NEWS23 September 2010

Social media research – not so new after all?

Technology Trends UK

UK— Social media research might not be such a revolution for the industry after all. Experts argued today that the fundamentals are not so different from what we already know through traditional research.

At the Social Media Research Conference in London, Annelies Verhaeghe of InSites Consulting explained how researchers engaging in ‘netnography’ face similar challenges of sampling, data quality, framework development and analysis to the ones researchers have grappled with for decades.

The key difference, she said, is that “conversations are the new unit of analysis”, partly because it’s so difficult to pin down demographic details about individuals in the borderless (and sometimes anonymous) online world.

Francesco D’Orazio of Face said the power of social media research is in “decoding the shape of phenomena, rather than micro values”.

The volume of available social media data and the speed with which it can be tracked has led some researchers down the wrong path, said Verhaeghe. The notion that you can track “all” online conversations is misguided, she said, as is the obsession with real-time tracking, resulting in what she calls “dashboarditis”.

Social media researchers must still rely on samples, but Verhaeghe believes more work is needed to make sure this is being done in the most effective way. “I think we should investigate the concept of real sampling,” she said – “a sample of online conversations that is representative of the other ones.” She also called for more quality norms, ethical guidelines and transparency in how performance indicators are defined.

Even some of the changes in consumer behaviour attributed to social media may have been overstated. The apparent breakdown of boundaries between people’s personal and professional lives may turn out to be a short-term trend, said Sarah Everitt, head of research at YouTube. Her research suggests that many people crave the separation they used to have, and are increasingly taking advantage of the plethora of different social media tools to achieve this.


1 Comment

14 years ago

This makes a lot of sense on all points. A basic principle of all sample research is defining samples and it isn't (or shouldn't) be surprising that the solutions to good sample come from our existing understanding. I'd still like more evidence before agreeing that 'conversations' are the most important unit of analysis, but certainly agree about the fallacy of tracking all online activity/conversations and of successfully managing all the deluge of data. Most interesting is the consumer behaviour; the excitement and possibilities of open social interaction being challenged and tempered by the desire for smaller, more private and controllable communities. This too seems to me like a repetition of historical events - larger communities forming as populations migrate to cities, then little tribes, cliques, neighbourhoods forming within a metropolis. Which social media tools are getting the most advantage of this? Certainly Foursquare may be one good, if yet nascent, example!

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