Social science research aims to record, analyse, and make sense of social mess; to observe and account for everything in a given setting. Why, then, does so much of the research carried out online refuse to do this? Harry Dyer argues that in order to understand the social uses of the internet, it is crucial that research is not focused only on content production, while other uses are seen as secondary or devalued. Though this produced content online is rich, obvious, loud, and plentiful, this doesn’t mean that it can be considered de facto as the “average” use of social media. To focus too much on one facet of the online experience risks skewing the way we understand and think of online social space and online social experiences.
This is a new post in the Politics of Data series.
For centuries, since Comte’s first forays into social science (if not before), the task of the social sciences has broadly been to delve into, to record, and to make sense of social mess. This has often meant that social scientists observe, record, and analyse things as they appear in society, and in order to do so, they attempt to observe and account for everything within a given setting. From the mundane to the exciting, from the loud and obvious to the quiet and voiceless, social science aims to interrogate everything. Ideally, this reflects the society being researched, illuminating some of many issues, solutions, and factors that arise within these spaces.
So why is it that so much of the research carried out online refuses to do this, instead choosing to focus on analysing the “loud voice” of online content alone as if this were the totality of our collective online experiences? In this short piece I hope to highlight the increasing necessity of research to account for the quiet voice of internet use; for the mundane aspects that are so often overlooked in place of the obviousness of online content. By overtly and often exclusively focusing upon farming masses of online content for various insights, research faces the possibility of not reflecting and illuminating the society it is observing, but instead misrepresenting and diffracting online experiences.
Design vs use
Undoubtedly social media platforms are designed, in no small part, to create and host content, and to encourage users to produce various content. But, importantly for online research, this doesn’t mean that this is all that online platforms are used for, and nor does it mean that researchers should over-represent this aspect of the increasingly diverse online experience. Instead, to understand how these spaces are used in reality, we should investigate the tensions between the designers’ wishes to encourage content production and the everyday reality of social media.
Historically, there have been numerous tensions between the originally intended designs of social spaces and the evolution of those spaces. As far back as Ancient Greece, social spaces were places of conflict between designers and users, with agoras evolving from a space to hear the decrees of king and council into social, civic, and business spaces full of artisans and business owners.
In many ways the tension between design and user continues to this day. One only has to conduct a Google image search for “design vs user experience” to see many pictures of well-intended pathways ignored or circumvented by canny users. Despite a designer’s best intention, users will find new ways of using spaces. As such, a social space can never be fully understood by considering the designers’ intent for that space alone. Nor can it be understood by only focusing upon the user. Instead, a social space can be fully understood through unpacking the tension between the conceived uses of a space and the lived experiences of that space.
The same tension between user and design is also readily apparent in modern technology. The mobile phone, for example, when created in the 1980s, was originally intended to be used mainly for voice messages. Text messaging was originally seen as “an add-on without much potential for commercial significance”. However, after users rapidly appropriated text functionality “operators quickly embraced users’ enthusiasm and made SMS a core component of their offering”.
With this in mind, it appears that there is a need to consider the enmeshing of user and designed intent in order to understand the reality of how technologies and online social spaces are used. As online researchers, we need to avoid only looking at online spaces through the designers’ eyes and instead understand how these spaces are being used by people. This would appear to be an increasing necessity at a time when the internet is playing an increasingly broad and heterogeneous role in the lives of a growing and diverse user base.
Beyond content production – the quiet but crucial online experience
So how are users actually using online spaces? Increasingly, research has begun to suggest that there is a need to consider more than just content production, highlighting the importance of media consumption in online social experiences. Researchers have highlighted many reasons for engaging in online spaces without actually producing content, including boredom, snooping, and celebrity “fandom”. Boredom in particular has been the source of recent research, which as Čičević et al. (2016) highlight, may be “one of the main reasons” for accessing online social spaces for younger demographics.
These engagements are notably different to content production and should be considered in their own right, not as secondary uses. There is often a temptation in digital research to listen to those who speak loudly and who actively participate by producing content, but this privileging of voice denies the many nuanced uses of social media beyond merely producing content. Even those who produce content will also use social media in many manners beyond this alone. Unfortunately, when attempts to account for these uses have been made, they often serve to minimise them or place them as secondary uses through terms like “peripheral” or “non-public” participants, despite the fact that they make up a large part of social media usage. As Kate Crawford argues of these definitions: “they continue to define this majority group by what they are not: not public, not at the centre”. She moves on to suggests that accounting for more than just content production can be crucial to online research as it, in effect, “decentres the current overemphasis on posting, commenting and ‘speaking up’ as the only significant forms of participation”.
Indeed, it has been noted that content production may actually be one of the more uncommon uses of social media and even that the majority of content production may be being done by a minority of atypical users. 2014 UK data, for example, found “a handful of users contributing extensively to the sites, whilst the majority contribute rarely or never”. It appears therefore that in order to consider the social uses of the internet it is crucial that the focus of research is not upon content production alone, and that other uses are not seen as secondary or devalued. Though this produced content online is rich, obvious, loud, and plentiful, this doesn’t mean that this can be considered de facto as the “average” use of social media.
Social science is perhaps at its strongest and most noble when it is attempting to honestly reflect and illuminate the society it is studying. This, of course, is not always possible, and is an epistemological issue that researchers will, and should, continue to openly grapple with. It is my fear, however, that the growing importance of big data research is placing far too large of a focus upon one facet of the online experience alone, skewing the way we understand and think of online social space and online social experiences. By placing such a large emphasis on an aspect that research suggests is an increasingly minor part of the complex online social experience, content farming appears to further silence an already under-represented aspect of the online experience, presenting a picture of online reality that is simply not representative. Focusing upon content alone potentially ignores the many complex uses of social media, and risks defining social media on its conceived potential and not it’s actualised use. At the least, researchers should acknowledge that the masses of online content data, whilst obviously appealing and potentially insightful, are not, and cannot be, representative of the larger online experience. And perhaps at best, researchers should aim to record, report, and reflect the entirety of the online social experience in an ethical, representative, and academically honest manner.
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About the author
Harry Dyer is a lecturer in education at the University of East Anglia. He recently joined the department after completing his PhD with them in 2016. His current research is in the field of digital sociology, looking specifically at how social media platform design affects young people’s online experiences. You can follow him on Twitter @HarryTDyer, and find more of his writing online at HarryTDyer.com. His ORCID ID is 0000-0002-1629-730X.