This has created new opportunities for researchers to observe, interact and gather information. It has also led to new techniques including the use of community panels, co-creation, netnography, blog-mining and web scraping.

The second discussion of our ethics knowledge exchange event explored the concept that the boundaries are now blurred between on and offline but that the nature of research in, and using,  social media may well require researchers to develop new ethical frameworks and concepts in response. In particular do the different platforms require researchers to adopt different ethical standards and a take a position on the ethics of different social media providers?

We began the discussion by airing a few key issues around the topic.

  1. Building on a theme from the tweet chat, which is touched on in more detail in the third session, is the definition of what is public space and what is private, do researchers have different ethical responsibilities in public spaces as opposed to private spaces. In essence are ethics mutable?
  2. As a key part of this is the consideration that should researchers be concerned with the ethical standards or lack thereof of the platform providers or of the communities on platforms? Should researchers have a role in exposing questionable ethical practices of platform providers or the communities that they are hosting?
  3. Further do we as researchers also need to consider the role of those within communities in terms of our research? Are community members co-creators; are they participants or are they authors? Does this change with the methodology adopted for the research?

The general consensus on the first point was that ethics might be a confusing term, and that it was more about a set of values and principles. In this regard it was felt that it was more likely to be about what those active within a social space actually expected in terms of values and principles, chiefly revolving around privacy and security and their protection in these regards both from within and without the social media space. It was felt that researchers have a role in challenging platform providers to develop practice that matches expectations and to highlight to all when this is not the case, transparency about what providers do with users’ data and how data might be shared or used was seen as important in this respect. The point was made that as platforms are in the main commercial ventures they adopt a caveat emptor approach in that all are expected to read and understand the terms of service they operate under. However given the importance of reputation and brand and the consideration that contributors to a social space can be viewed as co-creators of the brands of the platforms it might be best for researchers to take this ‘commercial’ rationale as a way of persuading platforms to adhere to expectations as opposed to making a purely ethical appeal. It could be naive to assume that platforms will respond to a call for more transparency and visibility of data usage policies based on purely ethical grounds and researcher concerns.

On the second and third point the discussion reached a consensus that it is about the expectations of those within a space and as such the ethical standards adopted by researchers should reflect the space itself. Context is critically important, the expectations of users of private ‘walled’ platforms may be very different to those of open social spaces; we also recognised that we know very little empirically about what user expectations are in relation to privacy or data use. The discussion considered space in a number of ways, a discussion which continued in session 4:

  • Public space – traditionally content is contributed with the expectation that it will be read by anyone in the public. Our discussion commented that it might be na├»ve for researchers to assume this though as even within the group very few had actually read the terms of service of platforms on which they themselves are active.  Despite this most thought that research can be carried out subject to the site’s terms of use; users can be identified and quoted unless this might cause harm, in which case quotes should be anonymous such they can’t be retraced via a search engine but without losing the essence of their meaning. As such researchers can assume that contributors are likely to be happy that it is linked to, copied or cited, such as public blogs and comments left on news websites.
  • Private space - where users would expect their comments to be private and available only to genuine community members. These are often called ‘walled gardens’ or ‘cloisters’. Such spaces require registration and passwords and include private forums, communities, chat rooms and instant messaging. There was a clear consensus that researchers require permission from the site owner to carry out work and users cannot be identified without their prior consent, anonymous citing is essential unless users’ permission for verbatim has been obtained. We also discussed how important it was in these spaces to identify oneself as a researcher to those you are conversing with, there was little support for covert ‘lurking’ in these spaces although some researchers had conducted studies in this way.  We recognised the similarities here to older ethical discussions about the ethics of undertaking covert/overt participant observation.
  • Semi-public spaces – one member of the group raised the issue that between private and public there are a semi-public set of spaces. The point was that in some cases the boundary between public and semi-public space is often be blurred, e.g. Facebook, a series of homepages and many niche (but open) forums or communities, open chat rooms and Twitter. These are semi-public as people contribute content and whilst open to all to read, many would not expect it to be read or used by people not interested in that topic. The first point the group agreed on was that if in doubt researchers are encouraged to treat sites as ‘semi-public’ not public which led on to broad agreement that research can be carried out subject to essentially the same terms as those within a private space.
  • Market research spaces – these are spaces that have been created for market, social and opinion research purposes where users have been specifically informed of its function and the use to which their comments might be put. Typically (but not always) these are also private spaces and include Market Research Online Communities (MROC’s) and online ethnographic (netnographic) and co-creational techniques (crowdsourcing) which utilise social media platforms. Due to the nature of these sites researchers face relatively few restrictions but that researchers here have clear responsibilities to consider if verbatim quotes could cause harm to respondents.

With apologies to those who contributed to the discussion whom I can’t all name as it was my first time meeting you all. Thank you for a lively discussion, which I found thought provoking. I look forward to meeting you all again in September.

Andrew Whalley is a teaching fellow in Marketing at Royal Holloway.