After reading Dr Janet Salmons’s last post (Defining our terms: What is “social media”?), I was inspired to think about what the term means to me but coming up with a definition is not that easy. Is social media defining platforms, the affordances of platforms, something else? Is it the online factor? Because it is participatory? How far does the label extend? I am excited about the #NSMNSS tweetchat we are going to have on 5 December (details here) where we can discuss some of these questions and think about what social media means to us as a group, but after failing to find a personal definition for this potentially all-encompassing term, I thought a better approach might be for me to think about what social media means or brings to my doctoral research.
On a basic level I could say, “social media is data”. That is, I use Twitter as my way into investigating how the English language in Japan is talked about. This is not a common approach in studies of language ideology, but Twitter has a massive active user base (around 10% of the Japanese population if recent statistics from in the loop are accurate), and tweets are both accessible and plentiful. In fact, tweets in Japanese mentioning the English language are so numerous that it is impossible for me to collect them all—a matter for another time. But while these features show the potential of Twitter to collect a vast amount of potentially relevant data, what is it that makes Twitter, as opposed to some other source of information, useful for undertaking my investigations?
I could have chosen to look at how the English language is talked about in Japanese newspaper reports, policy documents, or organisational websites, or used interviews or focus groups. However, what previous studies using these techniques have yet to focus on is how English is talked about across domains, from the mass media, to business, through to daily conversation. And it is at this point that Twitter comes in.
Until recently Twitter’s about page claimed it to be “a real time information network”, and the phrase still appears elsewhere on the site. However, Twitter is not just news and information, it is also a social space where people interact, comment, and chat. This social side of Twitter means that I can look at how ‘official’ information sources (newspapers, organisations, etc) talk about English and how people talk about English in response to those sources, but I can also take into consideration how it is talked about in wider conversation, something that would be near impossible using other kinds of data.
So, for me, the massive user base of Twitter and the online, real-time, accessibility of it cannot be underestimated, but what is really important is the social, collaborative, participatory side of Twitter that enables the talk about my topic (and pretty much any other) to thrive.