Social Media Methods

This summer I enrolled in a few FutureLearn MOOCs on various aspects of social media – to help both my research design and my assignment design (#school4life). MOOCs have fascinated me for a long time, and I had a student who loved to argue the increased engagement when students could pick and choose their courses so it’s a topic I’ve discussed heavily. This is not my first, and will not be my last MOOC; but, this will also not be a conversation about MOOCs.

I’m completing a Social Media Analytics course – I’m working through a few projects that collect social media data, so more methods and ideas would be helpful. Since this is an open MOOC, the course begins with a super short post on social media and conversation, focusing specifically on Twitter. The author throws in the idea of sociability, finds Twitter not as sociable as it was in the beginning, then ends the piece. Again, short intro. The course then relies on crowd funded knowledge. This is a fairly common construction of learning in a MOOC. So the discussion asks “Are social media still social?”. As I read through the posts most people discuss ‘social’ a few discuss ‘ conversation’ but no one says anything about ‘sociable’ (random side note: most responses are positive for social media, social, and conversation with hints at tools and know-how in the space but no vocab for those discussions).

When I read the intro article I was so distraced by the idea of sociable I spent a really long time trying to find a consensus for what sociable means – to no avail (Wikipedia failed me!). So I engaged with the idea of sociable and data ethics with my response because I think they are connected. So i’m going to raise the question here – what is sociable? and as a follow-up, how do we know?

Here, on this blog I write and leave my words in the vast wasteland called the internet. Occasionally I have responses, but not often. Does that mean this blog is not sociable? Does a conversation require two people (as i’m revising i’m continue to converse with myself)? Adults often talk ideas through to themselves, I watch my 4yo play out entire imaginary scenes by himself. Are those conversations?

In physics there are two types of energy, potential and kinetic (this all coming from high school physics memory and kid museums). Potential energy is as the name implies, the potential for energy, the moment a roller coaster begins to descend the drop before dropping – at which point the energy becomes kinetic. I feel like social media lives in that moment with potential energy high and kinetic energy low, when i’m about to plummet down the roller coaster drop. This is where sociability belongs for me, because the only way potential energy can be high in social media is if the platform provides tools to allow for conversation.

**caveat** users can be incredibly creative. Elizabeth Losh writes about high school students using an early version of email on a city server who found a way to post messages to each other. So the tools don’t need to be developed for interaction, and users may still find a way.

So when asking about sociability and the internet, I think our discussions need to include the tools (yes, I’ve been obsessed with and studying internet ‘tools’ since my MA, I have problems). But, this is also where the idea becomes really complex. Does it matter how I (user) see the use of the tool for communication when the researcher analyzes my conversation/data? Conversely, if a tool has the potential for social communication, is communication ever not social on the internet? Let’s try this with a ridiculous example (and one recently showcased on Silicon Valley). When Facebook began, before the platform was live for users, there was never just one user. Zuckerberg was never alone on Facebook – he (and his team) needed others to user test and functional test the operating system. These accounts then existed within the space, meaning any *live* tool had the potential for social communication, it is sociable. Did it really matter that the tools weren’t being used to send notes to grandmas yet? To ensure security functions appropriately even developers have 2 accounts on their platforms to check developer access versus user – there are always already multiple accounts. As soon as the internet 0’s and 1’s form a picture, tools and platforms have the potential for interaction – I am arguing that makes them sociable. They have potential for interaction, conversation, sharing, social……but interaction, conversation, sharing, social cannot happen without that tool (in this case it doesn’t need to be a *specific* tool, as multiple tools can facilitate these ideas and platforms often offer multiple).

So, if we accept my premise – and since I’m talking to myself, unless someone responds, I think I will accept my premise – that a tool on the internet has the potential for sociability, can any social media space ever be not social? Based on my premise, we also have to accept that live social media space is always social, and functioning tools provide that potential for kinetic social communication in a way that can never be denied since potential and kinetic are on a sort of sliding scale.

Which then leads to, what is a question like this really asking? And, how does understanding what researchers/educators really ask when they ask if social media is still social may have SERIOUS impact on how they represent data (including accidental bias or misread). So I think this is an important conversation, especially as we head into an election with big data. I changed my facebook profile picture – that’s now being used to predict who I’ll vote for (just an example, who knows if this will happen). We as social media researchers need to consider how asking about the social of social media AND failing to define sociability leads to data interpretations like this. We’re not to blame for lack of critical engagement by some with big data, but we (especially those in the Humanities) are poised to push better interpretations if we ask better questions.

So I leave you with, what is driving “are social media still social” questions and investigations?


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