Social Research using Social Media 2: Social Media as Research Platform

Nadia von Benzon (Lecturer, Lancaster University) continues her series on social media in social research with this post on using social media as a space to create primary research data with participants.  

Generating data using social media

Social media can be considered a forum in which a researcher might organize, encourage and/or interact with participants to generate the sorts of data that might be useful for their own pre-determined research project. This could be done covertly, with, for example, the researcher contributing content that they consider will provoke ‘useful’ responses, whilst intending for others to assume they are ‘just another user’ of the platform. However, this blog will focus on primary research in social media spaces in which the researcher is open and honest with participants about their role in data creation.

Choosing a platform 

There is no single best platform for creating data with participants, and the platform you choose will depend on the sort of data you want to generate, as well as the type of participants you want to engage with.

As a general rule, it is sensible to use a platform that is familiar, and culturally relevant, to your participants . For example, teenagers may feel more comfortable and confident participating in research using Instagram or Tiktok, than they would using Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. 

That said, there might be merit to encouraging participants to engage in unfamiliar places. The choices you make here ought also to reflect the research question and research design. A ‘fun’ or ‘light-hearted’ research topic, for example, can probably afford to push participants into engaging with new modes of creativity and communication.  On the other hand, a more personal, or potentially difficult, research focus might require the provision of a platform that is more familiar and comfortable for participants. 

A common fallacy is to understand young people as ‘digital natives’ and thus for researchers to think that research with the under 30s can take place on any platform as participants will use online spaces intuitively. However, familiarity and ease-of-use are likely to be as important to young people feeling safe and confident in their participation in online research, as older people.  

Recruiting participants

It might be helpful to use the same platform to create data, as the one you use to recruit participants. For example, recruiting through Twitter to create data using Twitter means that you’re sure participants are engaged users of the platform who are likely to contribute effectively when the research itself begins. 

However,  this does not always follow, as you may choose to conduct research on a closed platform where you can be guaranteed privacy – such as a Slack Channel - whilst you may need to recruit in a more public forum.  

Some platforms such as Facebook benefit from having both very large groups that are useful for recruitment, whilst also allowing researchers to set up their own closed groups for conducting research. 

Whilst social media can offer fantastic opportunities for communicating to potential participants, and help you connect with a wide variety of different sorts of people with different demographics, geographies, identities and interests, not at all participants will be easy to reach online.

Whilst some potential participants may be easier to reach online than in person - for example, international fan bases and specific interest groups or those with shared socio-political views - other groups with low levels of access to the internet, such as the elderly, homeless, or incarcerated, will be harder to reach. There are also some populations, like children, who should not be recruited directly through social media. It’s also likely that some populations typically considered hard to reach, such as immigrants with low levels of English, will also be difficult to recruit to online research.

Finally, it’s important to bear in mind that not all social media spaces are open to use for social research. For example, whilst Mumsnet allows researchers to use threads as secondary data, with written permission, – they do not allow researchers to post questions for the purpose of directing conversations.


Research using Facebook: An Example

In my own research, I have recently used Facebook as a platform to generate data with women who have given birth. After much discussion, we decided to use Facebook as a platform due to the following attributes:

  • The ability to set up a private group space and control admittance to the space.
  • The ability to enforce the answering of a set questions before gaining admittance to the space – this allowed us to ensure that all members had participant information and provided consent to participate, as well as agreeing to modes of interaction, before being allowed into the group.
  • The ability to post mixed-media contributions to groups including text, images, videos and uploading files.
  • The lack of limitations on length/size of individuals’ contributions to groups.
  • The ability to comment on others’ contributions, and for discussions to develop through exchanges of comments.
  • Admin controls that would allow researchers to monitor contributions, and moderate content and participants as necessary.
  • Widespread use of the platform amongst potential participants – however, it’s important here to note that we also acknowledge that our choice of platform, and indeed, the choice to do this research online, is likely to have excluded a number of marginalized potential participants such as BAME women and teenage mothers.

We did have a number of concerns about the use of the platform. Primarily, given the traditional focus on the need for the researcher to present as professional, we were worried about Facebook’s requirement to interact using an avatar that linked directly through to a personal profile. However, Facebook’s functionality now allows you to ‘shut down’ your profile so that only a very limited amount of information is visible to anyone that you have not designated as a ‘friend’. Moreover, contemporary professional life means that any participant really wanting to contact you in an ‘unhelpful’ manner would already have a variety of means of doing so whether or not they were able to do it directly through the chosen platform.

We were also concerned about the lack of anonymity that Facebook would afford to our participants. However, whilst we don’t know how many people were put off from participating due to the choice of research platform, we did find that we populated our group quickly. Members were happy to exchange personal stories, and to offer support to each other, even whilst using their own names. It’s possible that some members preferred to engage with people who they could see and name, rather than with faceless pseudonyms on sites such as Mumsnet.

This screen grab is from the Facebook group Birth Stories that my co-researchers and I set up to generate data for our project exploring the ways that women articulated and communicated around their experiences of birth. This post is ‘typical’ of our ‘admin’ posts in that we included personal photographs to share with participants in order to create a space in which participants felt happy to share their own. The image also illustrates the way that we have been able to use the social media platform as a space for updating participants, disseminating outputs and continuing communications, after the data generation phase of the project has finished. 


Final thoughts

Our experience of using social media as a platform for research was overwhelmingly positive. However, I think that the success of this sort of research will depend on the participants that are recruited to the space,  the way they interact with one another within the confines of the features offered by the chosen platform, and the constraints of the research questions. Whilst effective administration and facilitation by researchers is key, it’s important to recognize that social media will not be an accessible and welcoming space for all potential participants. Whilst some voices will be accessed that otherwise wouldn’t, others will be excluded.

AUTHOR BIO: Nadia von Benzon is a lecturer in Human Geography a Lancaster University. Her current research uses Facebook as a platform for sharing birth stories and she has also published from research using Mumsnet and . She is editor of the textbook Creative Methods for Human Geographers and is a member of the editorial board of the SRA blog.