EILab Reflection: The Social Graph

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The Social Graph, Social Media and Data Collection

EILab, UOIT, CanadaEILab Reflections offer brief insights, ideas and abstracts collected and developed in the context of informal discussion and exploration of the TCU framework, research technologies and methodologies, and the affordances of the EILab. The author, Todd Blayone, is a graduate Researcher and Research Technician in the EILab. He is a primary investigator in two EILab studies. His graduate research project is entitled: Technology Use, Information Competency and Trust of University Students in post-Soviet Ukraine

Leveraging the Social Graph to Expand the Scope of Data Collection

Social Graph Visualization

Visualization of a Social Graph

As a digital marketing professional, I became familiar with automation technologies that collect profile, demographic, and attitudinal data from the social graph using an email address as the primary key. In short, once an individual has disclosed their email address (through an opt-in form), a marketing-automation application collects data that this same individual has made available on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, etc. The burning question in my mind was why social scientists immersed in digital research tools are not more aggressively exploring data collection via automated integrations with the social graph. Why do many researchers limit data collection strategies to pre-digital research methodologies? In exploring this question, I came across at post from the American Psychological Association, containing a quotation from Eszter Hargittai, a leading researcher in the area of digital-skills measurement. This post is entitled: Using social media in your research. Here are two excerpts.

Psychology researchers often draw study participants from one relatively homogeneous group: undergraduates. That’s too bad, because Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and other social media have made a rainbow of research participants just as convenient as Psych 101 students, says Sam Gosling, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “We no longer have the excuse of relying on self-reports of undergraduates,” Gosling says. “We can now reach out to other groups and see the actual electronic traces of their behavior.” His group studies how people express their personalities in their physical or virtual environments. They’ve found, for example, that people tend to express their real personalities on Facebook, rather than idealized versions of themselves, according to a 2008 study published in Psychological Science.

Though social media may give you access to a great variety of participants, social media users are not necessarily representative of any larger group, cautions Eszter Hargittai, PhD, a communications professor at Northwestern University. One study by Hargittai, published in 2007 in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, found that socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity correlate with which social media site a person is most likely to use. That’s a weakness worth noting in your study’s discussion section, but it shouldn’t be a deal breaker, says Hargittai. “You could argue that this is a more diverse sample than usual.” “More than 85 percent of college students are on Facebook. That’s a higher percentage than are in your psych classes,” says Hargittai. Gosling agrees. Of course, “there are biases,” he adds. “As in all research, multiple studies is the way to go.

The EILAB at the Faculty of Education, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Canada, is a superbly equipped research facility designed to study the uses of digital technology in education. It serves as a hub for university-based projects and collaborations, and researchers from around the world. Researchers and associates publish on a variety of subjects in the area of informational informatics, an emerging field at the intersection of information science, education and computer science, and which incorporates a number of sub-disciplines including digital and information literacy, educational psychology, learning technology, and instructional design.