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Social Media for Research: Open Resource and Reflection for #MASocialMedia

I would like to share the session that I had prepared for a guest workshop that I was to deliver to this year’s MA in Social Media. Something, judging on last year’s session – and the 6 other sessions that I’ve delivered over the last 3-4 weeks, I was looking forward to trying out and exploring using social media as a research context. As it never got past the initial discussion “what is research?”  I can safely say that it didn’t work well for this particular cohort’s expectations.

What I can do, instead, is offer up the entire workshop as a resource and hope that perhaps others might find it more useful. Below are slides, links to resources and readings and some reflection about teaching social media for research, can it be delivered as a simple one to many lecture?  the didactic opposite to what is explicitly implied about social media (participatory, conversational, interactive – all those sorts of words.)

Social Media for Research: Workshop Plan

Level: Masters/PhD

Overview

  1. Explore social media’s role when compiling a research methodology from an academic and commercial perspective. Examine the characteristics that differentiate it from ‘traditional’ research method (unpick the notion of ‘traditional’ in this context.)
  2. Examine the relationship between the technical uses of social media and social media as a research practice. Understand the need for a critical awareness of the platforms used through case studies of existing methodologies.
  3. Application of social media for research through case study [Olympic Games], examining the explicit and implicit roles that social media can have within a research project. Short workshop activity where students can apply a list of criteria to their own research projects, emphasizing the mixed method approach required.

Materials

  • Projector
  • Whiteboard paper and pens (if available)

Procedures

  • Discussion: What are the differences between social media research methods and ‘traditional’ research methods (to establish what they understand about research & notions of traditional)
  • List research methods that class are familiar with and agree on a couple to use as examples.
  • Discussion: Technical vs Practice (to establish what they do already technically and to separate out the reliance on tools so that they can be critically aware of platforms and respect the need to focus on research practices) Apply the use of the social media tool to the research method used.
  • Part 2: Discussion: What is social media practice? [How does social media change or affirm research scholarship?]
  • Toolkit: Show show examples, but not exhaustive and change all the time. Use twapperkeeper as a case study. Critical awareness of ephermal nature of freemium platforms.
  • Differences between listening, data collection, archiving and visualizing.
  • Case study: Olympics Case Study, take them through the contextual steps and how a mixed method approach has been used to organize data against an ethnographic background. [Slides - from a research presentation at Launch of #media2012 network] [List of resources discussed within the presentation here.]
  • Activity: Plan a research activity relating to their own research interest, emphasis on mixed method approach and the need to consider ‘traditional’ methods throughout.
  • Conclusions: Discuss student projects.
Slides:

Social Media Research

Reflection and Context

I’m always on that quest to find the ‘perfect’ way to teach this subject area, firstly because, in some cases, it is the new kid of the block, it is revolutionising the way that we consider research methods but it is often tacked on at the end when it is implemented within a research methods module or discussion relating to research practices. Similarly, it is often not considered in the context of other (existing) research methods – for instance, seminal texts on how to conducting face to face interviews or focus groups are challenged and updated through the use of skype or google+ hangouts – bringing their own conventions to the space; ethnographical research becomes multi-layered as you decide whether to you wish to be embedded on the ground, at a distance, through geographical data, through virtual spaces, network analysis or any of the above; or data is collected through questionnaires being transformed by the increased access to specific groups by demographic (using social networking sites), that often used to only occur through dedicated (and expensive) marketing research companies in the past. Truly, the notion that a methodological toolkit is analogue and restricted to sets of rules that were prepared in their own time, has been and can be challenged.

But in the same breathe, in order to understand the power and the potential of using social media for research is also the ability to understand and appreciate the years of scholarship and academic rigour that has came before and can go into preparing methods and implementing a research project. Standing on the shoulder of giants to borrow a term you won’t hear me say often. By ignoring this stage, and what has came before, instead of social media providing tools that can enhance your research practice, there is a chance that the technology will distract and often blind you in the process.

For example, It is all very well that devices such as Klout and PeerIndex exist to provide a measurement in order to compare particular user accounts on twitter, but if you don’t appreciate the rigour or critique of such ‘social algorithms’ – the measure of ‘influence’ (whatever that means, and if it can be) then critical scholarship is missing. As researchers, we should not only be prepared to carry out work to find , display and communicate results, we should also be prepared to ask questions about what exists already. This, for me, is what (should) differentiate social media for academic research from other instances, and why you take on an advanced course that asks you to explore and think critically about this space.

Of course, the search for the ‘perfect’ model for delivery is always destined to result in failure, there is no such thing as perfection. Just like there is no such thing as right and wrong when it comes to teaching a concept subjectively – where each individual in the room is going to produce a piece of work that will reflect their own perceptions, their own practice, social context and position. Again, the research methods model can act as a tool kit to work from, but it all done to the direction that the researcher choses to take, what they expose themselves to and if it is possible to recognise their position in the process.

For me, I’m always quite embedded in my research, where I’m not only a participant, I also take an active role in steering the results. You can see this through the tension through my position as a working journalist in Vancouver, the tension between being an activist vs academic, my coordinator role in #media2012 and the awareness of power and politics in all circumstances. It’s not the ‘traditional’ way of doing it, but it can be done and It is up to me to defend that in my writing and in my practice.

You can, instead, be removed from the process – you can observe from afar, collecting data online and never meet the participants and groups that you might end up researching. Many data experts can produce wonderful charts and network graphs that can visualise and display incidents that have occurred previous and being relayed online. They can show weak and close ties in the network to distinguish social groups, relationships and predict behaviour patterns. Again, if this process can be defended as a method, it is fair game and you can pass your assignment.

Importantly, there is no “right” answer in this. It should be encouraged to try new things, to experiment and to attempt to set new standards in using social media within a scholarly context. Aspire to do that. However, it should also be noted that much of this work is not “new” – it is a cycle, with newer tools perhaps replacing/updating what has came before. It is worth being critically aware of web platforms, that they will not provide the perfect solution to a problem, they will perform a task that can help you at that moment – that’s why learning software is not always the best way to do something. Being able to find, select and apply social media (or any tool, even if it is a pen and a flip-chart) to a research practice is the best advice that I can give that this stage. Good luck.