Monday, 14 July 2014

Exhausted, intrigued and all about social media!

Kelsey Beninger is a researcher at NatCen Social Research and can be contacted through Twitter @KBeninger.

Attending two conferences related to social media the past three days took me on a long journey, and not just from the 6 train rides, nonexistent mobile reception or from navigating my way around overly complex campus layouts! My journey also included the reflection on different approaches to talking about social media research and the need, now more than ever, to be transparent about what we do, why we do it and what is wrong with our approaches (because we aren’t perfect- it’s too early days!).

At the European Conference on Social Media in Brighton I was fortunate to meet and learn from some of the people from the 35 different countries represented. While I wont shy away from saying that I think the strongly academic focus was a wee bit theoretical for my applied social policy mind, I did learn about very different types of projects, from e-health platforms in Lithuania and online civic participation in Egypt and Malaysia, to keynotes including the evolution of social media and the feasibility of moving knowledge cafes to the online space.

The enthusiasm and excitement for social media was palpable throughout the conference and inspired hope for future innovations. I wondered, though, about how presentations I attended focused more so on the research outcome- the findings. What lacked was clarity on what means led to the end- the design and methodology. Indeed this emerged in discussions with participants who were also student supervisors. A reoccurring theme was what theory should I tell my kids to use who are wanting to use social media in their dissertation? Or, what’s the best tool, the best approach? What issues do my students need to be aware of from the beginning? There are no right answers but, yes, it would be quite handy to have an idea of the approaches, tools, considerations and adjustments researchers have used to succeed in their work so we can inform future work.

I led a roundtable on just this, one of just two roundtables in two full days of lectures. I was a bit worried there wouldn’t be dialogue but participants quickly opened up about challenges they are facing and it very much echoed the work we at @NatCen and @NSMNSS have been doing this year (see this post and this one too). Challenges of distinguishing between what is legal or allowed with research using social media brought an engaging debate amongst attendees to the roundtable. This provoked alot of discussion as some attendees initially viewed this point in black and white before the discussion turned to the grey area perceived by social media users- while T&Cs of a platform or country digital technology laws may make the use of data for research legal, the expectations of some users view it as the moral obligation of a researcher to still gain consent or anonymise data.

Also flagged up was the difficulty of defining social media (by far the most heated topic!), knowing what questions to ask to know what to do next in your design, how to sample ‘properly’ online, understanding big data collection tools and their weaknesses. Yet none of this came up in the other sessions of the day that I attended. The session may have left some people feeling at a loss for solutions and I believe that it is ok to not have a strict answer. What the session made obvious for me was the importance of researchers talking, sharing, questioning. Without more of that, then research will stagnate and researchers will get complacent.

The Research Methods Festival in Oxford was equally diverse and engaging, yet provided what I felt was missing from the ECSM2014- the methods! I presented at and attended a panel on the opportunities and challenges of social media research (See slides here) and it was so refreshing to have all people in the room be open and honest about what they can and can’t do with their research. @Donna_Peach of @SocPHD discussed how she created a community of practice on twitter and on a website, sharing examples of collaboration between different groups. The guys at CASM discussed Natural Language Processing and shared a great discrete example that even my teeny mind can comprehend! COSMOS also gave us a sneak peak of their new platform. I was intrigued about the Visual Media Lab discussed by Farida Vis, a new collaboration with the aim of tapping into the visual data online (often overlooked for the text that is more commonly the focus of research).

 Basically there is one moral to my ramblings: as a researcher don’t be afraid to bare your research design soul. Without more of that how can the field persevere and innovate, gain credibility from the skeptics and avoid reinventing the wheel?

Check out #ECSM2014 and #RFM14 twitter feeds for a roundup of both conferences.

 Papers and slides from ESRC Research Methods Festival 2014 are here:

Review the sessions at European Conference on Social Media 2014:

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