Future challenges, take down notices & social media research

I’m taking part in a panel at the SRA’s annual social media in social research conference tomorrow and thought I’d take the opportunity to make some personal reflections on the challenges facing social media research in the future. These are top of head thoughts which I’ll come back to after the event tomorrow. You can follow tweets from the event at the hashtag #SRAconf.

 

You might be able to explain social media using doughnuts, but what about how we research that behaviour and the data it produces. Three years into our New Social Media, New Social Science? peer-led network we have over 600 researchers in our community and we’ve witnessed an explosion of interest in social media research in the social sciences.  Over the course of those three years researchers from around the world have come together in person and online to share their experiences, frustrations and achievements. We’ve identified a number of challenges.

There is no doubt that there are now more people talking about social media research, it has become part of mainstream methodological debate and researchers are developing new tools for exploring social media data and understanding the social media dimension of contemporary life. It’s hard to find any sector of life where the promise and potential of ‘big data’ haven’t been touted as the next big thing.

But we face a key methodological challenge. I’m struck by the fact that quite simply most social media data is ‘not quantitative data, rather qualitative data on a quantitative scale’ (Francesco D’Orazio) – we have yet to fully address the fact that a high proportion of social media traffic consists of pictures not text. The social science of images and visual data is not hugely well served by current approaches and tools which focus on text and numerical data. There are some researchers leading the charge in this area (see this from Dr Farida Vis, for example, on the challenges of analysing visual data from social media) but we have much to learn from colleagues working in the digital humanities sphere.

image  This brings us to the collaborative challenge. I’m confident that the most powerful insight from social media research will come from transdisciplinary efforts drawing on the varied insights and skills of for example statisticians, qualitative researchers, digital curators, information scientists, machine learning experts and human geographers. We have a window of opportunity to forge a new shape and rhythm for our research methods and epistemologies, I’m not convinced we’re yet fulfilling the potential transformative nature of this moment.

We also face profound ethical and legal challenges. In a week when internet search giants have been legally required by an EU court to respect individual’s rights ‘to be forgotten’ we are talking about using social media data for research. We might feel that our social research is a benign endeavour contrasted to commercial harvesting of customer insight data but we all face similar ethical and legal challenges: whose data? whose consent? whose ownership? All complex issues, as shown by our recent NatCen research on the views of social media users about researchers use of their data. We have only just begun to scrape the surface of this debate and meanwhile data is being mined, harvested, analysed and reported in increasing volume. The critical moments which will shape and define the ethical and legal frameworks for the use of social media data will probably not come from social research but from the use of social media data in the commercial world or media realm, these industries practices may shape our future access to research data. Are we engaging enough with these sectors and issues?

And in a world where technology moves fast we face a capability challenge. How many of us are really au fait with the worlds we are researching on social media platforms? Which brings us to the connective or contextual challenge how can we research what we don’t understand or use? We know from our members that many methods lecturers, research supervisors, research commissioners, and research ethics board members do not feel adequately equipped to make rounded, informed decisions about the quality, ethics or value of social media research projects and proposals.

Finally, there is a synthesis challenge, how if at all can new forms of research and findings map onto, elaborate or further inform conventional social research data?

Of course challenges are hard, knotty things to tackle but they also give us great opportunities to really push the boundaries of our practice as social scientists. Social media research needs social science as much as it does data science, it needs anthropology and ethnography as well as big data analytics, it needs to reflect, explore and understand the context and communities which anchor and shape social media data. I’m up for the challenge, are you?

You can join the NSMNSS network by following @NSMNSS, we tweet using the #tag NSMNSS and invite open contributions to our blog.

Learning curves

Learning curves, we’ve all had them. Some are extremely enjoyable, exhilarating and satisfying, in other cases the ride is less pleasurable, the curve is just too steep or rocky.  Over the last two years I’ve been riding the learning curve of setting up a community of practice.

I’m glad to say this curve has been enjoyable but I’ve learnt a lot and this post reflects on that learning.

In 2011 I was part of a team from NatCen Social Research, Sage Publications and the Oxford Internet Institute who launched a peer-led network for researchers using social media in their research studies. You can read more about the ‘New Social Media, New Social Science?’ network on our blog. Social scientists have been exploring digital behaviour for over twenty years, so digital research methodology is a growing but pioneering field which needs to respond swiftly to a changing technological landscape. By 2011 tools like Facebook, Twitter and You Tube were embedded into daily life and social researchers had realised that there were insights to be gleaned from the behaviours and opinions voiced on social media.

image We wanted to create a reflective space where researchers could come together to learn more about how turning a sociological gaze onto social media might change or challenge our practice. Our aim was to create an enduring network of researchers who could share ideas or approaches and challenge each other to push our practice forward. Two years in, we have over 500 members worldwide and have recently handed over the reins of our main @NSMNSS Twitter account and blog to members of the community. I’ll post more about the fascinating things we’ve learnt about doing social media research later but in this post I want to focus on building the learning community.

“Communities of practice (CoP) are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (Etienne Wenger: 2007)

They utilise the power of social and experiential learning to develop shared skills, cultures and values; new practices, techniques and tools; alternative models of thinking and novel approaches to persistent challenges. Widely used for continuing professional development the model was well suited to the goals of our network around facilitating shared learning and knowledge exchange. Communities of practice use a range of learning and development strategies to share ideas and we aimed to create a similar blend of activities.

We were lucky enough to receive funding from NCRM in our first year which paid for a series of face-to-face events but most network activity needed to happen online. Luckily, social media have extended the field of play for communities of practice. Tools like Twitter, Facebook, Ning and blogging tools can be used now to support community activities and enable members to participate in synchronous and asynchronous discussions of their practice and we set out to make full use of these social tools.

Being active online was critical in building and maintaining our network it helped us keep network discussions moving, engage participants who could not attend the face-to-face events and build a network that drew in researchers from around the world. We started out with a Twitter account, You Tube channel, Blogger account and Methodspace group (Methodspace is a Ning community platform for social scientists run by Sage).

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So what did our learning curve teach us?

  • Engagement 101: keep it simple.  Get creative, come up with a catchy, short name for your community! Our name spelt out what we were exploring but it was a mouthful and I can’t think of a single event when someone hasn’t tripped over it, even the acronym NSMNSS doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. 
  • Building a visually engaging, easy to use platform is critical for developing an online community. Find the right platform to act as the hub of your network, then create spindles from that to provide a richer source of resources and engagement points as needed. We started with too many platforms which diluted their impact and confused new members. As our community developed, activity crystallised around our Twitter account and blog, and our dialogue was tighter as a result.
  • It’s hard work and takes more time than you’ll anticipate. New networks need the active involvement of ‘community gardeners’ or ‘facilitators’ to ensure that engagement is sustained and the content, connections and community are nurtured.  People do come if you build it (and promote it) but they won’t stay unless you give them a reason to. You need to be there to keep conversations moving, help new members find their way around and encourage existing members to contribute.
  • This sounds obvious but it’s important to think about your community and who they are. Ask them regularly what they want. We used quick Survey Monkey polls and tweeted questions, as well as Doodle polls and other tools to find out about people’s interests and context. Our developing network was global, spread across several time zones, so we had to be mindful of when we ran online activities and take care to create asynchronous resources for learning outwith the live events and debates. We also had to consider cultural and legal differences which might affect the experiences of network members in different regions.
  • Actively involve your members, otherwise you’ll end up broadcasting at them. We found this frustrating initially until we learned how to entice members out of their watching mode.  Early on we invited member blogs from researchers but a critical breakthrough came when we introduced a regular Twitter chat. This created energy in the community, drew people in and provided volunteers for more structured learning sessions. We recruited members to present case studies of their research, share their experiences of the tools & methods they had used at ‘how to’ sessions and take part in Q&A sessions. This meant the agenda was built from the members up and that we sometimes needed to review our own assumptions and ideas about the direction of the community which was no bad thing.
  • You don’t have to be an island. Reach out to related communities, cast about for groups and networks with similar or related interests, see if you can support one another. We ran co-hosted events with related groups including the PhD forum #socphd which opened our network to new audiences and widened the voices heard in our discussions. Reciprocity is key in building online connections so we tried to remember to give back by RTing and promoting our fellow networks’ news and shares. You can also learn a lot from how other unrelated communities operate. NSMNSS owes a debt of gratitude to the #cht2lrn community who showed us the way around Twitter chats and set a great example of member led community learning.
  • Try to make the walls of your network porous. Think about who’s missing, be open and inclusive to avoid becoming an echo chamber (thanks to @sukhpabiel for reminding me of this) where members repeat the same points and discussions with one another without ever hearing dissenting voices or alternative perspectives. It’s been fantastic to have researchers from the arts & humanities, physical sciences & computing involved in the community, this has really helped us to understand how social media research is breaking through disciplinary boundaries. But we’ve been acutely aware that our community is low on members from the social media industry and we know this has limited our learning, we’re still trying to reach them so if you happen to know anyone at Google, Twitter or Facebook do let them know about us!
  • Establish a rhythm for the community, do things at regular intervals so that the community knows when things are happening. We found it helpful to run a Twitter chat before an event to rehearse the issues and set the themes for debate, we ran guest blogs & published transcripts of the chats to spark thoughts before the event. On the day we live tweeted events, streamed or videoed speakers, and then followed up by posting those resources and event blogs. Members liked the rhythm of familiar activities and having a rhythm means you can mix it up when things are flagging and need an injection of energy.
  • On that note, try new things and experiment, they won’t all work but that’s OK. we hadn’t planned to run Twitter chats but we decided to give it a whirl after people picked up the hashtag #NSMNSS to share resources and build connections. After the first few agonising moments when we thought we were tweeting into a black hole (if you’ve ever run one you’ll know that feeling!) the format took off and we ended up running regular, themed chats.

Above all, remember to enjoy it, a buzzing group of members sharing ideas and learning from one another whether in real time or online is a hugely satisfying moment to be involved in. How does this compare to your own experiences of building or participating in communities of practice, I’d love to hear your views?

MOOCs, content curation & learning what motivates me!

Over the last three weeks along with 298 other MOOCers I’ve been working my way through a mini-MOOC on how to be an effective digital curator. If you’re not sure what a MOOC is I point you to this BBC article and this post by Steve Wheeler on Massive Open On Line Courses. If you’d like a crash course in digital curation then all the resources from the MOOC are also available now via Sam Burrough here.

When I heard this mini-MOOC was being planned by two of my Twitter network Sam Burrough (@burrough) & Martin Couzins (@martincouzins) I was genuinely excited. This was something to kick off my 2014 CPD, something which interested me & would be helpful in the day job.

When I started out my motivations were to:

  • Finally finish a MOOC – I’ve started two possibly three before and never completed them, I’m a completer-finisher at heart & when I don’t finish things I beat myself up, third time lucky I thought.
  • Learn something about digital curation – I’ve been pulling together & sharing digital content for a few years but I was hoping to get a better framework, a set of guiding principles for an activity which I genuinely enjoy. Curation lets me wander around the thoughts & ideas of a huge range of talented, thought-provoking folk (and stumble over a few cow pats along the way but that’s life digital or not!)
  • Share reflections with like and not like-minded fellow MOOCers and learn from their experiences & insights.
  • Have a bit of light relief from January’s bleakness, KPIs & implementing a new IT system at work.
  • Understand the MOOC approach better, see it from a student’s perspective rather than as a learning professional and evaluate if my cynicism about the grand claims made for them as the saviours of formal education was on target or completely misguided.

Two and a half weeks later, which ironically coincided with possibly the busiest period at work I’ve ever known, I reached Level 7 – the end. Each of the circles on the screenshot below represents a resource to be viewed and commented on, an easy coast it was not.

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The mini-MOOC (mini because it only lasted three weeks not three months like some of the more formal MOOCs do) was provided on the Curatr platform which awards you experience points ‘XPs’ for viewing and commenting on resources, taking quizzes, answering open questions and commenting on other people’s contributions. When you reach a certain Level threshhold you’re invited to reflect on a question for the level, add your thoughts & bingo you’re levelled up to the next stage. You can rush through not comment or contribute, much like any other MOOC, but I saw little evidence of people doing that. Most were commenting, contributing some more extensively than others but there was more cross-commentary & discussion than I’ve seen before.

It’s easy to point to some obvious reasons for that including : The topic, if you’re interested in digital curation you’re already likely to value the thoughts of others and the role of dialogue online. The designers, Sam & Martin are pros they designed an engaging, effective learning journey peppered with well chosen thought provoking content. They also both happen to have a strong online network of people interested in learning design, social learning & collaboration who signed up for the MOOC bringing insights & comment.

And finally, the platform I think I forgot to mention the leaderboards? Jo Cook has blogged about these already but they warrant another mention. One part of the platform shows you leaderboards of people who’ve earned the most points for resources viewed, contributing comments, adding content and voting up other people’s comments. When I first saw it my heart sank. Gamification, I thought… I won’t like that. I could live with levelling up which is based on levels in video game playing but having everyone see where you are on different scoreboards no thank you.

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As is so often the case time makes fools of us. The experience made me realise that far from hating gamification it really motivated me, not as much so getting a reply to a comment or seeing someone using a resource I posted, but it did motivate me. It made me think back to nights playing Scrabble with my Mum, being closeted in my bedroom playing Space Invaders when I was 8 or 9, doing pub quizzes etc etc. and a dawning remembrance that I am extremely competitive. This isn’t a complete shock to me in my mid-40s but I really didn’t expect a MOOC to trigger it or that I’d be learning so much I wouldn’t care if my competitive leanings were obvious to others.

So what did I learn?

That built well, designed carefully & implemented with care a MOOC can be a powerful learning tool. It won’t be a ‘one-size fits all’ cure for every context but I’ve come round to recognising it should have a place in our toolkit for L&D. That gamification works ( this will be old news to some of you!) and it doesn’t have to be complicated or tricky to implement. I’m already thinking about ways to implement elements of it in our work. That the process and platform is only as good as the people in it or on it, this MOOC was made by the huge amount of sharing that went on between people, it buzzed with energy & conversations every time I logged in. Oh and I learnt a heck of a lot about being an effective curator and I’m amazed by how deeply that learning feels embedded already. I said during last weeks t-MOOC that the learning shone through in the quality of the chat and it really did.

So a MOOC that managed to surprise me and keep me motivated draws to an end – oh well we’ll always have #dcurate!

Cat buckaroo, memories and how times change

Like many of you we visited family this weekend, a chance to catch up on news and marvel at how quickly the children are growing up. Watching my nieces play on their Xbox Kinnect system I was struck by how at ease they were with using gesture enabled technology, impatient in fact that it didn’t respond fast enough to their movements. And I was surprised to hear them diss the Wii games which were firm favourites less than two years but seen as passé because they need you to hold a controller. It led us ‘grown-ups’ (which apparently we are now though I don’t remember signing up for that!) discussing our relatively recent adoption of touchscreen tablets of various hues and how this has changed how we interact with technology and each other.

I’m sure variations of this conversation have been had round many Christmas feasts this year as kids unwrapped the latest gadgets watched on by adults whose childhood Xmas memories were of games like Connect, Operation (my personal favourite) and Buckaroo.

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After dinner we sat around the table and played board games for three hours, not a laptop or tablet in sight and had a great laugh. Those will be the memories I’ll cherish and I’m sure the girls will too when they look back.

Given my enthusiastic adoption of social media it might surprise people to know I wasn’t much fussed by technology for many years and I held out against having a mobile phone for a long time despite working in an area which required a lot of lone working in the field. I didn’t use a computer until I went back to university to study for a masters in my early twenties, I completed my first degree using handwritten notes and one of these:

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This is inconceivable to my nieces they just haven’t experienced a world without handheld technology.

By the way those of you worried cats aren’t featuring at all here should check out the old internet meme Cat Buckaroo , made me chuckle for a long time & a great example of technology reimagining old favourites!

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My friends and family often tease me about the volume of my tweeting but I’ve seen all my close family move onto Facebook this year some who swore they’d never ‘do’ social media (accompanied by dramatic shoulder shudders!). I think this has been both a response to the family moving further apart geographically but also the fact that everyone now has access to a tablet or phone that makes social networking easier than digging out the laptop or heading up to the study to use the PC.

Does this mean we speak less on the phone now? Probably yes, but it also means we all keep in touch on a more regular basis and share little moments of each other’s lives in a way we haven’t for years.

Similarly, we don’t learn so much by rote now that information is but a moment’s Google away. This is true but we can now explore the links and connections between different things, the ideas of others and alternative perspectives on the world quickly and easily – this makes for powerful, connected learning experiences.

Whilst we might worry that we can’t drag ourselves away from our tablets or about needing a digital detox, for me as long as technology continues to help me make connections, hear fresh perspectives and share moments of those I love I’ll continue to be an enthusiast.

At the end of the day what makes precious memories isn’t the games we play or the technologies we use it’s the feelings, the emotions and the connections we share with each other. The medium will change but the emotions and feelings created remain timeless and precious.

Happy New Year to you all, go make some memories.