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The Transformative Capacity of Social Media Research

Helen Webb starts off the next session of Social Media and Society, and begins by suggesting that social media have a transformative capacity for social research as well. To begin with, social media research challenges established conceptual and methodological approaches: they enable us to explore and revise existing theories of social interaction and self-presentation, for instance; or to review patterns and sequences of interaction in order to develop new views on conversational processes.

Second, social media research also tends to introduce greater interdisciplinary and postdisciplinary dimensions. The challenge here is that the fields we are based in do not provide all the skills and knowledge that are required for this research – and so we must move between disciplines as a necessity in order to do the work we want to do. This creates new challenges of finding the appropriate training, and finding the appropriate ways to conduct and present our research.

Third, social media research introduces significant new ethical questions. How, for example, can we uphold the principle of informed consent if we are dealing with large-scale social media data that are gathered from open, broadly public platforms such as Twitter? It would be impractical to ask tens and hundreds of thousands of users covered by large datasets for their informed consent; but this does not relieve us of our ethical responsibilities in analysing and presenting our research findings, especially when it comes to presenting actual social media messages (even if they were in principle public in the first place).

Some of us are in the strange situation of being able to show newspaper articles that quote tweets, but of being unable to quote those same tweets directly in our own publications. We also usually cannot know whether the users whose posts we are working with are humans, are able to give informed consent, and are therefore appropriate to cite if we apply conventional ethics rules.