Surely using Twitter to conduct social science surveys is a dream come true. From the comfort of the researcher’s desk, a series of questions go out to a wide and yet mostly targeted audience — and then responses tweet back in. Magic! As researchers Marc Cheong, Torgeir Aleti and Will Turner write, “Twitter allows researchers to aggregate micro-interactions themed around specific points of interest to provide a big-picture perspective of real world phenomena.”
So why did these same three researchers use the phrase ‘wild west’ to describe their survey of alcohol use by tweeters (individuals who had hashtags that referenced drinking) in Australia? Why do they title the resulting case study for SAGE Research Methods Online as “Twitter, Alcohol and Wasted War Stories: Potted Lessons in Social Media–Based Methodologies”? (They titled an earlier account of the same experience, “(Mis-)Adventures in Twitterland.”)
In this interview, Aleti, who lectures in marketing at Monash Business School, explains the researchers’ motivations, and the hard lessons they drew from the experience while trying to preserve the integrity, both design and ethical, of their research. Despite offering incentives and having already listened in on the online conversation, in the end they managed to only harvest five legitimate responses.
What led you to study this issue?
We wanted to know more about young Australians’ drinking habits, in particular, their motivations to drink and the social norms and habits around contemporary drinking cultures.
Why did you originally decide to use Twitter as a research tool? How did your colleagues react?
We decided to use Twitter as a research tool for two key reasons; Firstly, we view social media as a mirror of normal human life and interactions. That is, rather than see it as a phenomenon in itself, we view it as a normal and everyday space where humans interact. Secondly, Twitter seemed well suited in order to reach the audience we wanted to communicate with because it is open source and searchable for keywords (hashtags).
What problems did you encounter throughout? And what innovative ways did you use to address that?
The problems we encountered were threefold:
Firstly, the open nature of Twitter worked against us. Many users that we had not invited to participate in our survey found their way to our invitation tweet. Some attempted to receive all of our incentive gifts by completing the survey several times.
Secondly, Twitter is more of a community than what we anticipated. Some of our followers offered to retweet the survey to their followers, others asked if our account had been hijacked do to an abnormal amount of similar tweets posted. Neither of this was helpful for us to reach the particular users we wanted to complete the survey.
Thirdly, users we had no prior contact with regarded our survey invitation as spam and ‘reported’ us to Twitter. As such, our account was suspended and the study could not continue.
In your experience, how effective was Twitter when used as a listening post? How effective was it when used to solicit survey participation?
In our experience, Twitter is an excellent tool as a listening post. The data is open source and free, and data can easily be harvested with the right tools. From there, it is possible to analyze and categorize the content of tweets of interest to the researchers.[But] when it comes to using Twitter to solicit survey participation, it is not very effective. In general, Twitter users are suspicious of tweets sent directly to them by someone they do not know. It may be perceived as spam or perhaps direct marketing. That said, it may work if a relationship is established first. In this case the researcher needs to start by following the Twitter users they have targeted, open a dialogue and then ask them to participate in the survey. The downside with this approach is that it would be very time consuming.
What advice would you offer anyone using Twitter as a research tool?
Our main advice is to establish a deep knowledge of the platform before commencing the research project. The same advice can be extended to other social media platforms as well. It is important to understand the (unwritten) rules of engagement and how people interact on a particular platform.