Do you have to do social media to get social media?

Christian, aka Documentally has a post entitled "Understand Social Technology Through Participation", in which he says:

"How much can you understand from just watching and not participating?
Last night I met a Professor who although used Facebook and other platforms seemed proud to state he did not use twitter.
His job was to study social Technology and although obviously a very smart chap It made me wonder.. Is it possible to comprehend something as complex as social Technology by not participating in a platform like twitter. Can you glean just as much insight from only using sites like Facebook?..

All of my insights into Social Technology have come from my uses of it. "

I agree with him, it's been a bit of a bugbear of mine, the way for example, when Facebook was a'happening it was suddenly inundated with education, psychology, media, business and social science researchers who all wanted to have a look at this phenomenon. They did their research, wrote it up in traditional journal papers or media outlets and then disappeared. And I kept thinking 'they don't get it.'

But first I ought to put the contrary case:

It is perfectly possible to research any subject or group of individuals without using an active participation method. For example I can research the behaviour of vets, football hooligans or stockmarket traders without becoming a vet/hooligan/trader. Indeed not only is it possible, but it is often desirable to have the objectivity that research requires.

It is also the case that not everyone has to use every technology to 'qualify'. I may not use Second Life but that doesn't mean I can't comment on social media in general. And we don't want to have some kind of qualification to start with where people starting wearing a McDonalds type star badge to demonstrate their social-media expertise.

But having said all of that I think that academics and journalists who don't use the new media should be treated with caution. Here's why:

  1. It's a fast changing world – the way technologies are used changes, so the survey you did last year won't apply this year
  2. The use and benefits are very subtle, you have to spend some time to understand them and you only really do that by participating
  3. There is an interconnection between many different tools, so you cannot cherry pick one in isolation without understanding how it might exist within an ecosystem of tools for an individual
  4. It is only through participation that you begin to see the types of interesting things to ask. By using the tools you will formulate more meaningful research questions
  5. If you simply research it then you see it as a distinct entity or community eg 'it's a teen thing'
  6. If you want people to engage with your research then you have to earn some points in the reciprocity economy

So, in general I already dismiss any journalist article that begins "I've never used [technology X] but I know this…". But I am also suspicious of any academic article on social media where the author doesn't have a blog, or twitter id.


  1. I think there’s a big difference between researching an area of human activity, and making good suggestions for good things to do in it. You can be a good researcher without participating (in most research traditions), but to be a good practitioner you have to … well, practice.
    So for me the whole problem comes in the research/practice gulf. If you want advice on how to use social media … don’t ask a researcher unless they actually participate.
    (I do think there is a sometimes shocking lack of basic technical knowledge though – I vividly remember talking to a couple of very prominent ed tech researchers in the late 90s who had literally no idea about the relationship between a DVD you watch on the telly and a DVD-ROM for computer storage. But were still giving advice on media policy and strategy to senior university management. Similar things have happened since but I won’t be specific to spare blushes.)

  2. I guess to a certain degree if you’re going to study it for sociology or psychology then you’ve got to understand it to a certain degree and sometimes the easiest way to understand it is to do it.
    I did Sociology at AS Level which isn’t much compared to doctorates and stuff like that. I wrote an essay about film and game violence and in order to get my brain round it I went and played computer games and watched Tarantino films amongst others with my brother. I even chatted to my brother about it – okay that didn’t really work and i couldn’t reference it in my essay but in order to write about it I needed a certain level of understanding to be able to write about it.
    So if you don’t understand Social Media in the first place how are you supposed to write an essay/study about it?

  3. Huh. funny my partner and I had this very debate last night. What we came up with is that the epistemic foundation of social media is distinct enough from the average academic journal that a lack of understanding of social media leads to a group of ‘peers’ all ‘reviewing’ themselves into mutual misunderstanding.

  4. You’d like to think that academics teaching/researching social media would want to be involved. @doclorraine (Lorraine Warren)is one senior academic at Southampton Uni., for example, who does “get” social media, uses it and encourages her colleagues and students on the business courses to do so. Only by engaging can you fully appreciate the strength of the network – and it changes the way you work (and play!)

  5. Like Andy … “yes”. I think the points you make in 1-3 are possibly the most important and insightful and certainly describe my “social media experience”.
    You really do need to get your hands dirty and there’s nothing that annoys me more than those who proclaim that they’re social media literate because a) they have facebook and twitter accounts, and b) they update there status regularly. [I don’t actually want to know what that person is doing, about to do, or has done – they’re on-lookers not practitioners.]
    So, I just keep experimenting, the suite of tools morphs, the experience grows, the meld forms and all the time I’m getting more productive and (I believe) informed/educated as well.
    However, at the heart of the social media practitioners armoury are a core set of tools that they’ve invested so much in that they will only move away from them kicking and screaming. These are the ones you hope will not “go under”.
    For me (as quite an organised sort of fellow) delicious is critical. I don’t want to know about any other bookmarking app unless it works seemlessly with delicious – so IBM’s dogear can just go away. Then I need to communicate and be informed – for the latter it used to be Google Reader, but now, like many others, twitter can fill both roles. IM is also important and Google Talk fills that role nicely as with Gmail and Google Videochat nicely integrate to provide a communciations suite.
    Finally, a blog, and I do so agree with you that it’s difficult to understand how any social media researcher can even contemplate being a researcher in the field without a blog. As I’ve said elsewhere, I believe you have to have a multi-blog platform strategy so that the context is clear for your readers (and for your employers), so I won’t say more on that here.
    Good post Martin. Enjoyed it!

  6. Good post, Martin. Yes. Definitely, the answer is Yes!
    Teachers at schools are a very good examples of why, if you are not a user of social media, it is very difficult to ‘get it’. Students, many at least, live in a world where the vast majority of their teachers have little clear understanding of the online world, especially 2.0 sites/technologies. This is problemating. How can a teacher explain or assist students to be good digital citizens, or deal with cyberbullying and safety issues if they have little understanding of the world? Without immersion, or at least dipping a toe into the river, it is very difficult to understand in more than a superficial fashion.
    This is a bit silly and trite, but imagine trying to explain cricket to an alien, who has neither watched or played the game? Is giving them a rule book and a few tips good enough?
    I think not! Grab a bat and ball, have a hit!

  7. @Doug – good point, I think you’re right there is a difference between practice and research and I am confounding the two. I think though my point 4 is salient for research. You and I have had conversations about things we have noticed because we use the tools (for instance the whole backchannel/new conference participation stuff), so this informs the type of research we do.
    @Dave – you and your partner don’t sit around chatting about the TV do you? I’m not sure I even understand your comment (I took it to mean ‘you are a genius Martin and this is a brilliant post’ – is that correct?). I think the ‘social media is distinct enough’ argument feels right, but I’d like to explore it further.
    @David – thanks, I think point 4 is probably the most relevant – you simply don’t know what research questions to ask if you don’t engage with it, or rather you will impose your world view on it.
    @Darcy – yes, it must be different, but more relevant for teachers in secondary school. I don’t want to go into the whole net generation thing but certainly the way young people communicate is being influenced by these technologies and to be unaware of them means there is a large chunk of their lives you simply don’t understand.

  8. Yes I think people have to use it to get it, but don’t forget that (in this postmodern world) different people will ‘get it’ in different ways. I use social media in a different way from my children, for example, and also in a different way from more experienced ed techies like you Martin. I also use different social media for my ‘home’ life than for my ‘work’ life – though there’s a bit of overlap.
    The point about people using a different cocktail of platforms is interesting too – I’m impressed by Mr. Harrison’s determination to continue to experiment with the new social media which keeps popping up. I wonder how many of us do that? Or do we just breathe a sigh of relief when we’ve got ourselves established on Twitter and facebook and assume that we’re ‘in the know’?

  9. Good question, for researchers, teachers and decision makers. Some years ago we could have asked the same question referring to elearning: I saw too many faculty/decision makers taking part in university elearning committees, who hadn’t the faintest idea of what elearning is…
    Social media add a new dimension in the user experience, as it can also be inferred from the metaphors of ‘visitors’ and ‘residents’ devised by Dave White: visitors keep on using social software as (in pre-Web 2.0) a ‘tools box’, while residents intend it as ‘living spaces’. This has important implications, for instance, for teacher training: as a learning technologist, I don’t believe that social media will be widely introduced in HE teaching unless faculty will use them as integral part of their activity as researchers.
    As regards to the researcher’s immersion in the environment being investigated, I don’t think that it is possible to give a general answer. For instance it comes to mind Christine Hine, who in her ‘Virtual Ethnography’ maintains that the ethnographer in virtual setting could usefully achieve the competence of the informants (i.e. creating a podcast to post in an audio blog), and use her/his achieved competences as many data to be collected. This perspective of intervention can be of particular interest in a social media context being researched, because it allows to have first-hand experience of the role of ‘residents’ and then allows to better grasp informants’ views. In this case it would also be in line with the ethnographical tradition in which researcher is full immersed in the context to learn the culture being studied.

  10. Great discussion. Social media is so broad and diverse you must participate in multiple platforms to truly grasp an accurate understanding of the networking available. Even more interesting to this discussion, a new study found that children ages 8-18 use media entertainment 7.5 hours each day:

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