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New Social Media, New Social Science – are you getting it right?

15 April 2013 - BY Kandy Woodfield IN facebook, linkedin, media, methods, NatCen, NCRM, NSMNSS, NVivo, research, Sage, social, twitter

If you use NVivo to analyze social media data (from Twitter or Facebook) you’re probably wrestling with some big questions.

Are conventional research methods still applicable?

What constitutes valid and ethical social media research?

In this post, Kandy describes how the NSMNSS network supports and encourages debate among researchers on the social media frontier.

Implications of social media

How can researchers conduct social media research which is robust enough to stand up to scrutiny and add to the research evidence base?

Should social science researchers embrace social media and, if we do, what are the implications for our methods and practice? How do new social media change our perceptions of ethical practice? Just some of the questions our network of methodological innovation has been discussing this year. The network is a collaborative project run jointly by NatCen Social Reseach, and SAGE with support from our affiliate network.

Nearly 500 members worldwide have joined the debate bringing insights from all fields of social research.

By bringing together researchers from different disciplines and different sectors of the research world we have tried to break down barriers between different disciplines and to provide a space where researchers can share their knowledge and practice, moving methodological understanding forward.

Getting it right

We have had many lively debates but what has been striking is an underlying uncertainty about the validity of online methods and a lack of confidence amongst the research community about whether they are ‘getting it right’.

This concern with ‘getting it right’ has often focused on how to do research using social media, and social media data ethically. Whether or not we really understand the context of the world of social media has also been a persistent theme during our discussions.

Do we really know what the users of social media platforms expect from researchers accessing their data for research?

We have yet to uncover any research which has been conducted with the users of platforms to explore what expectations and concerns, if any; they have about privacy, confidentiality and the use of their personal data. As a result, researchers can feel like they are working in a vacuum and making assumptions about what is ethical based on what they think social media users would want or expect. A team of network members at NatCen are conducting primary research this year to fill this gap in our knowledge.

Discussions about ‘getting it right’ have been equally lively around the issue of quality. How can researchers conduct social media research which is robust enough to stand up to scrutiny and add to the research evidence base? There are many differing views about what constitutes quality in social media research and as a result researchers feel tentative about what claims they can make from their data.

Blurring the boundaries

There is a definite sense that the boundaries are being blurred between ‘real’ life and ‘virtual’ worlds; conventional research methods and new approaches; researchers & participants; qualitative and quantitative methods; and, between researchers working in a range of disciplines from Computational Science to Anthropology.

We are still at the start of our journey into the methodology of social media research, despite research being undertaken on these platforms for over a decade. We haven’t yet agreed a coherent set of epistemological or ethical frameworks for online research. In fact, some participants argue this is positive, allowing researchers fluidity and freedom in the methods and approaches they adopt, reacting to what is a fast-changing research environment.

What is clear is that the guidelines, epistemologies and methods of conventional research cannot simply be transplanted to the world of social media without scrutiny and adaptation.

What next?

Along the way the network has produced a number of outputs including a lively blog which provides a useful review of the issues that have been raised, video resources and helpful links. One major output of the network will be a report on the current ethical guidelines in use around the world. Researchers are finding it difficult to find an framework for ethics which is appropriate for social media research. Our project will provide an overview of the current guidelines and identify where improvements could made. We will also be developing training materials and resources for sharing with the wider community.

We hope you’ll join the ongoing debates by following our blog and our discussions on Twitter which use #NSMNSS.