Approaching Social Media Research

One of the areas in which I’ve wanted to develop my research for some time is the use of social media. As someone with two blogs (one of which may be defunct now, but never mind that), two Twitter accounts, access to two further Twitter accounts, a Facebook account and not one, but three now disused MySpace accounts, it should come as no surprise that this fast-moving world of Web 2.0 is one that I’m keen to incorporate into my PhD. The difficulty I faced was how to do so? I see myself as fairly social media-savvy, but certainly not au fait with the technical side of such things. To add to this, whilst both of my supervisors support the idea of exploring this avenue, neither of them have any experience of researching it, and one of them has no online presence beyond his departmental profile.

The best way forward, then, seemed to be to submit an abstract on this very topic to an international conference. Yes, the fact that this year’s Urban Affairs Association conference is taking place in San Francisco made it attractive, but so too did the inclusion of a specific track on Media and Urban Life. When the abstract I submitted was accepted, the joy at having an excuse to visit San Francisco was matched equally by the nerves at having to confidently present on a topic academically entirely new to me. And in researching and writing the conference paper, two concerns in particular have arisen:

1) Personal adoption of social media can blind a critical eye

I have to admit, my first attempt at writing on this topic was distinctly below par. The issue, it seems, was that being a regular user of social media, particularly Twitter, the positives of social media adoption were distinctly clearer than the negatives. In a way, this highlights a more general issue with research, and my PhD research in particular. I, like many others, applied to write about an area I have a great level of interest in. In a field I’m passionate about, focusing on a case study I believe, for the most part, has a positive influence. This is no doubt part of a learning curve, but in attempting to critique cultural institutions’ and events’ use of social media I found myself stopping short of the kind of deep analysis that touches upon the underlying themes that are found throughout my PhD thus far, such as inclusion, exclusion and issues of power. This, no doubt, is something to keep working at: personal adoption of social media does not mean that there are not deeper intricacies to uncover.

2) The interactivity of social media is not best represented in a traditional academic paper

There have been various ways in which this particular issue has manifested itself. Firstly, in attempting to find academic papers on social media, it should come as no surprise that the glacial pace of academic publishing does not adequately keep pace with the quick march of social media and online technology. Cue the usual concern that if there aren’t enough relevant sources to quote from, what you’re trying to say won’t seem as valid.

Secondly, there is the issue of how to represent findings. Thanks to Jennifer Jones, I was introduced to the use of Tagsexplorer as a tool for visualising the use of Twitter hashtags. This is excellent. The organisation on which my research is based, the Manchester International Festival, is embracing the use of hashtags in a big way in the run up to this year’s series of events. So with a bit of technical jiggery-pokery (thankfully made easy by fantastic instructions from Martin Hawksey), I am now archiving all usage of #MIF13 on Twitter. This not only keeps track of who is tweeting what, when, but provides some rather nice interactive visuals, whereby you can zoom in and around the web of connections created through the use of this hashtag. In attempting to represent this in a traditional conference paper, however, this is what you get:

#MIF13Interesting? Well yes, I happen to think so. But as a static visual it doesn’t really convey much. So I suppose I’m looking for any suggestions from those more well-versed than I in such areas on how to make this kind of data work for you, if what you happen to be doing is trying to present it in a more traditional format.

Looking further down the line, I’m hoping that I can get to grips with these ideas, as there is a lot to be captured from observing social media use. For the time being, I’ll take what I have to San Francisco!



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