Thursday, January 03, 2013

Social media in Doctoral research

This post is one i had been meaning to write for a while, but today (through social media) the provocation occurred. Over on #phdchat it appears as the topic of the day 3 Jan 2013).
But before I begin its important to decide just what is or isn't social media. Where do I begin when media are mediating the social? Where to begin when it is what people do in talking with one another?
The presumption is that 'old media' is not included; so books, journals, telephone, radio, tv are assumedly not included, but it is worth thinking that these continue to mediate the social and are also deeply embedded in the practices of 'new' social media; twitter, facebook, skype, sms messaging, blogging, nings, wiki's...
Elizabeth Eisentein (1979) on how the printing press as an agent of change might also be seen in more recent innovations in electronic media is worth a look here, she states "if we were to stay with the Wittenberg church with Luther we will miss seeing the historical significance of the event" (p.310). And that "one cannot treat printing as one among many elements in a complex nexus for the communications shift transformed the nature of the nexus itself." What she points to is that unanticipated changes continue to unfold, recognized or not.

There are difficulties in looking only at the new in social media as what's 'new to me' yet may not be 'new' to others. Similarly, what's dated to me may not be dated to others...
And were i to take the definition of social to mean interactive then I am back with newspapers with letters to the editor, and talkback radio...
As Eisenstein argues, the past coms into the future. Newness is therefore an evolution its start and stopping dates less relevant than the way it gets translated into new times. Latour's (2002) metaphoric capture of this refers to the work of Serres and the garlands in time that might be gathered and brought together.

So, with an ambiguous start I am going to limit myself to the use of communication and computer technologies (CCTs) being the platform of social media, and the intention of shared communication with the making of knowledge being a social focus. In emphasising the social, it is the use of CCTs where the intention is not so much the use as a repository of knowledge as information where information might be generated (as with word processing, or where information is contained (as might a digital file of a book) or many pieces of information be collated (as might a library), but emphasis here is placed on communication and on the social interactions made possible. This makes a more overt calling out of CCTs as information and communications enabling devices , as information and computing technologies that are active participants in social media.
And as noted by Kaplan (2010), there is confusion (though I would claim instead ambiguity) among managers and academic researchers alike as to what exactly should be included under the term social media and how Social Media differs from the seemingly interchangeable related concepts of Web 2.0 and User Generated Content. His definition is of Social Media as
a group of Internet-based applications that build on
the ideological and technological foundations of
Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange
of User Generated Content.

This definition excludes the use of emails or sms for exchange. I personally think this is too narrow. His discussion suggests that media differ in ways that might be divided along lines of social presence and media richness, but this is too narrow as it suggests conversations might be more or less important dependent on the size (media richness and its ability to carry more of a message) or of perhaps, real time presence. How are such things assessed? Are they rich or shallow because they are long or short, or loud or spoken softly, accompanied by more or less what? Too much is being read and written into what is or isn't effective based on superficial criteria. (For example there is nothing shallow to saying "I do" such a short statement changes lives. Is it then to be measured in terms of real time responsiveness? Yet the inaugral address of Nelson Mandela is not one I would hold as shallow because i did not hear it in 'real time' and was not physically present. Valuing or not valuing social media would therefore seem to be as complicated a process as valuing community- a concept Raymond Williams suggests as being highly problematic, a value based rather than factually based entity.

My own journey with looking at change and the use of emergent technologies in a counselling practice also involved a personal choice to immerse myself in such emergent technologies as a parallel journey in my thesis. I selected a place of study at a distance. Initial interactions were via a webpage and email, followed quickly by a phone call and a personal meeting with a representative of that university who happened to be in my country. I then emailed a phd proposal and was recontacted by email and a follow up phone call by a person assigned to be my supervisor. At some point following he advised keeping ICQ open, an instant messaging chatline that would let each of us know when the other was online for any 'just in time' thoughts. While this seemed a bit intrusive in my life, at the time, it was the best of supportive media for both of us. More recently this has been replaced by the instant messaging feature of skype which I have also learned to leave open as on the same platform an interaction might switch to audio or audiovisual.

My dedication to immersion also meant I developed a blog; this blog, again on suggestion from my supervisor, and that i follow the blogs developed by others studying with the same methodology or studying vaguely related sensitive areas of healthcare practice. A personal blog though is unique; my use of this space is for writing thoughts, for making loose connections between ideas, and as it turned out also for making connections with other phd students, writers of journal articles i cite or critique here. It provided an early writing space where my supervisor could also make suggestions on direction. Where it has gone to is also the 'librarything' widget that allows me to see who else is reading what i am reading...and what they are reading next. This is also an interesting facet in my use of delicious (and more recently diigolet) a social bookmarking site where I could also observe the bookmarking of those whose writing i liked to read. Along the way I dabbled with social media sites of Bebo (in the early days of my research this was bigger in NZ than face book, but has since been supplanted by facebook in popularity). This again shows the coming and going, ebb and flow, of what's in and what's not. Just as MSN messaging or ICQ has been replaced by skype or chat on facebook. And my use of these instant messaging sites has also broadend to include study buddies, people i can make writing commitments with alongside sharing emotional support. In short my use of SM was to have insider knowledge in the use of CCTs, a means to appreciating what the people I was studying were familiar with, as well as making use of them in my own learning.

So there is use of social media as
1. content for study (my own study turned into the study of emmergent technologies in counselling and centred particularly on the use of SMS messaging for counselling (text-counselling).
This can also include as mine has done, multisite ethnography; not only how people act in one geographical space, but how they might also be dispersed virtually.

2. fields for data mining
In my study this included digital traces of text messages
But can also include sites such as discussion boards, twitter...
Please take care with such communities, they are not there for a researcher's benefit and even though they may be open, their use for research needs to be ethical. take note, if its possible and easy to ask, please do. In the case of researching say letters to an editor in a newspaper it was not easy to ask...however with blogs, discussion forums it is, so please do.
Noteworthy here are also spaces that aggregate info, google does a lot of this, words that are media excited etc, but also note a site called the wayback machine which can often relocate web pages thought to have been deleted.
Plus Flikr for creative commons pictures
And wikipedia for definitions in the making as well as for a history of prior and current, argued meanings.

2b. a repertoire or field of articles, books, book and article reviews, plus youtube (both for posting own stuff as well as viewing, along with slideshare for same. Useful here were google alerts and the google scholar function that also allows seeing how often something is cited (helped make decisions on which authoritative source to make use of).

3. means to engage on a topic; a space to write my thinking into being. It provides a more playful space for as yet nascent ideas and the sythesis of thoughts without the demand of a strict academic code for the rigour a journal or conference paper might require. And also as a means to engage with others to clarify thinking, that included the ability to collaborate in the coproduction of meaning ( I have found Moocs- massive online open courses useful for this and it led me into copresenting a seminar via illuminate in a course for thousands with a co-presenter where the only spaces we ever met through were online in blogs, discussion boards and via skype).
3b. there are also sites to assist with mindmapping , eg Prezzie can also be useful for this.
As can Flikr, my own phd journey being commemorated as a series of pictures.
And there are Moocs as well as online conferences, as well as conferences in 2nd life (though 2nd life is now pretty much only for die hards and people who dont mind being asked to get their gear off... so i dont go there anymore.)

4. means of support
anywhere anytime helpfulness; #phdchat being global means there's always someone, somewhere who can assist or point in a useful direction. Particularly useful is the twitter site #phdchat
4b. means of kick startng the writing, through the thesiswhisperer blog I learned of pomodoros and in conjunction with the following or with a study buddy through skype these work well in breaking down my procrastination eg writeordie and writtenkitten

Along the way i remained open to a fifth use
5. means for gathering data, a way of interviewing
(this did not evolve, but is something i have experienced as a research participant)
And also provides a means of advertising for participants

6. backup with or without sharing. Dropbox has proven fantastic for free online storage, but also a depository big enough to share the large document with supervisors and others and so get feedback. The blog also can be drafted ideas where not all gets disseminated but it provides a chronology where the development of ideas might be traced.

And as I near completion
7. A means of disseminating work in progress, for aggregating academic papers, for establishing professional identity and an academic niche. Here i use as an invite only site for work in progress which included phd chapters in process. I also include and linkedin. (NB different parts of the world seem to use different sites). And the use of twitter as well as blogging also provide space for this professional identity development.

And to maintain a group for sharing ideas, networking
8. Facebook for groups such as the actor-network theory facebook page set up by #jeffreyKeever
As well as #phdchat
as well as the blog.

There is nothing superficial or virtual about such spaces, they are different, rather than 'unreal'.

My advice/opinion for researchers is that social media is not designed for spectators, immerse yourself, be reflective, be a participant. Be upfront and honest about presence if researcher. Such sites are not removed from a real world, they are not zoos and the people inside of them are not exhibits.

Eisenstein, E. (1979). The printing press as an agent of change. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Kaplan, A, & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and
opportunities of Social Media. Business Horizons 53, 59—68.
Latour, B. (2002). Morality and technology. The end of the means. Theory, Culture and Society, 19(5/6), 247–260. doi:10.1177/026327602761899246
Williams, R. (1983). Keywords. A vocabulary of culture and society (Revised ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

i'm going to come back to this, its an unfinished posting


  1. Anonymous8:05 PM

    Hi, I am doing an interdisciplinary (Computer Science / Communications / Information Technology Management / and Library and Information Science) Phd, and my dissertation is on information sharing in socio-technical networks.
    I thought I would just mention socio-technical networks to you as a term that includes social media as well as other social networks/systems mediated by technology (like mobile text messaging).


  2. i would be happy with the term (being as it reflects the social and technical without the connotations of web1.0 as a knowledge repository nor the apparent disdain extended by Kaplan for conversation exchange as social media. When i began my study the field was too new for names, or had at least unsettled names. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a note. ailsa.

  3. Hello! My phenomenological study is about collaborative technology use. I choose to go with "collaborative technology" instead of social media b/c the definition broadens a bit and drops the negativity around social media as a way to goof off on Facebook and Twitter. There is some Facebook and Yammer (corporate Twitter) talk from my participants. The participants did much of what you listed: shared in groups, talked online, archived. They just did it with the technologies that are inside firewalls and considered "work" not "play" by the nature of their name and access. Even still I did have a little push back for SOE reviewer about mentioning those newfangled things (not her words, my interpretation of her word).

  4. Hi Christiana, interested in your comments and especially the need to reinvent social media for fear it is treated as 'goofing off'. I write in my thesis my experience of being marginalised by association in my writing of mobile telephony (an apparent means of mass destruction) and of texting in particular. Making space for new technologies seems to unsettle some people who respond with defensiveness, derision or attempts to domesticate what they fear.

  5. is useful to consider how to increase use of social media as an academic