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Understanding the influence of social media

Posted on 17 November 2011 .
Tags: European Online Grooming Project, London riots, research methodology, social media

We’re all increasingly familiar with the part that Twitter, Facebook and other new social media are playing in our lives. But do we really understand whether they are influencing individual behaviour and attitudes or broader social processes or a separate social space? And as researchers, have we yet worked out the best way to adopt social media as a research tool? As part of the Eighth International Conference on Social Science Methodology NatCen is convening a panel session to consider how social research can both use and better understand social media.



Market researchers have for some time now been mining and interacting with the insight into their lives that people reveal via social media. The argument goes that brands can’t ignore the real-time data on a whole range of issues; it can enable researchers to discern patterns in consumer behaviour and preferences. Social media listening then often involves a further almost deliberative step by engaging as a researcher, providing new information and influencing the nature of conversation.

This approach has proved its worth in a commercial setting, but how would it work in social research? There are a number of issues. First, are we seeing behaviour and attitudes that reflect an offline reality or, given what we know about disinhibition effects (for example), a distinct social space in which people say and do things they wouldn’t do offline? Second, is it best to think about this data as qualitative or quantitative? If the former, does it really provide depth; if the latter, there are issues of representativeness and rating responses. Finally, is it ethical? Although people are posting tweets with the knowledge that they are public, should they be told that these are being used for research purposes?

As well as these methodological issues, there’s also a substantive question: how insightful or important is social media when trying to understand social attitudes and what influences behaviour? In our recent study of young people’s involvement in the riots we made some interesting discoveries. Although the talk in the immediate aftermath was of the role of Twitter, Facebook and BBM in escalating and co-ordinating the violence, young people told us that a more significant facilitator was the real time pictures of looting in their local high street provided by traditional media - 24 hour television news.

So while it’s clear that social media is increasingly prevalent as a medium of communication, we’re a long way from understanding exactly how this influences our attitudes or behaviour. In social research, this is a key question. And there’s also a lot we need to do to understand how social media sources can be used in an ethical and rigorous way. Our colleagues in market research are making great strides here but this year issuing guidance on social media research. But there’s still a lot of debate and discussion to be had about their use in social research. If you’re working on any of these issues, it would be great to have you contribute to our panel session in Sydney in July next year.
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