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Using social media to collect data and improve trustworthiness

Randall F. Clemens

This is the first of a two-part blog where I discuss the use of social media in research and practice. Today’s blog emphasizes methodological concerns. Next week, I will discuss social media in schools.

As regular readers of the blog know, I am conducting an ethnography that focuses on the lives of seventeen- and eighteen-year-old male teenagers in a low-income neighborhood. My sample includes a range of participants organized into three categories: low, middle, and high academic achievers. A small percentage of adolescents do not consistently use social media. Those teens— illustrating that opportunity aggregates discriminately in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods—most often live in low-income households, have the worst grades, and uneven access to technology. The majority of students, however, regularly use social media, especially Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. It is a critical part of their lives.

How does a researcher incorporate social media data into a study? Few ethnographers blend real world and digital data; danah boyd is the most obvious exception. Even fewer methodologists have provided practical guidance. That should be of no surprise considering the sluggishness of the publication process and the rapidity of technological innovation and adaptation.

Researchers cannot ignore social media; however, students are adopting it in numerous ways, which makes data collection difficult. To make things even more complex, a divide still exists between the physical and digital worlds. In the future, apps like Path will potentially blend the two and provide innovative data collection tools and access previously unavailable. But, for now, we are in a sort of technological and methodological hinterland. 

During my study, I have approached social media data as part of document analysis. I friended and/or followed my participants and created lists in Facebook and Twitter. Everyday, I have checked the lists. For notable posts, I have done screen captures and uploaded and coded them using Atlas.ti—an alternative, as my colleague June Ahn did for a recent study, would have been to create a program to collect the posts.

Last week, I sat in a 12th grade class. The 40 students listened attentively to the teacher, or so I thought. As I checked Facebook, I saw a post from one of the students: “LMS  [like my status] if you want to date me.” I also saw a series of tweets from another student who was chatting with a friend. Both appeared to be listening in class. This example illustrates the value of collecting social media data. The scenario also highlights the value of social media data for trustworthiness. How does a researcher know his observations and interpretations are accurate? Social media data presents an option for triangulation. 

Educational settings are complex. Social media and technology only adds another layer to the complexity. Just as technology is changing the ways in which teenagers interact, it will also reshape every aspect of qualitative research, from collection to presentation. The challenge facing all qualitative researchers moving forward will be to integrate technology into their own methodological thinking.