'What are the challenges facing social research in social media?'

This was the question posed to a speakers’ panel in the closing session of the 2014 Social Research Association one day conference, ‘Social research in social media’, held on the 16th May at the British Library. The question was posed as part of a discussion on the future of social media research.

As you might expect, panellists responded with a variety of issues, but four clear overall themes emerged.

Data access

Firstly, there’s the challenge of accessing data for social research purposes, which has several key dimensions. Whilst the main social media channels are often perceived as public spaces, they are either owned by commercial entities whose main interest is monetising personal data, or they are private spaces (‘walled gardens’).

Therefore, content in some channels is more accessible than from within others - one reason why Twitter, which takes a more relaxed position, is more widely used in research. There was a call for research councils to take a more assertive position in petitioning channels for increased access.

A further issue raised was how to engage with citizens to help overcome concerns about how their data was used and convince them of the benefits to society of accessing SM data for research purposes. A hearts and minds campaign was recommended to win the public over, perhaps in the UK through UK Data Services, including, of course, the use of social media as a key communication channel.

Users views on SM being used for research purposes has recently been explored by NatCen, and the July issue of IJMR (56/3) will include a Viewpoint by one of the authors. One speaker thought some form of financial incentive scheme might provide a solution – which I think would provide an interesting challenge in itself...if at all feasible.

A co-creation approach was also mentioned, engaging those with an interest in how society is changing. Finally of course, the issue of ethics was raised, and the legal position - particularly for data privacy and copyright – plus the myriad technical challenges facing researchers using SM data.


The second key challenge was the proprietary nature of the tools available for social media data analysis.

One speaker echoed the concern raised a few years ago by Mike Savage and Roger Burrows about a looming crisis facing social research (see ‘Wither the survey?’, IJMR Viewpoint Vol. 50 Issue 3, 2008) in an era of what is now called ‘big data’, with the potential for business interests to dominate the data analytics market. 

In an earlier presentation, Suay Ozkula (University of Kent) discussed the limitations she’d found in the commercial tools used in a study of activism and discussed the challenges in combining off line and online data.

She argued the need for a triangulation approach in methodology wherever possible, even though this was often a cumbersome process that slowed down data collection.

Ozkula felt that as social research was a late adopter of social media for data collection, there was still a paucity of methodological literature in this field, and called for more studies to help researchers develop new approaches that overcame the current limitations of available tools. 

Dhiraj Murthy (Goldsmiths College) in his presentation described the application of social network analysis theory and models in social media analysis to help understand human behaviour in this field, echoing references to this in the morning sessions.

Dhiraj also underlined the need for mixed methods in SM research: questionnaire based sample surveys, observation, cluster analysis, modelling, in addition to social network analysis where matrix formats provide an effective starting point in mapping networks, but cautioning that different methods produce different outcomes. As one panel member described, the challenge is matching qualitative methods to data that was quantitative in scale.


The third key challenge was the shortage of skills in social research to harness the opportunities available from social media data. In a previous blog on big data I mentioned the need for cross-discipline sharing of knowledge and methodological experience, and this was echoed by panel members.

There was a lengthy discussion on the need for more and better training in social media research methods, including who might be best placed as providers. Whilst there are many free tutorials and guidance etc available on the internet, these do not create the basis for a recognised, general qualification covering SM tools and research methods in this field.

Maybe it is time for some form of accredited qualification in social media research methods, perhaps developed jointly by professional bodies in the market and social research fields? A further suggested route was through the NSMNSS network (Conference Notes, IJMR Vol. 55 Issue 3, 2013), especially as panel members felt university lecturers would welcome training opportunities in this field.

‘Social quietness’

Finally, the issue of bias was raised and the influence of celebrities on social media, especially on Twitter.

Panel members felt that there was a need for more research to understand the impact of bias; exclusion and the differing levels of frequency in usage patterns. Dan Nunan (Henley Centre) cited an example from the winter’s floods – those appealing for help using social media usually didn’t need it, whilst those in real trouble didn’t turn to social media to call for assistance. This led to a call for more ‘practical sociology’ experiments to gain a better understanding of how social media works.

The overall conclusion is how close to the start of the journey in understanding and using social media in research we really are. SM analysis is also a journey in itself, an iterative process.

Data privacy legislation will probably play an increasingly important role in limiting research in this field – the recent ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling against Google being one example of what the future holds. I also personally feel that there is a need for an accredited qualification in this field of research, matching those available to digital marketers.

Postscript: I have just been informed that MRS is collaborating with the IPA and Marketing Society to produce best practice examples of social media measurement. They have commissioned Ray Poynter to produce a comprehensive guide which, although commercially focused, aims to be useful for all researchers. The guide will be published later this year. 

There's more info about the #ipasocialworks initiative here. 


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