Project learning points from a new researcher: users’ views of social media research

Hannah Hannah is a researcher at NatCen Social Research, a non-political charity that specializes in social policy research. Before joining NatCen as a graduate research trainee in September 2012, she worked as an Employment Adviser to the long-term unemployed. Hannah is now based in NatCen’s Income and Work team and is involved in survey maintenance and smaller scale qualitative projects. Her research interests lie in poverty and disadvantage, and also now in social media use! You can follow Hannah on Twitter by searching @h_silvester.

Last year I was one of eleven lucky graduates taken on by UK based NatCen Social Research. To get hands on experience –and to make mistakes in a controlled environment! -we were given a year to develop and run a study with only minimal guidance from senior staff. Now nearing the end (we’re writing our report), we’d like to share some learning points.

As well as specializing in independent social policy research, NatCen has always prided itself on methodological innovation. For example it has recently set-up with partners the ‘New Social Media, New Social Science’ network to look at what opportunities social media research can provide. The network and NatCen are particularly interested in the use of social media websites and ethical practice when researching online.

Taking these two interests one step further, our graduate project looked at what users of social media think about the ethics of research when it uses their posts and other information. So now let’s take a frank look at the key things we learnt while working on this qualitative, exploratory study.

Definition, definition, definition!

While it’s normal for potentially interesting side issues to crop up, or for other areas to be discounted, you should develop the focus of your research as early as possible and stick to it. Having a clear research focus will make creating the topic guide (interview schedule) easier and will influence your analysis and report planning.

  • Define key terms: again, choose as early as possible. Terms should preferably be ‘current’ elsewhere. We argued considerably over ‘social media websites’ vs. ‘social networking sites’ and our report editor is still exasperated we’re referring just to ‘sites’! We also had to decide between participants, respondents, people and ‘social media users’ (the latter won) –the more precise the better!

‘I work better the night before a deadline’

Allow yourself realistic time to complete a task if it’s your first time doing it, but don’t then fall into the trap of thinking ‘I’ve got aaages yet! –no one truly works better the night before a deadline!

Order, order!

Have someone (preferably the project lead) draw up an agenda (and more importantly, stick to it!) for each meeting and limit the meeting time. This will help make sure any discussion is concise and to the point.

Don’t be too democratic

While it might seem fair that everyone in the project team is given a chance to  comment on written outputs, the old adage ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ is definitely true! Instead, we found that an initial set up meeting, for parts of the project like drafting the topic guide, is helpful to generate ideas that are then consolidated and written up by one member. The chosen project manager will then ultimately have the final say and editing duties.

Recruitment

We were able to recruit from an established sample (used previously for NatCen’s renowned British Social Attitudes survey). Because the survey had already asked participants about their internet use, we had good information on key sample criteria and could target our invitation letters. Unfortunately we found that the sample was too shallow once we’d set our primary/ quota criteria (we wanted a third of the sample to be ‘low’ internet users, a third ‘medium’ users and the rest ‘high’ users). While sometimes quotas may need to be revised we decided to fall back on our contingency plan: to use a recruitment agency. It was a little scary letting go of control and we had to emphasise our criteria a number of times, but in the end we got the right people to take part at the right time!

So, those are the learning points I want to leave you with and I hope they’ve been helpful. If you’re considering using social media websites in your work, our findings will hopefully help people think about how they carry out this kind of research. If you’re keen to find out how, and you really can’t wait until December (I don’t blame you), do read this blog for our interim findings and feel free to email me with any questions!

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