DataByte: Using Social Media Platforms for Social Inquiry

The social media phenomena that has bubbled and blossomed in the past few years has created an unprecedented influence in how we learn about new things, how we understand situations and people, and what we say about other people. With almost 75% of internet using adults connected to a social media platform, these sites have become a number one source of current news, public opinion, and networking. Pew Research has shown that social media usership has increased by 65% - from 8% in Feb. of 2005, to 73% in Sept. of 2013. Of the age groups, 90% of internet-users between the ages of 18 and 29 use social networking sites. This is followed by 78% of internet-users age 30 to 49, and 69% of users between the ages of 50 and 64.

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With the vast majority of internet users actively engaging with social media sites, there is an ocean of information about how people connect, but also about what people are saying, thinking, believing, and perceiving. What if social media can become a new type of data set, or a means to collect a new sort of data that expresses social outlooks, stereotypes, perceptions, social connections, public opinion, etc?

How can social media sites be used to gain an insider perspective on some topics?

By using social media platforms as a data set, we can almost gain a very personal insight into the general state of affairs of society or a community. The data is almost more honest in that it provides a real-world snapshot of a particular issue by using the online presence of people.

Social Networks Using social media as a database, we can determine the type of social network that is created around a topic or cause.  Pew Research Internet Project released a study that show 6 different types of online social structures based on Twitter hashtags. (Examples can be seen by following this link.) Hashtags are used to target online community conversations about a certain idea or topic. In one of the first examples, the hashtag #SOTU was analyzed - which refers to the State of the Union presidential address. Results show a very divided and polarized network where users tend to interact mostly with other like-minded users. It shows a distinction between different opinions and beliefs about a targeted topic.

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How would a network analysis of community issues such as poverty, homelessness, or social inequalities be helpful in addressing those issues?

A network analysis can be helpful in showing the general state of a topic in a community. If a community is divided by a topic, perhaps a greater campaign aimed toward education and understanding needs to be developed. If a community issue is fragmented, an awareness campaign can move the issue from passive community conversation, to community action.

Public Conceptualization of Ideas Social Media is also useful to determine what ideas people tend to use together. Using the online tool <hashtagify.me>, we searched #happiness to see which other concepts and ideas are most related to the idea of happiness.

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These are the results of #wellbeing:

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When we search #inequality, we learn that the concepts/issues/ideas of gender, capitalism, economy and poverty are all related to ideas of inequality.

Understanding and Community Action Collaboration between the CUNY Graduate Center’s School of Journalism and NBC News utilized the Twitter hashtag and asked people what poverty meant to them: #PovertyIs

The results are an insightful look into how different people define poverty, and accentuate some aspects over others. By reading through some of the comments, we are presented with different views, opinion and aspects of how we might understand poverty – but also how poverty is experience by others.

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SCOPE worked on a Happiness Matters Campaign that asked residents to give insight into what happiness means here in Sarasota County. By mimicking a campaign like the #PovertyIs campaign, we would be able to point out where we need to focus community efforts because the community was active in defining happiness.

The Limits and Challenges

Like all data sets, the insight provided by social media platforms is also limited. Although the majority of adults are active on social media sites, social media users do not represent an accurate portrait of the general population. In a recent study, many participants expressed concern over researchers using content posted on social media platforms because:

  • despite the online public space provided by social media, many users feel that researchers should seek user consent before the data is mined - even though users publish at their own will
  • some users feel that their privacy is at stake if their posts/tweets, etc. are used for research when researchers don’t take steps to protect user privacy. There is concern that posts can be linked back to user profiles.
  • some users feel that internet anonymity causes exaggerated, incomplete or false posts that researchers cannot rely on as valid measures of public perceptions.

The online world has become a vast community. Social media platforms provide spaces for users to freely publish their own beliefs, perceptions and opinions. The question remains: can this collection of public views be insightful and used for positive change?

It is important to remember, however, that social media has just recently emerged in this boom of technology and internet accessibility. Social media has not gone unscathed by controversy and differing opinions, and the use of social media as social data must be considered in every light before it is accepted as a social research tool. What are your views on social media platform being used a source of data for social inquiry?