Summary of Knowledge Exchange Seminar on Qualitative Social Media Research

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    Katie Metzler
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    The third Knowledge Exchange Seminar of the New Social Media, New Social Science (NSMNSS) network was held on the 28th of January. The topic for this event was ‘Qualitative Research and Social Media’ and it brought together specialist speakers to discuss a range of topics, including opportunities and challenges of ‘Deep Data’, understanding behaviors and networks through the lens of netnography, and the changing role of the qualitative researcher online. We asked a range of contributors to share case studies illustrating their experiences of using qualitative methods in social media research and these were really useful starting points for highlighting the challenges today’s researchers face.

    Our first speaker of the day was Janet Salmons, from the Capella University School of Business and Technology, on the opportunities and challenges of ‘Deep Data’. In an era where increasing focus is laid on social media’s potential to provide quantitative researchers with ‘big data’, Janet argues that the challenge for qualitative researchers is still to see data in context and to make meaning from this. Data collection online often blurs the lines between methods such as online interviews, observations and documentary analysis, and this has practical and ethical implications for researchers. Ethics was the topic of our first knowledge exchange seminar and has probably been the strongest thread running through the whole of the network’s activities so far. You can read more about some of the issues raised in previous discussions here:http://www.methodspace.com/group/nsmnss/forum/topics/nsmnss-workshop-3-ethics 

    A reoccurring question in the discussion following Janet’s presentation was ‘how new and different are the issues and challenges facing social media researchers from those which qualitative (and quantitative researchers) have always faced?’ Informed consent, for example, is not new and revisiting the parameters of informed consent throughout the course of your research is just as important if you’re doing research online or offline. Some of the new challenges lie in questions around the non-neutrality of social media platforms and the increasingly ‘connected’ nature of our digital selves. With just a few clicks, you may be able to access someone’s profile on Facebook which might link you to their LinkedIn profile, which may in turn take you to their Twitter feed. Whether this data is considered public or private is only one of the questions – often we are able to find out more about a person than we’d imagined when using online data sources. For example, harvesting tweets can also tell you what kind of phone someone is tweeting from! We have to keep remembering that these platforms have been set up for a commercial purpose and are collecting data which is valuable for commercial interests- very little is actually known about what users of these platforms think about how this data is used in social research. 

    The second presentation of the day came from Gachoucha Kretz, from the ISC PARIS School of Management, on netnography and understanding behaviour and networks. Netnography is a method developed by Robert V Kozinets (http://www.uk.sagepub.com/books/Book233748) and it provides a framework for studying cultures and communities online. Some of the issues Gachoucha raised were around the challenges of identifying your sample online – she talked about her PhD work on fashion blogs and the difficulty of identifying which blogs were worth studying. You either need to do a search using Google’s ranking and trust an algorithm, or rely on a list of blogs someone else thinks is influential. Other challenges you face when studying online communities is the overwhelming archive of material, the multi –media nature of online data, and the offline relationships and networks which influence the online space but may not be visible online. 

    Kandy Woodfield of NatCen kicked off the final session on the changing role of the qualitative researcher online. Many of the issues raised in the previous sessions around ethics came up again and there was a strong sense that researchers of today need some new literacies to effectively research in online spaces. For example, how deep does your knowledge of debates around whether distinctions between online and offline are passé need to be? Richard Rogers calls it ‘the end of the virtual’, but you could spend a lifetime just reading about this before embarking on your own online research! What about our knowledge of each individual platform we might study – do you need to be on Twitter to study Twitter? And what new skills are required if we are to take into account multi-media data, given that most online platforms involve words, pictures, video and sound? One of the benefits of online research is the ability it gives us to research globally without physically travelling to each location, but what do researchers need to know about cultural codes of conduct and the varying uses of platforms by different populations? 

    There were probably more questions raised than answered, but it was a great chance to discuss common challenges and to try to determine ways forward. The network is currently working considering ways to develop and influence ethical guidelines for social media research – we’ll be in touch about this in more detail soon. Please join the conversation, share ideas and potential solutions through the network’s methodspace group (http://www.methodspace.com/profile/NSMNSS). You can also visit the NSMNSS Blog (http://nsmnss.blogspot.co.uk/) to read the latest discussions on social media in the social sciences and to view past videos.

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