News and Comment

Social media’s flaws are old friends to researchers

Friday 14 March 2014

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Social media is one of the biggest phenomena of the past few years, changing the ways in which we communicate and generate knowledge. These technologies have vast potential as additional tools for deliberative public dialogue and social research, but they are extremely new and some researchers are hesitant due to concerns about their validity and reliability. Are these concerns well founded, or are the problems that social media present really very similar to those found with other research methods?

This was an argument put forward by Caroline Turley and Carol McNaughton Nicholls from NatCen Social Research at a seminar run by the Social Research Association (SRA) on 27th February. Caroline and Carol were presenting an overview of the new edition of ‘Qualitative Research Practice’, outlining the areas that have changed most significantly in the 10 years since the first edition was published.

The evolution of the internet and in particular the arrival of social media is, of course, one of the defining changes of the last decade, so one of the topics discussed at the seminar was the way in which qualitative social research has engaged with this technology. Caroline and Carol noted the concerns relating to validity and reliability, but argued that we have a tendency to over-think the impact of the internet, when in fact it could be seen as an extension to the variety of communication tools available to us, and one which carries the kinds of limitations and risks we are already familiar with. So, what are some of the common concerns raised about using social media, how are these similar to the challenges posed by other research tools and how does this experience help us to find ways to overcome social media’s challenges?

The way in which we represent ourselves as individuals has been affected by social media, and this can be a cause for concern in qualitative research. But people represent themselves differently in all other situations too, and the influence of power dynamics between researchers and participants is well documented, so this isn’t really a novel challenge for researchers.

Communicating via social media channels often involves a mixture of media types, including photographs, video, and text, so researchers have decisions to make about what data to analyse and how to do so. But in any research project we have to identify and rationalise our data and methodology choices, so this isn’t a new problem either, and social media presents interesting ways in which we can combine different types of analysis.

The ‘digital divide’ is another subject that often comes up in discussions about using the internet as a tool for research and engagement. But the need to address and consider accessibility and participation is relevant for any research method we might choose, so this is simply a variation of this issue.

Practical issues, like obtaining written consent from participants, can also present challenges in an online environment, but these kinds of problems also arise in other forms of interaction such as telephone interviews. The seminar group discussed how we need to develop more flexible ethical consent processes that adapt to the research method, rather than allowing these processes to limit the research. Indeed, one of the valuable things about qualitative, as opposed to quantitative, research is the ability to respond flexibly to use the right method for each particular subject area and for each individual participant.

Social media is certainly not an online silver bullet able to unlock untapped sources of evidence with one click, and its potential to connect researchers with participants will vary depending on the project and subject area. However, it is obvious that social media has an important role to play in social research, and this role is destined to become more important as technologies become more widely adopted. But although social media is a relatively new technology, researchers should avoid getting too preoccupied with the perceived novelty of the challenges it presents, and should use the same caution and expertise they would with any other research tool. Indeed, no matter what medium or method we use, as qualitative research practitioners we all have a responsibility to maintain an ethical conscience, to carry out good quality research, and to be reflective about the strengths and limitations of our work. By extending this approach to social media it can be incorporated as a research tool among all the others at our disposal, and best practice in this area will develop through its increased use and shared reflection and learning.