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Creative Research Methods for Studying Social Media Use

Finally, we move on to Andra Siibak in this AoIR 2012 panel. She highlights the potential of creative research methods for the study of social media: here, participants are asked to create something symbolic or metaphorical to represent their responses to research questions, and to reflect on these creations. Andra has used this to examine the online identity construction strategies of tweens in Estonia and Sweden.

The kids were asked to draw an imaginary character at ages 10 and 12-14, discussing inter alia what kinds of social media platforms this character may use; later, they were also asked to create a fake Facebook profile for their character. This enabled researchers to witness how peer culture shapes these imaginary online personas; how the kids made use of online content as a source of inspiration for their creative processes; and how their divergent levels of digital literacy affected this process. The liveliness of these creative workshops also continued beyond the workshops themselves; the kids continued to update the Facebook page of their imaginary character.

Another project started with a group discussion about Internet and social media usage practices and preferences, and asked youths to draw representations of user types they had come across on Facebook. This enabled researchers to identify how participants related to others; how they positioned themselves in relation to these user types; and how they gave meaning to the interactions they had in social media. This also shows how young people are continuously writing and rewriting themselves.

But there are challenges, too: the final outcomes of the method are difficult to predict, requiring researchers to remain alert and flexible. Peer pressure amongst teens also has an effect on the course of their group discussions – some ideas may be suppressed. Different levels of creative literacy (in hand drawing as much as digital design) also influence how much information participants share. Finally, the analysis of the visual representations themselves is far from trivial.