FEATURE14 March 2013

A degree of study for social media research

Features UK

Professor Christian Fuchs tells Simon Miller that the University of Westminster’s new Centre for Social Media Research is ‘necessary, timely and the right thing to do’.

Social media players like Twitter and Pinterest are becoming ever more involved in research and analytics. Whether its Twitter Brand Surveys or social TV ratings, or Pinterest’s recently launched analytics package, these sites are going to new lengths to understand their users.

But the University of Westminster is turning the tables, with a new research centre that sets out to understand what users think of social networks and how the sites themselves are changing society.

“There are many discussions about privacy violations on Facebook. But more needs to be found out about it, which is the task of social media research”

The Centre for Social Media Research (CSMR) – which also has a related Masters degree – will welcome its first students in September and will conduct and co-ordinate research into the social, cultural and political-economic aspects of social media.

The centre will be led by Professor David Gauntlett, and the MA programme by Professors Christian Fuchs and Graham Meikle.

Speaking to Research, Fuchs (pictured) says that with so much talk about social media, there was a high demand to better understand how social media is changing our everyday lives.

“Creating a special research centre for the purpose of conducting social media research is necessary, timely and the right thing to do,” he says.

As one of the first research centres in the world dedicated to the analysis of social media, Fuchs says CSMR aims to attract a critical mass of people who already work on many different aspects of social media research.

For example, Fuchs’ own work to date has explored how social media is shaped by, and in turn shapes, society’s power structures, while he and his colleague Daniel Trottier work on two projects funded by the European Union that study privacy, security and surveillance in Europe.

“We are, in these projects, specifically interested in how questions of privacy, security and surveillance impact social media,” he says. “There are many discussions about privacy violations on Facebook. But more needs to be found out about it, which is the task of social media research.”

CSMR “will be a world-leading research environment for the analysis of social media in the context of society and power structures,” says Fuchs. But what it won’t be able to do is predict how social media might develop five or ten years from now. “Social media is shaped by dynamics such as the formation of monopolies, the economic crisis, fluctuations in financial investments and the crowdsourcing of labour to users, among others,” he says.

“This makes them highly complex and unpredictable. We can mainly study how social media are used, how users think about them and what experiences they have in the use of social media. But what social media will look like in five or ten years from now is not predictable.”