Monday, 25 November 2013

Defining our terms: What is “social media”? Janet Salmons, PhD #einterview

Sometimes we communicate by using a few words as a kind of shorthand for big ideas: we know what we mean. Or at least we assume we have a common conception for what we mean when we use certain words, based perhaps on a shared experience of the phenomenon. But when we try to enlarge the conversation and explain it to someone else with whom we do not share experiences or frames of reference, we must be more precise. I believe we are at such a point with some of the words we use in the NSMNSS project. To include and engage others beyond the early adopters and true believers of online research, we may need to build a common language.

As a case in point, last spring NSMNSS conducted a questionnaire about ethical issues in social media research. Using the narrative option many respondents posted concerns about what they perceived as a lack of understanding of online research generally at their institutions and out-of-date guidance from their faculty, dissertation supervisors and institutions. It would seem important to include such scholars and academics in our conversations so they can become more knowledgeable about emerging research methods and topics—and thus better able to guide the next generation of researchers.

How we can begin to more clearly define terms we commonly use? Let’s begin by thinking about that the term social media means. I discovered just how challenging that task might be when I looked for a clear definition to cite for an article I was working on last week.

Some writers conflate “social media” with “Facebook and Twitter”(Baptist et al., 2011; Gibson, 2013; Grose, 2012). This seems inadequate to me for several reasons: Facebook and Twitter are brand names for commercial platforms designed with the unabashed goal of profit for their shareholders. They are not neutral spaces. As well, businesses and brand names change. Other platforms exist and new ones are emerging. What criteria will we use to determine whether those platforms can be described as “social media”?

Some scholars differentiate social media from other online platforms or Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) by describing characteristics. Social media is characterized by the ability of users to create, store, and retrieve user-generated content  (Benbunan-Fich, 2010). The focus is on the user as producer (Bechmann & Lomborg, 2013) who generates content in various forms—including video, images, text, and geospatial data (Schreck & Keim, 2013). The producer of content interacts with readers:  “effective social media use requires engagement with the audience” (Bik & Goldstein, 2013, p. 5) and readers are t, who themselves producers of content “thus blurring the distinctions between audience and producer as a means to create a distinct form of textual production that draws on both roles”(Meyers, 2012, p. 1023).

Given these descriptions and characterizations, is an email list “social media”? It is interactive and users generate content that can be retrieved. What about a virtual world—where users generate spaces, artifacts and events that engage others, and can be revisited or “retrieved.” In a web conferencing or videoconferencing space users can meet to generate and share content that can be saved and later retrieved. Wikis? Threaded discussion forums? Are they all “social media” or is there a more granular distinction missed in the extant definitions and descriptions?

How do you define the term—and what ICTs would you include or exclude from your conception of “social media”? Use the comment area, or respond to this 5-question survey. I will compile your responses and make a post on NSMNSS to share your collective ideas about ways to define social media!

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Introducing the Web Team Our Contributing Expert: Dr. Janet Salmons

Hello to the NSMNSS blogosphere! You may recognize my name from posts and events over the past year, and I am delighted to be a part of the continued work of the New Social Media, New Social Science project as a contributing blogger. I recorded a short introduction for the visual and aural communicators out there!

I have served on the graduate faculty member of the Capella University School of Business and Technology since 1999. I thought I would teach a course or two but fell in love with online teaching and here I am! Capella learners are scholar-practitioners, working adults who integrate life and career experience with rigorous academic study. I currently focus my efforts on dissertation supervision, which provides a living laboratory for observing the development of new research—primarily with online qualitative methods. Their struggles and triumphs help me understand the eclectic mix of practical and scholarly skills needed to successfully conduct research.

I am also an independent researcher, writer and consultant through Vision2Lead. My areas of inquiry include online collaboration and online research methods that allow us to better understand how we interact in the virtual environment. I have an interest in both ethical leadership and ethical research in this connected world.

With Dr. Victoria Boynton I am engaged in an online duoethnography we are calling “Work/Place,” an exploration of the influences of the environment (natural, cultural, physical, virtual) on work creativity and productivity. My recent study on the ways women entrepreneurs use the Internet is the subject of a chapter now in press: “Putting the E in Entrepreneurship: Women Entrepreneurs in the Digital Age” (Salmons, 2014). Online Qualitative Interviews is also in press for a spring release. As well, I edited Cases in Online Interview Research (2012) and wrote Online Interviews in Real Time (2010) for Sage Publications.

Given the above background and interests, my blog posts will include observations and discussion about how and why we use social media for research—and for building community among researchers. I look forward to hearing from you about your questions and dilemmas, thoughts and insights. Comment to my posts, find me at #einterview or

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Project learning points from a new researcher: users’ views of social media research

Hannah is a researcher at NatCen Social Research, a non-political charity that specialises in social policy research. Before joining NatCen as a graduate research trainee in September 2012, she worked as an Employment Adviser to the long-term unemployed. Hannah is now based in NatCen’s Income and Work team and is involved in survey maintenance and smaller scale qualitative projects. Her research interests lie in poverty and disadvantage, and also now in social media use! You can follow Hannah on Twitter by searching @h_silvester.

Last year I was one of eleven lucky graduates taken on by UK based NatCen Social Research. To get hands on experience –and to make mistakes in a controlled environment! -we were given a year to develop and run a study with only minimal guidance from senior staff. Now nearing the end (we’re writing our report), we’d like to share some learning points.

As well as specializing in independent social policy research, NatCen has always prided itself on methodological innovation. For example it has recently set-up with partners the ‘New Social Media, New Social Science’ network to look at what opportunities social media research can provide. The network and NatCen are particularly interested in the use of social media websites and ethical practice when researching online.

Taking these two interests one step further, our graduate project looked at what users of social media think about the ethics of research when it uses their posts and other information. So now let’s take a frank look at the key things we learnt while working on this qualitative, exploratory study.

Definition, definition, definition!

While it’s normal for potentially interesting side issues to crop up, or for other areas to be discounted, you should develop the focus of your research as early as possible and stick to it. Having a clear research focus will make creating the topic guide (interview schedule) easier and will influence your analysis and report planning.

Define key terms: again, choose as early as possible. Terms should preferably be ‘current’ elsewhere. We argued considerably over ‘social media websites’ vs. ‘social networking sites’ and our report editor is still exasperated we’re referring just to ‘sites’! We also had to decide between participants, respondents, people and ‘social media users’ (the latter won) –the more precise the better!

‘I work better the night before a deadline’

Allow yourself realistic time to complete a task if it’s your first time doing it, but don’t then fall into the trap of thinking ‘I’ve got aaages yet! –no one truly works better the night before a deadline!

Order, order!

Have someone (preferably the project lead) draw up an agenda (and more importantly, stick to it!) for each meeting and limit the meeting time. This will help make sure any discussion is concise and to the point.

Don’t be too democratic

While it might seem fair that everyone in the project team is given a chance to  comment on written outputs, the old adage ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ is definitely true! Instead, we found that an initial set up meeting, for parts of the project like drafting the topic guide, is helpful to generate ideas that are then consolidated and written up by one member. The chosen project manager will then ultimately have the final say and editing duties.


We were able to recruit from an established sample (used previously for NatCen’s renowned British Social Attitudes survey). Because the survey had already asked participants about their internet use, we had good information on key sample criteria and could target our invitation letters. Unfortunately we found that the sample was too shallow once we’d set our primary/ quota criteria (we wanted a third of the sample to be ‘low’ internet users, a third ‘medium’ users and the rest ‘high’ users). While sometimes quotas may need to be revised we decided to fall back on our contingency plan: to use a recruitment agency. It was a little scary letting go of control and we had to emphasise our criteria a number of times, but in the end we got the right people to take part at the right time!

So, those are the learning points I want to leave you with and I hope they’ve been helpful. If you’re considering using social media websites in your work, our findings will hopefully help people think about how they carry out this kind of research. If you’re keen to find out how, and you really can’t wait until December (I don’t blame you), do read this blog for our interim findings and feel free to email me with any questions!

 This Post was first published on 

Monday, 11 November 2013

Introducing the Web Team Our Contributing Expert: Dr. Chareen Snelson

Greetings from Boise, Idaho, USA. It is my honor and pleasure to join the NSMNSS web team as an contributing expert. In this post I will briefly describe my background as it pertains to this group and the dynamic arena of social media research.

I currently work as an Associate Professor and Associate Department Chair in the Educational Technology Program (EDTECH) at Boise State University. The majority of our EDTECH program is graduate level and completely online. I have been teaching online with this program for over a decade. Prior to my work in higher education I was a middle-school science teacher. I have been enamored with video in education ever since those early years teaching science to teens. Video seemed like the best way to introduce these rural Idaho teens to active volcanoes, deep sea life, or experts on topics we were studying. Of course, back then we relied on the now antiquated VCR technology to play video in the classroom. I never knew if it was going to work or not. What an adventure. Now, as an online educator I find video very valuable in presenting information or communicating with students at a distance. Google Hangout with screenshare has become a favorite application for helping students with technical issues or for communicating with adjunct instructors who live at a distance from campus. When YouTube was initially developed I became intrigued by the possibilities of tapping in to its growing body of content and sharing tools for education. In 2008, I created a course called "YouTube for Educators", which was initially offered as a temporary elective for our EDTECH graduate students. The course became popular and was converted to a permanent elective. Now, we offer the course every year. My syllabus is online if you are curious about the content. I also maintain a related teaching blog called TubeTeaching and an active YouTube channel.

My research has progressively focused on educational applications of YouTube and what people post on YouTube (e.g., videos, comments). My most recent research article, Vlogging About School on YouTube: An Exploratory Study (New Media & Society), used YouTube as a data source. The process of using YouTube, or other social media platforms, as a data source can be a fascinatingly challenging one as I have learned from personal experience. After completing the vlogger study I had the opportunity to delve into a deeper discussion of the methodology in a research case, which has been accepted for the forthcoming SAGE Cases in Research Methodology collection. The rest of my publication list is available on my vitae.

I see a lot of work ahead in the area of YouTube and social media research. My primary interests seem to be converging on online ethnography and qualitative content analysis although other methodologies are quite interesting. A high priority for me right now is gaining a better understanding of how researchers are designing qualitative and mixed-methods social media studies. In the spring of 2014, I will spend my one-semester sabbatical delving deeply into the subject of how people have been conducting qualitative or mixed-methods research on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. This work will involve an examination of both methodology and technologies used to support social media research. I am a rampant NVivo user, but have not yet explored the full gamut of options available for qualitative social media research. My Social Media Research and Technologies blog is where I have begun to document this exploration. This blog will serve as an avenue for discussing my sabbatical project on social media research as it progresses. I have strong interest in this topic and hope to connect with other like-minded researchers. I am looking forward to sharing, learning, and collaborating through my time with NSMNSS and beyond.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Introducing the PhD Blogger: Amy Aisha Brown

I was lucky enough to be chosen as the PhD blogger for #NSMNSS, but before I start posting more about the perks and pitfalls of using social media in my research, I will give a little bit of an introduction to me, my research, and how it all fits under the #NSMNSS umbrella.

To start off, I think I should point out that I wouldn't really class myself as a social media researcher. Rather, I am one of those researchers who has been swayed by the possibilities of what the digital trails of social interaction that social media users leave in their path can tell us about aspects of their daily lives.

My research interest could be described broadly as the English language in Japan. I come to looking at this from the background of applied linguistics, a wide-ranging field of research looking at understanding language related issues in the real world, and I am influenced by work in world Englishes, sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, and discourse studies.

I am not so interested in the kind of English you can find in Japan (i.e., the grammar people use, their pronunciation, or the effectiveness of their communication), rather I look at the discourses of the English language. In other words, the way that English is talked about and conceptualized.

So, where does social media fit in? Well, I am using Twitter as my source of data. I collect tweets in Japanese that include the word 英語, which means ‘English (language)’. I then use techniques from corpus linguistics to find patterns in how people talk about the language.

I am conducting my research within the Open University’s Faculty of Education and Language Studies under the supervision of Ann Hewings and Philip Seargeant. The various aspects of my study are well supported: Ann brings a knowledge of English language studies and corpus linguistics, and Philip has written extensively on English in Japan and has an interest in language and social media (he is part of the SocialMedia Language research group, which looks at language and communication in social media). However, the lack of precedent in using social media for socially oriented research (especially within applied linguistics) and the ever-changing nature of the field, means that there are a number of theoretical, methodological, and ethical bridges that need to be crossed.

In my time as PhD Blogger I want to illuminate issues that have arisen but also the steps I have taken (or more likely am in the process of taking) to navigate those murky waters. Hopefully, this will give an insight into how the issues associated with research using social media pan out, at least in this my context.