Wednesday, 10 July 2013

'Tis the season...of Social Media Conferences

It's that season!

No, I don’t mean bathing suit season or in my case sunburn season. It is a time of many exciting conferences on the use, opportunities and challenges of using social media in research. NSMNSS co-ordinators have been doing their best to cover as many of these as possible and we’re finding that research and practitioners across disciplines are having the same conversations about ethics and quality in social media research.

Firstly, the  Social Research Association (SRA) hosted their third conference on social media, attracting over 80 delegates. The diversity in approaches to and views of social media in research made it clear these platforms provide a great opportunity to breakdown communication barriers between disciplines, fields and sectors. Technicians, programmers, social workers, civil servants, academics, market and applied researchers were all accounted for and kept up animated discussions throughout the day.

Some sessions that stood out for me included a case study about using social media to investigate young people’s drug use. Claire Meehan candidly explained that social media wasn’t part of the initial research design; young people brought it up so much that her study evolved to accommodate this emerging finding in its subsequent data collection. This sparked many questions around consent with young people. Indeed, the theme of ethics was a thread weaving throughout the day’s sessions (and tea breaks!)

Another was the session from social worker Jenny Simpson. Applying a socio-psychological approach to adopted and foster children using social media, she suggested children are simply testing societal boundaries the same way children have forever, just in a different environment. It raised many thoughts about assumed perceptions of vulnerability, contested power roles, and the changing world of social work.  

How could I talk about the conference with plugging my own team’s presentation? At NatCen a team of research trainees have developed and delivered qualitative research exploring perceptions of the public on the ethics of social media research. We presented on our emerging themes, among which included participants’ considerable scepticism about the credibility of research using social media. As researchers we accept the rich potential of social media but we have forgotten to explain its rationale and potential benefits to the very people whose data we are using- the users!

Similarly diverse attendees were discussing related issues at the AHRC-funded Social Media Knowledge Exchange (SMKE) conference, with historians, librarians and archivist, information specialists and others from the digital humanities all contributing to the discussions. My colleague Gareth Morrell spoke about our research on ethics at this conference and the striking thing was that researchers and practitioners in other disciplines are facing the same challenges. In a session on ethics, there’s clearly an appetite for us all to think ethically – or as Anne Alexander from the Digital Humanities Network described, use our ethical conscience – and not just rely on ethical guidelines. After all, our research shows that we can’t assume anything in relation to how users feel about us using their data.

More fieldwork to come on this project and more refined findings to be presented at Westminster Uni’s Social Media Conference in Sept. Save the date!