Facebook Groups as Research Method

Categories: Contemporary Issues, Creative Methods, Data Collection, Online Research, Other, Research, Research Skills

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In June we are focusing on a range of qualitative and quantitative methods for collecting data online. Find all the posts through this link.

We are featuring a series of posts from the authors and contributors to the new book, Creative Methods for Human Geographers, including this one from Nadia von Benzon: Creative Methods for supporting social science students in qualitative remote research.


by Dr. Nadia von Benzon, Lancaster University; Dr. Rebecca Whittle, Lancaster University; and Dr. Jo Hickman-Dunne, Centre for Youth Impact.

In this blog post we set out to discuss the use of a Facebook group as a space for recruiting and conducting research with adults.  We were keen to draw out some of the details, and reflect on our use of the method, given the relative absence of research using social media as a space for data generation within the qualitative social sciences.

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In June 2020 we launched our Facebook Group Birth Stories, as a space to generate data for our research exploring the way that birthing parents experience, narrate, and respond to narrations, of labour and delivery. We advertised the research group through other groups we were members of, and on our own Facebook pages, quickly attracting over 100 members, and dozens of stories and related discussions about birth. It didn’t take long for the group to generate as much data as we could usefully analyse, but the group remains, albeit largely dormant, as a channel of communication between the participants and the researchers.

We want to briefly draw out a few of the key concerns we –and our university ethics review panel – had about this approach to research, and how these issues worked out in practice. Particularly, we want to focus on concerns we had around confidentiality and group management in participant engagement with one another on a Facebook group developed for research purposes. We then briefly reflect on how we think our own actions as researchers helped to develop a positive research space where useful data was generated and members claimed to benefit from participation.

Confidentiality

A key concern of ours, and the prime concern of our reviewer from the faculty ethics panel, was the lack of confidentiality afforded by group research on Facebook. The key issue here is that Facebook requires users to engage with the platform, and with other users of the platform, using an avatar, or profile picture, that is linked to a personal profile including a name which Facebook requires to be the name that the user utilizes in everyday life. Moreover, Facebook users are allowed only one profile, which makes it impossible to set up an avatar specifically for running a research project, as other platforms, like Twitter, allow users to. Although users’ avatars appear with their names, Facebook does allow privacy settings to be managed by users, allowing users to choose to make their personal profiles visible only to those who they have designated as ‘friends’ on the platform.

As we were concerned about the willingness of participants to share intimate stories alongside their own names we offered participants the option of sending their stories to the researchers for anonymous posting on the page, or emailing their stories to us directly for anonymous inclusion in the study. A very small number of stories (2) and then one story follow up, and one email message were sent directly to the researchers. By contrast around 100 stories were shared to the group. In addition to posting stories and photographs, participants also commented supportively on others’ stories, making connections with other participants with similar experiences, or offering words of empathy and solidarity.

Whilst it’s impossible to know for sure, we would attribute at least some of the positivity of participants’ interactions with one another to the fact that the group was operating in a non-anonymous manner. Participants were real to one another, in a way that they might not have been so ‘human’ had we been using a platform like Mumsnet or Instagram, where users were interacting under assumed names.

Of course, the lack of anonymity extended to the researchers. Early on, Rebecca and Nadia made the decision that they would ‘participate’ in the research alongside the participants. As both researchers had personal experience of giving birth, it made sense for them to share their stories within the group too. As such, the use of personal avatars was a good leveler within group discussions. Whilst the use of personal avatars does of course provide participants with a more ‘personal’ way to contact the researchers (via personal messenger on the platform) than the traditional email or specific project phone, we did not judge this to be a significant risk. Facebook does allow you to block other users should there have been an issue. We did not designate any of the participants as friends on the platform, so participants who accessed our profile pages via our avatars would have had a very limited view.

Managing interactions

The other key challenge we faced was how to manage group interactions when research was happening on social media. Unlike in-person research, the asynchronous nature of the space allowed participants to post to the group, and comment on other posts, at any time. This was particularly useful for research involving mothers as members could participate at a time convenient to them – often for our participants this was at ‘anti-social’ hours, when mothers were awake in the night feeding babies, for example. However, the hours that were convenient for the participants did not have a neat overlap with the researchers’ working hours. This meant that discussions were not easy for the researchers to manage in real-time. However, the vast majority of interactions between members were positive. We also found frequently that where members had posted difficult stories, other participants had responded warmly before the researchers were able to comment.

Analysis in progress

At the time of writing this post, we are still engaged in the analysis and write up of this data. However, we have been really overwhelmed both by the richness and depth of the stories and the discussions, and by the positive responses from participants. Throughout the group there are comments from participants reflecting on the value of writing and sharing their story with the group. Many report a catharsis in sharing their experience, and for some a group of supportive strangers appears to have been the space they needed to present and reflect on their own experience. Members speak very positively about finding others with similar experiences. For some mothers with particularly unusual experiences of pregnancy, labour or delivery, the large group size allowed them to find commonality with another participant that they hadn’t found in smaller ante/post-natal groups or amongst family and friends.

We think the success of the group was largely down to the participant demographics, focus of the group and the approach to recruitment. Participants were adults with a shared experience who had voluntarily accepted an invitation to join research discussing that shared experience. The format of posting stories and pictures, and then commenting on others’ stories and pictures facilitated communication amongst members, giving members a clear task that could be completed at a time convenient to each participant. However, we also think the quality of the stories, the provision of photos and the positive comments that participants exchanged, were particularly encouraged by the researchers’ initial posts to the group. Here, the researchers prepped the space with their own birth stories, photographs and friendly comments on each others’ stories in order to set the tone for the group, and to prevent any participants needing to populate a blank space.

Whilst we’ve found Facebook to provide an excellent and appropriate space for this particular project, it’s important not to conclude without being clear that we would not unreservedly recommend the space for all participant groups. We felt the space worked particularly well for facilitating conversation between a large group of people, and for allowing very busy participants to contribute in a manageable way. Although planned prior to COVID, the research period clashed with the pandemic, and the value of Facebook as a virtual space that facilitated long-distance interactions became very important. Additionally, there are lots of non-pandemic related reasons why allowing participants to engage with a research project from home, and at a time to suit them, might be beneficial. However, we do recognize that there are many situations in which Facebook would not provide a suitable space for research. Research where participant interactions need to be closely supervised, or where the researcher might have a particular duty of care to participants, are two examples.

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