Thursday, 31 May 2012

NSMNSS off and running…

One of our network co-ordinators, Gareth Morrell, draws together key messages from the NSMNSS launch event, reviewing the opportunities and challenges for researchers using social media and reflecting the optimism and enthusiasm for the future of the network.

What a great day we had at our launch event on Tuesday. A big thank you to everyone involved in making it happen and to all our speakers and other contributors for providing such thought provoking insights. We really benefited from having such a diverse group (social science, humanities, market research, computer and information sciences all represented) and the open and collaborative attitude of everyone at the event and those joining online bodes well for us blossoming into a dynamic community of practice.

So what did we learn? It’s too early to say in any coherent way, but here are some initial reflections on the overarching messages for starters.

Firstly, whether it’s the Wild West, power to the people, the home of Big Data or the virtual as indicative of the real, social media is here to stay. Rightly, there was enthusiasm throughout the day that we embrace the opportunities this presents for researchers:
  • Access to bigger data sets for more people
  • More efficient collection, management and analysis of big data sets
  • The nature of social media facilitates a more interactive relationship between researcher/analyst and the ‘participant’ or study population – we can feed back what we find and see what they think
  • While there are problems of representativeness on the web, the very groups who are more difficult to involve in traditional surveys are exactly those using social media – young makes for example.
  • The nature of social media blurs the boundaries in an exciting way that can lead to fruitful, cross-disciplinary, multi-method research

But this is new and dynamic area. So there are limitations, draw-backs and caveats. If we’re to use social media in a rigorous and scientific way, we also need to consider a whole range of other issues, including:
  • Ethics – an issue that permeated every contribution yesterday. How do we get consent? Do we need it? Is representation more important? It’s clear we don’t know enough about how users of social media feel about this.
  • Sampling – inclusivity and representativeness are clearly a problem as the profile of social media users is not representative. What about the views we’re excluding? Does it matter – can we have different standards for a new method?
  • Theoretical underpinnings – should the mode of enquiry develop its own methods, its own place within the philosophy of social science? The area remains tool-focused and under-theorised.
  • Online effects – how do we account for people behaving differently online, i.e. separating the triggers from the noise?

Clearly there’s much to do in developing ethical principles, sampling models, data harvesting and sentiment tools and learning more about if, how and why we’re different online. Social media methods are not going to replace traditional methods any time soon – there’s too much they can’t tell us and too much we don’t know. But the medium is going to continue to become increasingly important in people’s social lives. The question for all of us in the network in how we harness the power of social media to enhance and enrich the tried and tested methods we already use to understand the social world.

Finally, just a reminder to get involved by signing up to methodspace, where you can discuss these issues on the forums. And if anyone wants to put more considered thoughts down in a blog for the network please do get in touch.

You can discuss this post over on our forum on Methodspace.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Getting involved in the launch event

We're really excited about the Blurring the Boundaries launch event tomorrow. As you know, we're bringing together some of the leading thinkers in research using NSM. If you aren't able to make it in person, you can join in with the launch event in a number of different ways.

Find out more information about the network here
Watch the event live online from 9.30am here
Use the hashtag #NSMNSS or tweet us directly @NSMNSS to join in the debate during the day
On Methodspace you'll find loads of useful resources around NSM and be able to join the debate in longer-form on the forums. A full programme for the day is also available - just click 'events' here

After the event, we'll be uploading all the materials from the day to our YouTube channel, Methodspace group and blog page. Why not follow this blog and our Twitter account for the latest updates?

We look forward to seeing you in person or hearing your thoughts online!
The #NSMNSS team

Qualitative Blog Analysis: Opportunities and Challenges

Helene Snee is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester. Her research interests include: cultural practices and social divisions; young people and consumption; Web 2.0 and new social media; online research methodologies and ethics; and narrative and representation. Helene is one of the theme leads on the challenges of new social media for qualitative researchers. In this blog, she discusses qualitative blog analysis.

The term ‘blog’ covers a range of new media, from diaries on intimate topics, to websites of up-and-coming fashion bloggers, to online commentaries from journalists. They tend to share some similarities of format: blog posts are presented in reverse-chronological order, can link to other webpages, and allow readers to comment. More fundamentally, blogs are associated with personal and spontaneous forms of communication. A case in point: I’m making this blog post less formal than an abstract I’d provide to a journal or conference! As such, they offer a potentially rich and innovative source of data for social scientists interested in a variety of issues. The opportunities for qualitative researchers include documentary analyses of blog content and ethnographic participation in blogging communities.

In some ways, my talk at the ‘Blurring the Boundaries’ event will present how not to conduct blog analysis. This draws upon the project I conducted for my PhD thesis, which explored how young represented their gap year experiences. Blogs were the main data source, supplemented with qualitative interviews with a subset of the bloggers. There were some practical advantages in conducting blog analysis, but this approach also enabled me to ask particular questions about how young people present their experiences without a researcher being involved in their generation (see Hookway 2008 for an extended discussion of this). At the talk I’ll consider these opportunities, but also flag the methodological and ethical challenges. Who do we capture with blog analysis? What kind of conclusions can we draw? How do we deal with the text itself? What are our responsibilities towards bloggers? In sharing some of the lessons I learned using blogs as a data source for the first time, I hope to invite debate on the future directions of qualitative blog research, and new media research more generally, including research tools, the research environment and ethical frameworks.

Reference: Hookway, N. (2008) ‘”Entering the blogosphere”: some strategies for using blogs in social research’ Qualitative Research, 8(1) 91-113. 

What do you think? Have you used blogs as part of your research? What do you think are the main ethical and methodological problems? Let us know over at Methodspace.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Are new social media changing the methods researchers use?

Prof. Richard Rogers is the Chair in New Media & Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. He's leading the first theme at our launch event and will be exploring the question: Are new social media changing the methods researchers use?

There is an ontological distinction between the natively digital and the digitized, that is, the objects, content, devices and environments that are “born” in the new medium, as opposed to those that have “migrated” to it. Should the current methods of study change, however slightly or wholesale, given the focus on objects and content of the medium?

The research program put forward here thereby engages with “virtual methods” that import standard methods from the social sciences and the humanities. That is, the distinction between the natively digital and the digitized also could apply to current research methods. What kind of Internet research may be performed with methods that have been digitized (such as online surveys and directories) vis-à-vis those that are natively digital (such as recommendation systems and folksonomy)? Second, I propose that Internet research may be put to new uses, given an emphasis on natively digital methods as opposed to the digitized. I will strive to shift the attention from the opportunities afforded by transforming ink into bits, and instead inquire into how research with the Internet may move beyond the study of online culture only. How to capture and analyze hyperlinks, tags, search engine results, archived Websites, and other digital objects? How may one learn from how online devices (e.g., engines and recommendation systems) make use of the objects, and how may such uses be repurposed for social and cultural research?

Ultimately, I propose a research practice that grounds claims about cultural change and societal conditions in online dynamics, introducing the term “online groundedness.” The overall aim is to rework method for Internet research, developing a novel strand of study, digital methods.

What do you think? Is the distinction between the natively digital and the digitized a useful one? Let us know over at Methodspace.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Have Your Say

When you signed up, we asked you a couple of questions about what you'd like to get from the network and what events you'd like us to organise. This is what you said

What do you hope to gain from the network?

85%: to learn about new research tools

74%: to learn about how new tools could be integrated with traditional methods

71%: networking opportunities with new members

64%: to share best practice

53%: to understand the ethical implications of new tools

In addition to those planned, what activities would you like to see the network co-ordinate?

77%: methods workshops

74%: regular dissemination activities (e.g. regular blog posts summarising learning from the events and online collaborations)

67%: collaborative working using new tools on a real-life research problem

53%: networking events

You also suggested a number of other activities, including: sharing relevant publications and case studies, matching social scientists and computer scientists, training events and international networking events.

We'll be doing a lot of this already - networking opportunities both in person at our events and virtually on our online platform (launching soon), giving opportunities to share best practice and debating ethics.

But is there anything we've missed? Are any of these more important than the others? Let us know over on Methodspace.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Using the Social Web to Study Something Else

Mike Thelwall is Professor of Information Science and leader of the Statistical Cybermetrics Research Group at the University of Wolverhampton. In this post he explores the potential of the social web to investigate social issues.

The rise of the social web has made many new types of study possible: research into the social web itself (e.g., who uses Facebook and why?) or its use for a specific purpose (e.g., what role does YouTube play in political campaigning?). In addition, the social web can also be a data source to help study something else: in other words a phenomenon for which the social web is not central. For this purpose, new online social research methods may supplement or replace traditional methods like interviews and questionnaires. For example blogs have been used as a replacement for diaries in diary research (Hookway, 2008) and to get retrospective public opinion about issues by investigating historical posts (Thelwall, 2007).  Another example is tracking the public mood through automatic analyses of public tweets (Bollen, Pepe, & Mao, 2011). In theory, it seems that the social web may help to shed light on any social issue, as long as it is not ignored by social web users.

Some advantages of using the social web to help investigate an issue are that accessing the web is convenient and free for internet users, gathering public data is relatively unproblematic from a research ethics perspective (I would argue), and that analysing the social web is unobtrusive and so does not place any burden upon others, in contrast to interviews and questionnaires. Nevertheless, there are also significant drawbacks with using the social web to investigate something else. The sample investigated, social web users that write about a particular topic, is likely to be a biased sample of the population of interest. For instance it may be more wealthy and more educated than average. Social web content may also be ambiguous or misleading, especially if it is intended to be read as part of a long-standing communication. For instance, the text, “I really hope that Dwain Chambers runs for England” could be ironic or not, depending upon the attitude of the poster towards punishments for drug taking in sport. Moreover, internet trolls and others may deliberately misrepresent their opinions for the purpose of generating arguments. These major disadvantages may seem to rule out using the social web to study something else, but alternative methods also have significant drawbacks. Questionnaires may generate respondent biases, respondents may answer inaccurately, or it may be impossible to generate any kind of meaningful sample. Similarly, interviews are typically too few to generate statistically valid conclusions, although they can produce deep insights into an issue.

In summary, at the abstract level discussed here, it seems that the social web has the potential to be used to investigate other social issues but researchers should be cautious with its use due to problems that affect the validity of the results obtained. These problems can be reduced by using multiple methods, or by taking advantage of the potential speed of social web research to use it for pilot studies, with the results informing additional, follow-up research.

What do you think? Can social research using social media overcome the serious questions raised about their validity? What other issues need to be borne in mind? Let us know over at Methodspace.