Social Media in Research Design

It is difficult to escape the onslaught of attention that has been given to social media in the context of research design.  It is almost impossible to pick up a trade publication and not be struck by the breadth and near-frenzy of discussion among researchers concerning social media.  For many, Facebook, Twitter, online communities and the like are virtual fountains overflowing with consumer content just waiting for researchers with their buckets to scoop up every juicy detail.  As someone recently put it, “[Social media] provides a gold mine of information just a click away.” 

These researchers are eager to promote and defend social media as worthy components of research design.  The argument goes that social media revolutionizes the research process by enabling fast and cheap access to “data” while bringing creativity and fun to an otherwise too-serious discipline.  This argument extends not only to information gathering but to analysis as well, i.e., digging around in social media results in lots and lots of text making it ideal for computer-based content analysis.

But is a social-media-centric approach good research?  Social media is certainly a valid and potentially important tool in exploratory or secondary research efforts – and, indeed, marketers owe it to themselves to regularly search Twitter for the latest chatter concerning the company and its products/services.  And online communities clearly offer a significant vehicle for researchers to immerse themselves in the end-user experience.  But the idea that Twitter “provides highly reliable” information (as one researcher recently asserted) is, from a research perspective, pure nonsense.  And the idea that lurking on Facebook or Twitter can or should replace researcher-respondent interviewing (as some have suggested) ignores the essence of what it means to conduct “research” and to be a “researcher.”

This discussion is not about traditional vs. new research methods – the idea that traditional qualitative and quantitative research designs are stale and inappropriate in this modern, overtly-social culture – or even about qualitative vs. quantitative.  It is simply about basic research principles that never become outmoded.  The enthusiasm towards the potential of social networking sites in the design of primary research snubs certain fundamental design considerations, not the least of which is transparency.  Transparency is only achieved to the degree to which the researcher can account for the variability impacting results and state with some confidence the attitudes and behavior among research participants based on a knowledge of their framework within the sphere of interest.  This principal (transparency) alone is enough to discourage any serious thoughts of Facebook or Twitter as viable primary research design tools.

Public information and content has been around us everywhere for a long time – letters to the editor in print media, callers to call-in radio or television shows – and researchers have always had the opportunity to utilize these resources.  But good research design is not about eavesdropping.  It is not about grabbing comments and ideas wherever they can be found from the most extroverted segments of society then throwing them together and calling it insight.

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