Dr Jennifer Holden (University of Aberdeen) is Training and Outreach Officer for the dot.rural Digital Economy Hub. Her role involves co-ordinating internal dot.rural training, along with dot.rural public engagement and outreach activities.
This project seeks to develop and apply new tools and methods for social media data analysis, as well as explore the ethical challenges associated with using such data in research. Case studies include transport disruption around the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, UK-EU relations and island communities in the Western Isles. Part of the project seeks to engage with the public on the topic of social media through a series of festivals. These include music festivals as they lead to encounters with members of the public who might not attend science events. To date the team have featured at seven festivals including Green Man 2014 and Edinburgh International Science Festival.
At each of the festivals the team from the University of Aberdeen conducted a series of interactive activities designed to inform members of the public about how social research is carried out using social media data and issues relating to social media behaviour. These activities all draw on datasets being created and used in by the Aberdeen team.
One of the activities is “Treasure Chest – You become the researcher”. This puts the participant in the position of using social media data as a resource. Using cardboard coins participants write the terms they would search for on social media if they were investigating the event they were attending. The coins are then placed in a treasure chest, making the connection between social media data being a rich source of information for social and/or economic benefit. This activity gives participants insights into the process of using social media by putting them in the researcher’s position. It provoked questions about the ease of searching social media for information and how searches generate databases from words, alongside hashtags and user information.
Another activity is “Fishing for Tweets”. This activity shows the process researchers use to mine social media data using search terms such as hashtags and keywords. For this activity, plastic fishbowls are filled with felt fish. The fish are magnetic so can be ‘fished’ using magnetic fishing rods. On the back of the fish are search terms used by the project to create datasets. By fishing for specific terms participants are shown how social media data is probed to create datasets and how initial decisions can lead to different research findings. The activity is designed to show the interrogation of social media data by researchers and led to conversations about how participants think their social data may be used and re-used by others and whether they are aware of the variety of organisations interested in social media data, particularly in relation to political issues.
The Social Media Spying Pool activity is designed to reflect high profile news stories, involving privacy and social media around national security agencies use of social media. It uses a paddling pool duck pond mimicking the Hook-a-Duck Side Stall. The paddling pool has ducks that can be selected using hooks and eyes, however, some ducks are linked (using fishing line not visible in the water) to each other replicating how social media proxy accounts can be used to investigate similar people. The participant sees a physical demonstration of how electronic linking of information can link to some or none of the other pieces of information/people in the pool. This led to conversations about how participants’ social media updates might be used and helped interrogate public perceptions of social media’s use and re-use.
These activities have helped to promote social science to a new audience and parents have used the activities to back up discussions they had previously had with their children about safe practices online, especially with teenagers. The ESRC-funded work has been valuable in helping inform the public about the potential dangers of using social media and the public’s awareness of how social scientists conduct research using these data. This has resulted in the some members of the public reconsidering their social media behaviour.
Public Engagement in Social Media – Developing Understanding, Infrastructure & Engagement (Social Media Enhancement) (ES/M001628/1). The primary investigator for this research is Professor Pete Edwards, University of Aberdeen.