Thursday, 31 May 2012

NSMNSS off and running…

One of our network co-ordinators, Gareth Morrell, draws together key messages from the NSMNSS launch event, reviewing the opportunities and challenges for researchers using social media and reflecting the optimism and enthusiasm for the future of the network.

What a great day we had at our launch event on Tuesday. A big thank you to everyone involved in making it happen and to all our speakers and other contributors for providing such thought provoking insights. We really benefited from having such a diverse group (social science, humanities, market research, computer and information sciences all represented) and the open and collaborative attitude of everyone at the event and those joining online bodes well for us blossoming into a dynamic community of practice.

So what did we learn? It’s too early to say in any coherent way, but here are some initial reflections on the overarching messages for starters.

Firstly, whether it’s the Wild West, power to the people, the home of Big Data or the virtual as indicative of the real, social media is here to stay. Rightly, there was enthusiasm throughout the day that we embrace the opportunities this presents for researchers:
  • Access to bigger data sets for more people
  • More efficient collection, management and analysis of big data sets
  • The nature of social media facilitates a more interactive relationship between researcher/analyst and the ‘participant’ or study population – we can feed back what we find and see what they think
  • While there are problems of representativeness on the web, the very groups who are more difficult to involve in traditional surveys are exactly those using social media – young makes for example.
  • The nature of social media blurs the boundaries in an exciting way that can lead to fruitful, cross-disciplinary, multi-method research

But this is new and dynamic area. So there are limitations, draw-backs and caveats. If we’re to use social media in a rigorous and scientific way, we also need to consider a whole range of other issues, including:
  • Ethics – an issue that permeated every contribution yesterday. How do we get consent? Do we need it? Is representation more important? It’s clear we don’t know enough about how users of social media feel about this.
  • Sampling – inclusivity and representativeness are clearly a problem as the profile of social media users is not representative. What about the views we’re excluding? Does it matter – can we have different standards for a new method?
  • Theoretical underpinnings – should the mode of enquiry develop its own methods, its own place within the philosophy of social science? The area remains tool-focused and under-theorised.
  • Online effects – how do we account for people behaving differently online, i.e. separating the triggers from the noise?

Clearly there’s much to do in developing ethical principles, sampling models, data harvesting and sentiment tools and learning more about if, how and why we’re different online. Social media methods are not going to replace traditional methods any time soon – there’s too much they can’t tell us and too much we don’t know. But the medium is going to continue to become increasingly important in people’s social lives. The question for all of us in the network in how we harness the power of social media to enhance and enrich the tried and tested methods we already use to understand the social world.

Finally, just a reminder to get involved by signing up to methodspace, where you can discuss these issues on the forums. And if anyone wants to put more considered thoughts down in a blog for the network please do get in touch.

You can discuss this post over on our forum on Methodspace.