Thursday, 17 December 2015

In it for the long term - evolving your community of practice over time - LIVE BLOG - from #SocMedHE15 18th Dec. 2015

Hi everyone,

We're delighted to be running a workshop at the inaugural Social Media for Learning in Higher Education Conference on Friday 18th December at Sheffield Hallam University. Building on all the great work our NSMNSS community has done over the last four years we'll be working in the room and with you virtually to develop some top tips for sustaining and growing your online communities. We'll start by sharing our slide deck with you, but keep refreshing the page from 13.40pm onwards as we'll be adding content and thoughts from the workshop participants as the workshop progresses.

We'll also be tweeting some questions for you to respond to so you can actively join in the discussion. Make sure you keep an eye on the @NSMNSS twitter feed on the blog for these.

Q1. What communities and networks do you belong to? And how would you like to strengthen or grow them?

Hello and we're off with people drawing their own personal online learning communities and discussing the networks they belong to... comparing maps people are seeing some similarities and some differences, and asking is there a hierarchy of engagement? Some of our delegates lurk in some of their online communities and are highly active in others. We're discussing what makes a difference to online engagement.

Q2. What engages and disengages you in online communities?

Our group spent time noting down the key drivers and inhibitors of online engagement, here's what they came up with, it's a great list full of insights into how to build community engagement:

Drivers of engagement
  • Easy access
  • Good momentum - day to day engagement
  • Good curation
  • Social aspects: things being human, personal, dialogue not broadcasting, allowing people to have a say it's their community - building relationships - conversations
  • Meaningful value - content is useful, discussions are relevant, there is a purpose to the discussions, you learn something
  • Tangible outcomes - collective content creation
  • Having a recognisable rhythm to online activities: knowing what's coming when - regularity
  • Positive feedback on contributions from members, the community feels approachable and supportive
  • Reciprocity - sharing and appreciation of sharing
  • Persistence
  • Explicit calls to action for e.g. write us a guest blog
  • Structured events and activities to set the parameters for learning
  • Information behind password protected site
  • Lack of activity or dialogue - broadcasting is off-putting
  • Lack of feedback and interaction
  • Being spread too thin - lots going on across multiple platforms OR too many activities going on to keep up with (managing too many feeds, information overload)
  • Not having a rhythm of regular activities to engage with, irregularity
  • Conflict and disrespectful debate
  • Diversion - discussions going off point too often
  • Trolls and haters

Q3.  What activities keep you engaged in your online community?

We're moving on to discuss how you keep members engaged in the community what types of activities help?  Some of the suggestions include:
  • Running regular twitter chats
  • Sharing great content and encouraging member to member sharing using hashtags or other ways to label and tag content
  • Dialogue and interaction in between structured activities
  • Blogs - creating a rich source of content, get members contributing to blogs, videos, audio content - sharing their experience and insights with each other
  • Use polls to let your members set the agenda for the discussions so they feel ownership
  • Creating maps of the network to show members who else belongs and the range of knowledge and expertise they can draw on (our Twitter manager does this regularly using a range of tools) also feedback to members analytics on community activities & successes/impacts
  • Run on and offline activities (we run conferences and workshops as well as Twitter chats and online conferences)
Q4. How do you encourage members to deepen and widen their connections?

Over time it's important to support community members to widen and deepen their personal connections otherwise the community will stagnate. How do you do this? Curtis introduced Wasim to the group. Wasim has been managing our Twitter account for over a year and has done a great job of building a sense of community and putting people in touch with each other. Wasim talked about how important conversation and signposting was to this task: letting members know who else is interested in the same topics or has relevant expertise. He talked about how the #NSMNSS community has connected with other communities with shared interests (for instance running a Twitter chat with #PhDchat) to open up new connections for members. We also work with a range of supporting affiliate organisations who come from different sectors in the research community to ensure members hear different perspectives and can forge new connections. We all noted that this type of connective work in communities takes time and persistence, although over time a successful community will start to do some of this work for itself, certainly the #NSMNSS hashtag helps our members to connect directly with each other, they don't need to wait for the community facilitators to make connections or to share information and content.

Q5. How do you sustain the learning outputs of the community?

We kicked off today's session by talking about the critical difference between a network (a set of connections) and a community of practice which is network that shares a common desire to share experience/learn from one another around an aspect of their shared practice/profession/expertise. So the learning agenda and outputs are critical. We discussed a range of ways you can make sure learning is shared to push practice forward:
  • Having member's blog and create content (like videos or resources) for the community to share their experiences, this has been hugely successful with NSMNSS it helps members to feel they are contributing and ensures a wide range of experiences and insight is shared
  • Think outside of the box, we crowd-sourced a book of blogs and then published it. It provided members with a platform to share their work on social media in social research and took that learning beyond the community to the wider world.
  • Others have used Twitter takeovers to give individual members a chance to shape the stream of content for a week or a month, this is particularly good with students who can take over community social streams for a defined period of time and share their interests and learning
  • Hold workshops or conferences (on or offline) and invite members to contribute to sessions
  • Invite guests to share their insights with the community, Storify or record the session and then share that resource.
Q6. How do you avoid your community of practice becoming an echo chamber?

We're moving on to talking about the challenges of networks becoming echo chambers with everyone agreeing or sharing very similar viewpoints. If you surround yourself with people that express similar opinions to those that you express, you end up reinforcing and ‘normalising’ those views. In a CoP this can look like the community beginning to repeat itself – covering the same ground or members consistently agreeing or expressing the same opinions.

Curtis is talking about what happens when the community hears nothing new or doesn't contain a diversity of voices. He described how this can feel cliquey, deter new members and stifle debate.
It’s also (arguably) more likely to happen online because
  • Online media can limit the ability to communicate, meaning that views may be simplified and  some subtle differences may be lost
  • Social media algorithms are often designed to show you things you’ll like!
  • Dissenters can easily be labelled as ‘trolls’

This effect can, to an extent, be positive as it will help to promote community cohesion. However, it can also lead to a heightened risk of ignoring alternative views, reinforcing your own, and skewing your perspective. This is probably not great in general says Curtis but can be especially problematic for a CoP – it is difficult to learn, improve and develop if it is the same views being consistently expressed. Further, it means that you can’t assume that views being expressed as best practice are those of the wider population. Even if not to these extremes, these points can limit the effectiveness & appeal of CoPs as learning networks. As facilitators of online communities we need to encourage new voices and alternative perspectives.
1.     Attracting new members who may have different opinions/haven’t been ‘normalised’
  • Operate in new spaces – different online channels/offline
  • Invite new members to the filed (e.g. PhD students, etc.)
  • Encourage ‘lurkers’ to contribute
  • Link into new areas – e.g. partnering with related networks (international, in alternative disciplines for example)
2.     Cover new topics as old ones reach saturation/consensus
  • Perhaps revisit later as things change
  • Need to actively monitor discussion – while it’s fine for these to continue, need to promote alternatives
  • Those topics will vary from network to network
3.     Create a ‘safe environment’ for critical views
  • An element of moderation – ask questions, ensure things remain constructive
  • Be critical – if necessary, play the role yourself be the 'devils advocate'
These are all related, and to a certain extent mutually supporting, but they are also quite active – if a community tends towards a ‘norm’, then that needs to be disrupted, it won’t necessarily occur naturally. Fortunately, these themes play to strengths of online – where barriers to entry are low (given web access), it can be relatively easy to access other networks, and the ‘openness’ and relative anonymity of online platform can encourage participation.

Sustaining momentum and our top tips

We are coming to a close now with people contributing their top tips for building and sustaining online learning communities. Keeping it fresh, changing the rhythm to disrupt and inject energy into the community (for example we crowd sourced a book of blogs to inject some fresh energy into our community, check in with members regularly to find out what they need from the community & what their hot issues are, get members involved in contributing as soon as possible whether as content creators or community facilitators, invite in new members from other sectors/disciplines/areas of expertise. Here are some more suggestions:

Phew, that was a quick fire hour, thanks to everyone who contributed.

Here's the Storify of the twitter interactions around the workshop and below that you can find some additional resources:

Additional resources

Etienne Wenger coined the term community of practice, these are the key texts:
  • Wenger, Etienne. 1998. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wenger E, McDermott R, Snyder, WM. Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Boston (Mass): Harvard Business Publishing; 2002
Jane Hart writes wisely about communities of practice for workplace learning, much of what she shares has wider relevance to any community of practice. You can find her website here: and she published The Social Learning Handbook which you can find more out about here:

A selection of HEA resources on building communities of practice in HE to support staff & student learning can be found here:

We the Nurses is a hugely successful Twitter based community of practice (see #wenurses): Moorley, C.  R., & Chinn, T.  Nursing and Twitter:  Creating an online community using hashtags.  Collegian  (2014),
Bronwyn Stuckey & John Smith have written about the qualities that successful (sustaining) CoPs and their ‘leaders’ display:

Suzanne Riverin & Elizabeth Stacey have also written about sustaining an online CoP:  Sustaining an Online Community of Practice: A Case Study

Friday, 23 October 2015

Ethics and Social Media Research conference - Conference announcement and call for papers

Social Media & Social Science Research Ethics

Location: 33 Finsbury Square, London. EC2A 1AG
Date: Monday 21st of March, 2016

The Research Ethics Group of the Academy of Social Sciences and the NSMNSS network invite abstracts and poster/video submissions for a one-day conference that aims to further develop and explore the ethics of social science research using social media. Our purpose is to move the debate forward and provide examples of good practice. Two Keynote speakers will be confirmed shortly.

As Social Media plays an increasing role in Social Science research, the practicalities, benefits and challenges of making legitimate use of it constitute an important arena for ethical reflection and dialogue. This event builds on earlier conferences, workshops and discussions, organised by the Research Ethics Group of the Academy of Social Sciences and, in particular, the common principles of social science research ethics.

We invite abstracts for full papers or posters/videos* from those whose research makes use of social media. The following 4 themes may offer some guidance:

  • Ethics & Practicalities: Consent in social media research.
  • Privacy, ownership and legal dimensions: The use of social media data for research.
  • Blurred lines: Relationships between researchers and participants in social media research.
  • Critical ethical reflections: Improving ethical practice.

A copy of our CfA can be found here [.pdf]. 250 word abstracts should be submitted on this form [.docx] and sent to by Friday the 8th of January 2016. There will be a £100 prize for the best poster/ video as well as a number of discounted places and travel bursaries for postgraduate students. Following the conference we aim to produce an e-book of the presented papers.  Any inquiries should be directed to:

Decisions will be made by the end of January 2016.

*We envisage that videos will be the equivalent of posters and should, therefore, not be longer than 2 mins (approx).

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Social media research: Issues of performativity and validity

Keeva Rooney is a researcher at NatCen focusing on health surveys using bio-medical data. She has a BA (hons) in Sociology with a specialism in Social Policy from University of Warwick. During her studies, Keeva often used social media in her research, with one of her project’s focusing on online facebook groups for disabled people affected by the bedroom tax.

Social media research attracts many researchers due to its offer of practicality, creativity and accuracy which comes from its often covert nature. The idea that you can produce valid research by analysing people’s online activity is attractive to researchers looking for more innovative and contemporary ways to achieve a true insight into society. However, is the assumption that people act online as they would offline a valid one? And if not, does this raise concerns over the reliability, representativeness and overall accuracy of using social media for research purposes?

Feminist theorist Judith Butler studied how people ‘perform’ gender, be it within or outside their assigned gender norms. She believed that it was this expression of gender, not the biological sex itself, which determined gender [a]. Whilst Butler used the concept of performativity to deconstruct issues around gender, the same concept could be applied to how we use social media: do we use social media to construct a distinct identity, or is social media purely an extension of how we already perform within wider society, and does this matter for Social Media researchers?

I will be analysing this argument using two research ideologies; positivism and interpretivism [b].

On the one hand, a positivist approach suggests that social research can uncover an empirical truth about people and society. Positivists aim to find this truth in all aspects of society, using mainly quantitative data such as surveys or content analysis. For example, when analysing social media, positivists may often use sentiment analysis to analyse online attitudes and opinions of the user. For this data to be valid for understanding ‘real world’ attitudes, the opinions expressed online by social media users must be an accurate reflection of their offline beliefs. Therefore it could be argued that if someone is not being their ‘true self’ online, any conclusions drawn from this research may also not be valid.

However, it could be argued that the online persona cannot be disconnected from the offline reality. That is to say that how people act online is often a valid reflection of how they act offline. For example, a recent psychological study into internet trolling showed that those who enjoyed trolling often displayed characteristics such as sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism offline [c].

On the other hand, an interpretivist approach suggests that in order to analyse actions and attitudes accurately, the researcher must take the user’s interpretation of themselves as truth; when it comes to social media, how users portray themselves online is what researchers use as fact. From this perspective, any online ‘performance’ of the participant doesn’t make the research any less valid because the participant’s interpretation of their reality is always accurate.

However, what happens if people reject their online persona once it has been researched, as is often the case with people who display offensive or criminal online behaviour? As Stephen Webster’s study showed, some people will try to disassociate their online behaviour from their ‘real’ offline life, claiming that how they act online is not how they ‘really act’ [d] and some may even deny that it was them, instead saying that their account was hacked [e]. Whilst this raises several questions (such as how can you know who you are researching online), it also raises ethical concerns if someone believes that a researcher has misrepresented them by basing research solely on their online behaviour.

As the ‘troll’ studies show, online personas can often be a true reflection of offline actions and opinions. However, the extent of this may be unclear, and participants may disassociate themselves from those personas. Researchers should always consider whether social media can be used to accurately portray and analyse personal and public opinion, and if more traditional research methods should be paired with this to create a more triangulated and accurate set of data.


[a] Felluga, D: ‘Modules on Butler: On Performativity’ Introductory Guide to Critical Theory 
[b] While I acknowledge that not all researchers will fit into either ideology, I believe that analysing validity in online research can be done by discussing these two fundamental research perspectives
[c] Buckels, E.E; Trapnell, P.D; Paulhusc, D.L: ‘Trolls just want to have fun’ 
[d] Webster, S: ‘What is trolling, and why do we behave so differently online?’  
[e] Wainwright, M: ‘Man who racially abused Stan Collymore on Twitter spared prison’ 

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Research at a click away: The inter-relational ethics of a connective methodology

Josh Jarrett is a PhD researcher as the Digital Cultures Research Centre, UWE Bristol. Josh’s research utilises an online ethnographic methodology to look the role of online play in the co-creative practices online games. Josh tweets at @Joshua_Jarrett and blogs about his research at, where this blog was originally posted.

 On Wednesday 20th May I had the pleasure to give a short overview of my research, its online methodology and some of the ethical grey areas at a University of the West of England event called ‘Ethics, Digital Data and Research using Social Media’. In this post I want to recall some of the points that were touched upon during the day, give an insight into my own online research and delve into exactly what some of the ethical grey areas are for online researchers.

MOBAs? A brief introduction to playful co-creativity

 Before I talk about specifics I should say a little more about myself and my research. I am a PhD researcher in my third year of research into the themes of online play and collaboration with the Digital Cultures Research Centre at the University of the West of England. More specifically, my research is interested in the ways online players creatively play in games and the way these acts of playful creativity carry ramifications far beyond the immediate actions of the player. For example if a player innovates a new play style in a game that had previously not been tried and this new style proves to be especially effective, how does this act of creativity carry further consequences to other stakeholders of the play space? Although it may seem like nothing particularly new for online games or acts of play more widely it is within these dynamics that one of the most played online games genres, the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA), is underpinned. Known for games such as League of Legends or Dota 2, the MOBA genre has come to define the games and digital landscape in significant ways through popularising live streaming on sites such as, giving rise to a thriving worldwide electronic-sports industry and introducing new models of fair ‘free to play’ allowing vast numbers of players to play. All of these trends have meant the MOBA space is one laden in different stakeholders, from its millions of daily players, its worldwide network of professional players who make a living off playing and its developers who ultimately seek to monetise all of this activity. My research looks at the role of online play in co-creating this genre and more critically, how the differing power dynamics between stakeholders affects their respective values in the play space. For this post I want to leave all of that to the side however and talk a bit about how I go about ethnographically grasping this vast and dynamic online culture.

A connective Reddit methodology  

 My methodology consists of three distinct strands of data collection. These are auto-ethnographic in-game experiences, (professional) player interviews and open Reddit discussions. All of these research methods take place online and what is interesting is how they all share a connected relationship. Although my main source of data collection is open discussions on the news and social networking site Reddit (which is the focus of this post), it is vital to consider the methodology as a whole.

 The auto-ethnographic element to this research is similar to many studies of games, an essential element that informs nearly all of the work. As a research method auto-ethnography has been employed in numerous online games (Boellstorff et al, 2012) and it informs the questions posed in wider dialogues with players in Reddit spaces. However the auto-ethnography also serves as a window into more than just knowledge of the game and its culture but it also serves as a mode of authenticity when posing questions to players.

 A recurring theme throughout the day was how different online platforms share a connected relationship and can often bypass the privacy settings of one through the other, for example in case of Storify and Twitter that Kandy Woodfield touched upon. I find this example pertinent to the context of my own research as it taps into what Dijck (2013) has termed the ‘connective’ context of social media, which is to say the interrelated and ecological relationship different platforms share with each other online. Storify for example, is a site that heavily relies upon Twitter feeds to construct its content and in doing so the ethics of how to use Twitter must also consider Storify’s interrelation. In my own research this ‘connective’ context is one that is heavily woven into everything I do. By a large margin the open discussion format in Reddit is my main mode of data collection however it is largely enabled through my wider auto-ethnographic experience.

 When opening up a discussion with participants upon Reddit I am wholly transparent about my status as a researcher and always link my blog and state I am open to questions myself. In addition, I also introduce myself as a player through linking my in-game profile and stating an example of what I am talking about from my own experience. For players who are in a space to talk with other players and not expecting questions posed by an academic researcher this further introduction of myself as a fellow player is significant and opens up a much more casual, intuitive, and insightful response to my questions than it would if the questions were strictly formal. The status of the researcher as a player is especially important here as Reddit’s format can be extremely resistant to researchers due to the architecture of the platform.

 Reddit is similar to a forum in many ways and it works through the same persistent threads of conversation often heavy in memes and external links. The vital difference between Reddit and a forum is its system of up-voting and down-voting posts that leads to what many have dubbed a ‘Hive Mind’ whereby only certain types of posts are up-voted and therefore visible for the vast majority of users. In practice this means getting attention to a research question posed on Reddit can be difficult if, for example, people perceive your reasons for being in the space as not similar to theirs. In my experience of making threads in the /r/leagueoflegends sub-Reddit that has thousands of active users at any given time, attention to these dynamics has proven essential.  If a post does not get up-votes quickly it will sink and essentially vanish from users; so introductions are important! A connective sense of authenticity (I.E. auto-ethnographically playing the game as well as externally researching it) is one way of gaining traction here and it’s this kind of wider attention to online platforms that is an essential consideration throughout my online methodology.

Connective ethics

 Similar to the Twitter / Storify example touched upon above, a space such as Reddit must be considered in relation to other platforms when considering the ethical implications of the research. If for example, you state not to use the name of participants as a measure of protection against their identity (even avoiding use of their pseudonyms) but you quote their responses from an open discussion, it is very easy for a search engine such as Google to identify the quote and take you to the page where the discussion happened. Throughout the ethics in social media research day similar examples of these interrelations between platforms undermining ethical standards were touched upon and just as the relationship between Reddit and Google is here problematic, so too are numerous other examples. Potential solutions to this particular ethical concern included closing threads after conversations end and paraphrasing quotes (as is often done when working with children) from participants to avoid search engine detection, however there is no clear or effective answer here.

As with many other researchers working with online participants, I do not have an answer to unravelling a universal code of ethical standards here. The interrelations between online platforms are constantly changing as they respond to a variety of socio-technical developments and as a researcher, the only thing I can say with any certainty is that attention to these dynamics is essential. A particularly connective methodology such as my own that I have touched upon here points towards the opportunities inherent in online research as much as it sketches out potential ethical grey areas. There might not be any clear or definitive answer when approaching these grey areas but nonetheless they need to be sketched out and carefully considered. Research at a click away is exciting, insightful and potentially rich as much as it can be problematic.


Boellstorff, T. Nardi, B. Pearce, C. and Taylor, T, L. (2012) Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method, Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Dijck, V, J. (2013) Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media, New York: Oxford University Press.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Why is there so much research on Twitter? And what does this mean for our methods?

Wasim Ahmed is a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield and the #NSMNSS Twitter Manager. This blog post was orignally posted on his research blog. You can find him on Twitter at @was3210
I was asked on Twitter by a fellow PhD student what tools and methods there were of capturing and analysing data from Facebook, and although I was able to find a few, there were far more Twitter data capture tools. I also noticed that there are very few tools that can be used to obtain data from other social media platforms such as, Pinterest, Goolge+, Tumblr, Instagram, Flickr, Vine, and Amazon among others. This led me to wonder whether it was tool availability, or some other reason for why there is more research on Twitter, compared to other social media platforms.
I then asked the following question on Twitter:
Why is there so much research on Twitter? Is it because it’s difficult to get data from other platforms? Or is Twitter a special platform?
I received a range of responses:
  1. Twitter is a popular platform in terms of the media attention it receives and therefore it attracts more research due to this cultural status
  2. Twitter makes it easier to find and follow conversations which consequently makes it easier to research
  3. Twitter has hashtag norms which make it easier gathering, sorting, and expanding searches when collecting data
  4. Twitter data is easy to retrieve as major incidents, news stories and events on Twitter are normally centered around a hashtag
  5. The Twitter API is more open and accessible compared to other social media platforms, which makes Twitter more favorable to developers creating tools to access data. This consequently increases the availability of tools to researchers.
It is probable that a combination of response 1 to 6 have led to more research on Twitter. However, this raises another distinct but closely related question: when research is focused so heavily on Twitter, what (if any) are the implications of this on our methods?
The methods that are currently used in analysing Twitter data i.e., sentiment analysis, time series analysis (examining peaks in tweets), network analysis etc., can these be applied to other platforms or are different tools, methods and techniques required?
I have used the following four methods in analysing Twitter data for the purposes of my PhD, below I consider whether these would work for other platforms:
  1. Sentiment analysis works well with Twitter data, as tweets are consistent in length (i.e., <= 140) would sentiment analysis work well with, for example Facebook data where posts may be longer?
  2. Time series analysis is normally used when examining tweets overtime to see when a peak of tweets may occur, would examining time stamps in Facebook posts, or Instagram posts, for example, produce the same results? Or is this only a viable method because of the real-time nature of Twitter data?
  3. Network analysis is used to visualize the connections between people and to better understand the structure of the conversation. Would this work as well on other platforms whereby users may not be connected to each other i.e., public Facebook pages, or images from Instagram?
  4. Machine learning methods may work well with Twitter data due to the length of tweets (i.e., <= 140) but would these work for longer posts and posts (i.e., Instagram) where images may be present?
It may well be that at least some of these methods can be applied to other platforms, however they may not be the best methods, and may require the formulation of new methods, techniques, and tools. On the tool front, I would like to see more software for those in the social sciences to obtain data for a range of platforms and including a range of data i.e., web links, images, and video. At the Masters and PhD level there should be more emphasis on training for social science students in effectively using existing software that can be used to capture data analyse data from social media platforms.

Friday, 5 June 2015

ICYMI: Monday's #NSMNSS tweetchat on ethics/informed consent and social media research

Last Monday, 1st June, we hosted a Tweetchat following on from this seminar on ethics and getting informed consent when conducting research using social media.

It was a great chat, with lots of interesting discussion to be had, so if you missed it, check it out below or in this storify and make sure you make the next one! Just scroll to the bottom (you might need to 'load more' a few times) and work your way up to follow the conversation as it occurred.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Things that keep me awake at night: ethical considerations when researching fan communities online

Milena Popova is a PhD researcher at the Digital Cultures Research Centre, UWE Bristol. She is researching approaches to sexual consent in fanfiction and online fan communities. She tweets as @elmyra and blogs about her research at

My PhD research focuses on depictions of sexual consent in online fanfiction: amateur-produced fiction based on existing media, such as TV shows, movies or books. I am using a range of methods to study the fanfiction community and its cultural output. Here some thoughts on the ethical questions I have come up against while designing and conducting my research.

A brief introduction to the fanfiction community:

Modern fanfiction originated in paper zines, but these days the vast majority of the community (or communities, really) live and communicate online, in spaces that are on the cusp of the private-public boundary. Fanfiction, and the communities that produce it, are a Google search away - if you know about them.

The fanfiction community consists predominantly of women and non-binary people, a majority of whom identify as members of a sexual, gender or romantic minority (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, asexual, aromantic, etc.). Statistically, a significant proportion of community members are survivors of sexual or gender-based violence. (In the UK, 45% of women have experienced rape, sexual assault, domestic abuse or stalking. It is reasonable to assume that this is reflected in the make-up of the fanfiction community.) These demographics are reflected in the kinds of stories the community produces: stories which focus on (often queer) sexual and romantic relationships, sexually explicit stories, stories which explore issues of sexual consent extensively and in profoundly nuanced ways - which is the focus of my research.

In many ways, the fanfiction community is vulnerable, though not necessarily in a way you would find as a tickbox on an ethics form. The social stigma attached to marginalised sexualities (including women’s and queer sexualities) means that there are potentially significant social and economic consequences associated with being identified as a reader or writer of erotic fanfiction. Additionally, fanfiction is generally based on copyrighted material (or sometimes real people such as actors, musicians and other celebrities), and there are also legal risks involved in producing and circulating it. Members of the community therefore have developed a range of approaches and tactics to managing their online identities and involvement in fanfiction separately from other online activities. They participate predominantly pseudonymously or anonymously in activities around fanfiction and are often, rightly, wary of outside scrutiny, whether it be by journalists or academics. Having said that, this is also a community with a very strong identity, strong traditions of mutual support, and very much in the habit of theorising itself.

Social Media and the Digital Data Set:

Some of what I study is the fanfiction itself, which is published on authors’ personal blogs and websites, on social media platforms like LiveJournal and Tumblr, and in fanfiction archives such as (FFN) and the Archive of Our Own (AO3). But I also study fan interactions and fan practices in these semi-public social media spaces. My data set therefore includes podcasts, comments left on fanfiction stories, conversations between community members posted on social media sites, and “meta” (commentary and analysis) which community members produce on topics ranging from the quality of writing in a TV series to in-depth examinations of social and political issues as represented in media and fanfiction. Because I have been a member of the community for nearly two decades, in many cases I also get privileged access to material which isn’t posted publicly, for instance locked LiveJournal posts or AO3 stories.

Things that keep me awake at night:

Below are three case studies of things gone wrong in fandom or online research, and the questions they raise for me.

Theory of Fic Gate: This was an incident in early 2015 where a class of undergraduate students were asked to leave comments on fanfiction as part of their assessment. They had little to no knowledge of the community, their standards, the rules of engagement. They were in fact specifically encouraged to leave a “critical” comment on the stories, something around which there are a lot of social rules within the fanfiction community. These comments caused a lot of upset to individuals whose writing was on the course reading list, as well as a lot of outrage within the fanfiction community who felt disrespected, and some ill will towards researchers and academia. The community organised quickly around one of the writers whose work was on the course reading list and engaged in more or less constructive debate with the course leaders and some of the students.

The incident raises some key questions for online and fandom researchers in general and for my research in particular. Who am I doing this research for? Who am I accountable to? As someone who is both a member of the fanfiction community and an outsider, how do I negotiate these two positions in a way that is respectful to the community, ethical, and still allows me to conduct my research with both quality and integrity?

At least part of the answer for me personally is that I feel accountable to the fanfiction community. I have a responsibility to them to treat them fairly and with respect. It is absolutely vital for me to be deeply familiar with the community and culture, their views and practices, their understanding of themselves and the world, before I engage them directly. This knowledge helps me engage the community respectfully, ask the right ethical questions, and make decisions about what material I expose to wider academic and public scrutiny. I am also working on ways to give the fanfiction community ways to feed back to me and have some control over the research, through my research blog, through interactions with interviewees, and through attending fandom conventions and speaking about my research.

Dalek half balls: “From Dalek half balls to Daft Punk helmets: Mimetic fandom and the crafting of replicas” is a published academic paper by a highly respected fan studies scholar and it makes some interesting points. It also cites and argues directly against theory written by a member of the fanfiction community, published on their LiveJournal. The paper addresses this LiveJournal post as if the two are on a level playing field with each other, ignoring power differentials. As with any other research, it is important to remember that there are power differentials between researchers and the people we study. Just because we can both stick up a blog on the internet and comment on each other’s posts doesn’t make us equal.

On the other hand, I am also increasingly coming to realise that on the subject I am studying - sexual consent - the fanfiction community produces distinct, extensive and nuanced knowledges not available in other communities or even in feminist academia. These knowledges are not in a format that academia would necessarily recognise, and there is considerable potential value in finding ways to disseminate them beyond their current context (though there are also risks involved in this). This raises huge questions about the role of the researcher in this space, and about the researcher’s relationship with the material and the community producing it. A lot of this material is theoretically rich and robust despite its unconventional (for academia) format. It feels wrong to simply treat it as “data”, to take it and put my own stamp on it. On the other hand, I believe it would also be wrong to treat this material and its authors as equal to theory and analysis published in a peer-reviewed journal and engage with it on that level, as that would hold it up to impossible standards.

Key questions for me to consider here: How do my choices of research subject and methodology reproduce or challenge power relations? How can I tweak those choices towards challenging and away from reproducing?

The Facebook Happiness Experiment: In June 2014, it was revealed that Facebook had manipulated users’ newsfeeds with the intention of manipulating their mood. While in my research I am not directly manipulating anyone or anything, I am in many cases conducting something that walks the fine line between covert and participant observation.

This raises some interesting questions. How much of the internet/social media platforms can be legitimately regarded as a public space? What are people’s expectations of privacy, how are they constructed and how are they managed? One common practice in the fanfiction community is privacy through obscurity: those in the know can find us, but most of the world has no idea. With increasing exposure of fanfiction in mainstream media, this expectation is becoming unrealistic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that community behaviour and practices are always changing in line with these developments.

What is my responsibility as a researcher in terms of meeting those privacy expectations, and what are the practicalities around that? A significant issue for me will be quoting fan conversations and “meta” verbatim when a simple Google search can lead others back to the original source.

These are some of the questions that keep me awake at night. Perhaps the biggest insight for me here is that the vast majority of them are not asked on an ethics application form. While going through the ethics approval process has been a useful starting point for me, I have had to put in a lot of thought outside of and beyond the framework of that single form. There certainly aren’t any universal right answers for these questions, and some days I am not even convinced there is a single right answer for my particular research. There are simply different choices I can make, with as much consultation with the community as possible, while being aware of the power imbalances and responsibilities inherent in my position.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Getting to ‘Yes’ in the digital age

Last Monday (11th May) the SRA, along with NSMNSS, hosted a seminar looking at ethics and informed consent in the context of online research. As long-standing network members will know, the ethical challenges of conducting research has been something that has consistently cropped up as a core concern for social scientists looking to use social media in their research, and this event demonstrated that this continued to be the case.

Matt Williams from the Social Data Science Lab kicked off proceedings with a discussion of his experiences of ethics in social media research based on his work with COSMOS, a platform for accessing Twitter data.
Matt focussed on some of the issues relating to publishing research based on Twitter data, and how Twitter’s policies relating to the publication of Tweets (showing names, @usernames, and unmodified Tweet text) can clash with researchers requirements of anonymity and protecting participants from harm, before outlining their approach to ‘risk assessment’ before publishing Tweets.
He also introduced some survey research suggesting that social media users were split in how concerned they were about their data being used for research, and that some types of users were more likely to be concerned than others. However, participants seemed to be less concerned about their data being used by universities than government or commercial organisations.

Following Matt (and some role playing!), Janet Salmons talked through some of her experiences of the best way of getting informed participation from potential research respondents in an online environment.
Janet emphasised the importance of building trust and credibility with research participants, and that different types of online communication actually provide opportunities to engage and inform participants; the key is thinking about who your target population is.

For those who missed out, or went and didn’t get everything down at the time, you can find copies Matt and Janet’s slides here and here, and Janet has also provided some additional resources about ethics and online research here.

As is often the case, perhaps the most interesting session was the Q&A at the end, chaired by NatCen’s Kandy Woodfield. The panel & audience discussed a range of questions covering topics such as the difficulties (and ethics) involved in removing participants once analysis has started (or been published!), whether consent can ever be truly ‘informed’, and whether participants need to be reminded of consent for passive (ongoing) observation.
Unfortunately (although perhaps not unexpectedly), there was not enough time to answer all of the attendees’ questions, so NSMNSS are going to be hosting a follow-up #NSMNSS Tweetchat on the ethics of online research on Monday 1st June at 5pm (UK time).

If you have any questions that you would like to put to the NSMNSS community, please message us @NSMNSS, email us at, or simply leave a comment below!

Friday, 8 May 2015

Creative Research Methods - a review

This post was first published on Kandy Woodfield's blog: Getting creative – a review of Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences

creative research methods
Creative research methods have a long tradition in the arts and humanities, but are much less familiar in the social sciences. So I’m delighted to see this new book from Dr Helen Kara offer a welcome insight into the growing field of creative research methods for social science research. The book is a positive romp through a whole range of creative methods and approaches. Inevitably this means that the book is wide in scope rather than deep in detail on any one approach but for me this was a plus. The book feels encyclopedic in the care and attention that has been given to documenting references, case studies and examples, providing a vast range of references to works for you to explore at your leisure in more detail as you want. It’s a timely and much needed prompt to all social scientists about the importance of thinking outside of the box and not being afraid to jump out of our methodological comfort zones once in a while.

I was particularly taken by an early example of the use of crochet to model the geometry of  hyperbolic planes by Latvian mathmatician Daina Taimina. And I was pleased to see concepts like ‘bricolage’ and ‘remix‘ in research being discussed. Creative combinations of methods and reworking established approaches into new and exciting designs are all part of the creative landscape we are encouraged to explore.
The book is really thought-provoking, as I read through its pages I found myself considering a wider range of methods than I might normally and if it has the same effect on others we could be in for interesting times. From innovative uses of ‘conventional’ social science methods like surveys or focus groups, through to creative mapping (see for example this video on using emotion mapping in clinical practice with families), performative research, technology enabled research (good to see the #NSMNSS network getting a shout out too :) ) and the use of graphic novels, it urges us to think differently about what social science research looks like. I also like that the book is clear that not all creative approaches to research will be innovative and that you can (and should?) be creative with tried and tested conventional methods like interviews, focus groups and surveys. This is important, especially for applied researchers where research clients and funders may be less open to the more overtly creative approaches of performance and art-based social research.
Rather than having chapters on specific creative approaches the book is organised around different stages in the research process, providing guidance and examples of how and why creativity can be built into research design, data collection, analysis and writing. It also does not shy away from the thorny issues of ethics and rigour. The book challenges social scientists to reflect on their methods, to try new approaches and apply some creative thinking. But it doesn’t do so mindlessly, it also reminds us to think about the ethics, quality and rigour of what we are doing as we experiment.
I’ll be writing more about creativity later this month seeing as I’m attending a day long workshop on creative leadership this week swiftly followed a day at the Social Research Association’s first conference on creative research methods. But for now, it’s a big thumbs up from me for this book, a great read, one I expect to be dipping into time and time again!

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Picking a social media platform for research - our first Twitter chat of 2015

Missed out? Here’s the twitter feed from #NSMNSS chat on how to pick a social media platform in research

See below for the twitter feed from our first tweetchat of 2015 (Tues 3rd Feb) all about how to pick a social media platform in research.  Scroll to the bottom and work your way up to follow the conversation in the order it occurred. 
A summary of the 7 questions posed to those taking part is included below:
  • Q1: What is a social media platform? #NSMNSS
  • Q2: Which social media platforms are you using, or would like to use, in research? #NSMNSS
  • Q3: Which platforms are you using to get data? #NSMNSS
  • Q4: Do certain platforms lend themselves more to quantitative or qualitative approaches? 'Big data', 'small data'? #NSMNSS
  • Q5: (from @jess1ecat) What difference is there in researching public data like Twitter stream cf. to group wikis & forums? #NSMNSS
  • Q6: How do you handle data protection & ethical issues on different platforms? #NSMNSS
  • Q7 How do we attend to our own online identities & use of social media platforms? #NSMNSS

Thank you to those who joined us for the chat, it was an invaluable discussion. We hope you can join us for the next chat on Tues 3rd March 2015 5pm (UK time). All welcome! The voting poll to choose a discussion topic is here.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

New Year, New #NSMNSS Twitter Chats, Vote Now!

Last year we had a number of successful twitter chats on topics from generating representative online datasets to the changing roles of social media researchers in an increasingly mediated world. Based on topics arising from our previous discussions, and current issues and emerging trends in online research, we have a number of topics for upcoming #NSMNSS twitter chats this year (see below). However, we really want our chats to be led by you - which topic we should discuss first?  Have a read and cast your votes here!  We will announce the winning topic on Twitter.  The first chat is on Tuesday 3rd February at 5pm (UK time. You can time check for your location here).
  1. To blog or not to blog? What a question! Why are we blogging (or not)? What are the opportunities and challenges of blogging for our research? What are the relationships between blogging and traditional forms of publishing? How can we use quantitative metrics to know more about our audiences and what other information do we need? Can blogging improve scholarship? How can we avoid running out of steam?
  2. How can we use social media to reflect participants’ voices?  An experiment in sharing our experiences of representing/reflecting participants voices through different mediums and ideas for how research might make use of social media to co-produce research with participants. How might Pinterest be used to reflect participants’ experiences? How might twitter be used to generate insights on people’s lives?
  3. The first #NSMNSS Research Exchange of Favourite Projects and Fresh Ideas: What social media research and initiatives inspire you? What are your ambitions and aims for social media research projects? An opportunity to pool our resources and links to useful articles/websites/tools too!
  4. Big data discussion!  How can we define ‘big data’? Where do you start in a ‘big data’ project (tips/advice)? What are the strengths and limitations of using ‘big data’? How can we ensure users ethical rights? What about ‘small data’? What does the future hold for social sciences in terms of new forms of data? Not to forget, we will also discuss ethical issues in big data research!
  5. Ways to say ‘I do’ in social media research! How are traditional forms (e.g. print out, sign here) in play for gaining consent in the online world? Which electronic forms work well? Can we record a verbal agreement to participate in research? What about terms and conditions attached to the sites people use? Should we seek permission to quote from social media users?
  6. How to pick a platform in social media research: who is using what and why? Where are our participants? How does the platform shape the research? How should we attend to our online identities as researchers? Sharing our experiences of using different platforms in research.

#NSMNSS chats will run on the first Tuesday of every month at 5pm (UK time). Remember to include #NSMNSS in all your posts to help us capture all of the discussion. We will provide a transcript of the Tweetchat on our blog following the event.

Don’t forget to vote! Suggestions for other topics are also most welcome!


Friday, 9 January 2015

Three years on, how we've grown...

Kandy Woodfield is one of our NSMNSS network leaders, she's based at NatCen Social Research and you can contact her on Twitter @jess1ecat

I was delighted to be able to present the work of the #NSMNSS network to a roundtable event today hosted by the ESRC and the Indian Council of Social Science Research. The event, supported by the Newton Fund, aimed to bring together academics working in social media research in both the UK and India to explore shared interests and opportunities for collaboration. It was a lively discussion and provided an opportunity for me to reflect on how far the network has come in the three years we have been building our community. Here's the presentation: