Social media is quickly becoming one of the hot topics in many research fields. Its sudden growth, in addition to its constant use for sharing information, makes it stand out in the field of communications. While it is a subject for many researchers, others see the potential in using social media to gather information for various studies, especially in market research. However, before you start using social media for your research, it’s important to know the pros and cons of having social media as one of your research methods.
Consent: A Given or A Necessity?
One of the biggest debates concerning social media as a research tool lies in consent. All researchers should be aware that they need consent from the subject to use the information given. It’s easy to get this with a survey or a focus group because the subject can sign a waiver or select the option to give consent.
Social media is trickier. Technically, any post made with social media is available for public use, according to Emily Christofides, a Ph.D. candidate in social psychology at Ontario’s University of Guelph. However, not alerting someone that his tweet or Facebook post is being used as part of your research could be problematic — it could lead to legal issues in addition to ethical issues, possibly throwing off your research. For example, you cannot legally paraphrase or remove the handle name associated with tweets, according to Twitter’s terms and conditions.
It’s always best to err on the side of caution — if you want to use what someone posted on a social media platform, ask for permission first. Make the user aware of your research, explain what exactly you’re trying to prove or disprove, and get written consent for the use of his content.
Anonymity and the Internet
One of the major issues surrounding Internet use is the supposed anonymity that people have. Instead of interacting face-to-face, users can instead communicate with people thousands of miles away in an instant. Because of this anonymity, people can go in three main directions on the Internet: be the same online as they are in person; be more free with their opinions online than in person; or be a completely different person online than in person.
This lack of direct interaction means that social cues such as body language and voice inflections are lost. While images and emoticons — using symbols to create faces — can help depict the tone, it’s very common for something posted on the Internet to be misconstrued. If someone posts about construction and it’s relevant to your research, try to figure out if you’re getting the right message from the poster — if you’re unsure, it’s best to confirm. Make sure you understand the context of the posts you use in your research for the best results.
Social Media’s Role in Research
Social media is one of the best ways to get a grasp on people’s reactions to events, how they feel about products or opinions about day-to-day life. It can certainly be used in ethnographic research, but you can also run the numbers — how many people tweeted about a certain topic, for example — to get statistical data.
As with all research methods, using social media is not a perfect option. It should be used in conjunction with other methods to help support your argument, rather than being the main source. However, it is a new way to gather information, and the possibilities for its use in the research field is only growing.
Beninger, K., Fry, A., & Jago, N. Research Using Social Media; Users’ Views. NatCen Social Research. Retrieved June 1, 2014, from <http://www.natcen.ac.uk/media/282288/p0639-research-using-social-media-report-final-190214.pdf>.