Elephants and Murky Waters: Why We Need to Examine Multiple Social Media Sites
In her recent post on the Cyborgology blog, Jenny Davis brought the pervasive use of Facebook as a study site back into conversation. In brief, she argued that “studying Facebook—or any fleeting technological object—is not problematic as long as we theorize said object”. The take away from this statement is important: We can hope to make lasting contributions to research literature through our conceptual work – much more so than through the necessarily ephemeral empirical details that are tied to a time, a place, and particular technologies.
In this post, I want to give a different yet complementary answer to why it may be a problem if our research efforts are focused on a single study site. This is regardless of whether it is the currently most popular social network site or an already obsolete technological object. The post made me think of a tweet (by Nicole Ellison) echoing the discussion at the International Conference of Weblogs and Social Media ICWSM a few weeks ago:
In the story, blind men describing the elephant end up with wildly different accounts depending on which part of the animal each happened to stumble upon. While different accounts may all add accurate and relevant information, it is only in combining them that the men can begin to understand what the elephant looks like as a whole.
Similarly, if we focus only on Facebook –or whatever happens to be the most popular study site at any given moment– we will gain insight only into parts of the proverbial beast of how technologies and people go together. So, how might our conceptualizations of social media sites and social interaction change if we explored a wider range of services and used them as tools for our theorizing?
Let’s first consider Couchsurfing.org, a social media site that helps traveling guests to connect with local hosts for free accommodation and shared experiences. As a study site, it may encourage us to envision privacy in ways we wouldn’t come to think of in considering Facebook. Couchsurfing profiles offer users the option of presenting themselves as “several people”, making room for profiles that are not owned by individuals but small groups of people, such as couples, families, and housemates. Studying Couchsurfing may help us unpack what it means for a group to make itself more or less accessible and open to others. Social psychologist Irwin Altman’s definition of privacy as an interpersonal boundary process by which a person or a group regulates interaction with others  is quoted often in research on privacy in networked contexts, such as social media sites. However, the focus tends to be on individuals and their interpersonal negotiations, leaving regulation on the group level with scarce attention. Furthermore, what could we learn from studying couchsurfers’ experiences and considering privacy as hospitality, or privacy as politeness?
As another example, let’s think of changes in privacy settings and defaults on social media sites. Over Facebook’s history, changes to privacy settings have caused a number of heated debates (see boyd & Hargittai’s summary). Changes towards increased openness and decreased obscurity get framed as privacy violations. As such, they capture the attention of researchers and advocates focusing on privacy – for a reason. According to Altman’s theory of privacy, however, people’s efforts to regulate boundaries may fail both towards achieving too little or too much privacy. Pointing a finger at myself as much as at anyone else, I wonder whether our pressing concerns are biasing the focus of our theorizing.
While the trend among social media sites to tempt and push people to share more and more continues, purposely identifying and investigating counter examples could enrich our conceptual work. Consider Scoopinion, a Finnish news service that recently abandoned its original, automated social sharing model in order to focus on delivering personalized, “crowd-curated” recommendations for feature-length stories. In this process, interestingly for our theorizing purposes, Scoopinion users lost access to the behavioral data of others along with the chance to share their own reading data on the site. If we are to adapt Altman’s theory to the networked, augmented world of today, shouldn’t we look at how users conceive of system changes like this that (unexpectedly) decrease access and visibility, too? Is the sudden end of sharing perceived as a privacy violation? If our studies considered also cases that counter the trend of increased openness, we might come to understand reactions to changes in privacy settings and defaults more comprehensively. More importantly, it could help us see more clearly where prior theories can fail or support theoretical understandings that are situated in the networked context of today.
I argue that we are much better off in theorizing social media and the ways in which they relate to people if we choose to explore varied sites of study. These choices affect what seems illustrative of the phenomena under study. If our theoretical thinking builds on empirical research in only a few dominant study sites (or just one), we risk sailing into the murky waters where what is popular and typical comes to dominate our thinking – even when we know fully well that it’s not all there is.
Cross posted at Cyborgology.
ps. I’m Airi Lampinen, one of this summer’s PhD interns here at the Social Media Collective. I’m a graduate student in social psychology at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and a researcher at Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT.