Social media is a genuine treasure trove for a cultural researcher. It is, however, not as easily accessed as one would think. If, in the beginning of the 2010’s, people thought that a digital culture researcher resembled a sort of armchair anthropologist, a decade later the situation had changed.
In the 2020’s, the social media research field is more difficult to reach than a distant culture on a slow cargo ship. The field has changed into a sorry example of qualitative research field suppressed by a jungle of rules and regulations. Some valuable data cannot be researched because social media research is in a stalemate. It’s about time to dissolve it.
My own experiences about research ethical challenges
I faced research ethical challenges regarding social media data in autumn 2017. I had found a research topic for my Master´s thesis in a Karelian Facebook group. I had followed the group for years and found out that the descendant generations of evacuees had formed their own community within the group. The community wished to discuss things and share memories. They also saved pics and videos, gave practical advice to people travelling to their former home regions as well as agreed and informed of the upcoming trips there.
The founder of the group, however, did not give me a permission to conduct research on the private group in question.
I was practically inside my research topic, I could clearly see it in front of me but I could not touch it.
I solved the problem by looking for interviewees in other Karelian groups and asked them e.g. about how belonging to these groups affected their Karelian identity. Their responses helped me get one picture of Karelian identity as a Facebook phenomenon although the result was not quite what I had originally wished for.
After filtering the research plan
While writing my Master´s thesis, I had barely scratched the surface of the research challenges regarding social media. As regards social media applications and platforms, you also have to pass the research plan through another filter: Is the research legal? The legality depends on the application rules and regulations. If university level legal experts are unable to answer the question, we enter the grey area. The responsibility cannot be imposed on the thesis writer.
If the legality filter can be passed, the next issue is research ethics. You must think through what kind of research is appropriate on each platform. What kind of knowledge are you looking for? How can the research either help or harm different parties? Do we need a statement from the Human Sciences Ethics Committee?
The remaining data will be filtered one more time, namely privacy protection. How can you handle your data and publish your results without violating privacy issues?
What we have left after all these filterings probably looks very different from what you originally expected. You have to figure out how broad a research this kind of data enables. Does the researcher have to find a new angle, methods or research question? What kind of knowledge does the data offer?
Also, you may have spent a surprisingly long time planning the field of research. But if you wish to complete your studies in good time you have to think carefully how long you can spend in completing the research. It is also possible that the data may be removed from the social media, it may be changed or get out of date quickly. Furthermore, the owner of the application may, by unilateral decision, change the terms and conditions so that the data is unusable.
Freedom of a researcher
All this can bring down both students and researchers. Many valuable topics and themes may remain largely unresearched.
Some of the preconditions are necessary, such as research ethics, but the access to the field must be safeguarded.
One way to achieve this is to remove the special status of social media regarding research.
The Universities Act confirms (Universities Act 558/2009) that a researcher is entitled to freedom of research. Qualitative research on social media contents is at the moment practically impossible to carry out. It should be possible to freely conduct scientific research on socially and individually significant issues, such as dialogues and other phenomena in social media. Social media has integrated into our daily life. As a media, it includes an enormous research potential. In particular, its public contents must be able to be researched, and it must be considered equal with any other media contents.
Freedom of research in universities is that researchers are able to choose their research topics, have access to the field as well as participate in scientific and social discussion regardless of the media in question.
The writer is an ethnology and anthropology doctoral student in the University of Jyväskylä. Her dissertation examines the future generations of Karelian-speaking evacuees empowering their language and culture.
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