Mike O’Driscoll is a freelance researcher specialising in fields of attitudes to IT, experiences of e-learning, and evaluation in health and education. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
I am sure that social media will have as profound an impact on social research as computers and the internet have already had. As desktop PCs with broadband have become the norm for most households (although a significant minority remain excluded) every aspect of social research has been transformed.
Taking surveys as an example - the internet has profoundly changed typical methods of sampling and recruitment (e.g. a greater use of panel or convenience samples), the delivery of the data collection instrument (e.g. a link in an email), the survey mode (online or email survey), survey analysis (being able to see and interact with results in real time through online survey software interfaces) and dissemination (reports can be made instantly available to research commissioners, participants or the general public). It might be argued that convenience and cost reduction in online surveys has been achieved at the expense of reliability of findings and their meaning.
One of the many fascinating aspects of the relationship of social media and social research for me is the role that social media may play in adding value to the survey process in terms of increased sharing of knowledge and best practice amongst research professionals, offering more meaningful ways for respondents to interact with surveys and offering ways to add meaning to quantitative survey data. Currently, social media may be used as a means to recruit participants for online surveys (e.g. through posting an invitation in a discussion forum for people who are from a particular profession, or share a particular interest which overlaps with the focus of the survey), for testing survey questions amongst fellow research professionals or otherwise obtaining technical advice from peers (e.g. through Linkedin forums) and as a platform for distributing survey links.
The potential of social media to further transform the survey process seems to be large and relatively untapped. Challenges will include ensuring that the views of those without internet access at home are not excluded, that corporate agendas do not dominate the focus of social research which involves social media and that validity, reliability and research ethics remain the most important considerations in survey research.