Social Media's Research Potential

By Brydon, Diana | English Studies in Canada, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Social Media's Research Potential


Brydon, Diana, English Studies in Canada


In her 2006 novel, Dreams of Speaking, Australian writer Gail Jones introduces a character, Alice Black, who is planning a book on "the unremarked beauty of modern things, of telephones, aeroplanes, computer screens and electric lights, of television, cars and underground transportation" (18), even as another character reminds her that "the difficulty with celebrating modernity ... is that we live with so many persistently unmodern things. Dreams, love, babies. Illness. Memory. Death" (21). How we negotiate between and across what Alice thinks of as the modes of yesterday and today is the persistent task of the humanities. How we accomplish that task is being revolutionized by the new tools available to us for developing stronger, transnational research communities and for sharing our work in progress across previously closed borders. But as some borders become more porous, others are erected. Our task, as always, is to remain both open and vigilant as we explore the research potential afforded by new social media.

Dreams of Speaking is a novel in which words provide an anchor (132) in a continuously "buzzing world" (61, 65), where books provide an ordered refuge from the "galaxies of information" available in an internet cafe (136). Her friend wonders how she could both love technology yet "hate the internet" (138). What is it about the Web, and social media in particular, that makes some humanists cautious about embracing its potential for advancing our research, learning, and teaching? Where is caution justified, and where are opportunities we are missing for advancing our work and extending its reach?

The chief worry, I think, is that social media were created neither to facilitate research nor to advance the work of genuine knowledge creation. We make them work for us, at least for now, but they will only serve our needs imperfectly until we get more involved in designing systems better suited to our work. Google and Amazon are not usually seen as "social media," but to the extent that they track preferences and compile customer profiles, I argue that they should be seen as such. Social media are designed to deliver consumers to the businesses that seek their custom. They can be used against the grain, but we need to remember how they work and why. A 2010 ciber Report on "Social Media and Research Workflow" lists fourteen key findings that provide a useful picture of the current state of affairs. Number 8 is important for members of accute in this regard: "The most popular tools used in a professional research context tend to be mainstream anchor technologies or 'household brands,' like Skype, Google Docs, Twitter and YouTube. Researchers seem to be largely appropriating generic tools rather than using specialist or custom-built solutions and both publishers and librarians need to adapt to this reality." They conclude by asking, "Is this a sign, perhaps, that there may be a gap in the market for simple bespoke tools?" (2).

Those of you working more centrally in the digital humanities may be best placed to consider this question and meet this challenge, but we all need to think about it more carefully. Susan Brown makes this case well in her chapter in Daniel Coleman and Smaro Kamboureli's 2011 book, Retooling the Humanities. She argues, "What we need is to distinguish our particular user communities and test the tenets of usability studies to figure out how to design systems that will really work for and with us" (223). If your user community values its local perspectives on the world and if it is also transnational, interdisciplinary, multilingual, and intergenerational, then such interactions can create tremendous energy and new ways of thinking about problems old and new. The unesco Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity represents one response to the evolving global information infrastructure.

Siva Vaidyanathan, in The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), picks up on issues first noted by Jean-Noel Jeanneney (2005; 2007). …

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