Young people, social networking and qualitative methods

Curator's Note

Facebook has moved beyond trend and is now a cornerstone of digital communication.  As young people rapidly adapt to digital communication, social networking presents a vital shift in young people’s media cultures, providing the illusion of participation in digital democracy where postings feel unfiltered and unmonitored, as casual as face-to-face conversations, existing without boundaries.  Facebook invites artistic expression and self-reflection while also operating as a platform for divulging all manner of personal revelations.

Facebook is also an emerging tool in qualitative data gathering, leading to unique, 21st century concerns and opportunities.  In research I am conducting via Facebook, my participants do not check their spelling; they write in colloquialisms and abbreviations; there is little to no punctuation.  The writing is oral: when spoken out loud, spelling mistakes are not ‘seen’ and grammar sounds like a conversation among confidantes.  Data are slices into their ‘natural’ lives, for which qualitative methods consistently strive.  Yet the boundaries are unclear: are their newsfeeds part of the field?  Should their language be ‘cleaned up’ for academic writing?  One participant, after messaging answers to interview questions, popped up on the chat function and wrote: kay,i type from my phone so have typos,plz excuse me,i dont normally write so jacked up,its just facebook i dont feel like proofreading sometimes. im serious,if its not a paper for school or sumthing i really need to proofread, i wontttt, oi no its lazy of meee,ima start doing betta soon as i get energy lol.   We don’t ‘proofread’ our conversations among our peers: we laugh (out loud); we make excuses; we defend ourselves; we exaggerate our articulations to make a point.

Facebook has shifted the definition of ‘friend;’ turned ‘message’ into a verb, ‘like’ into a status symbol and altered our understandings of ‘public’ and ‘private.’  Facebook is an efficient communication tool, but with what impact?  How young people communicate with each other and how scholars make meaning of data environments needs greater attention.  Much scholarly and popular critique of Facebook focuses on the blurring of boundaries and long-term impact of incendiary postings.  We must better negotiate how young people themselves understand the boundaries and their roles as communicators, artists, students and workers in a digital environment.  As teachers, scholars and – undoubtedly – Facebook users ourselves, we owe it to young people to work towards nuanced understandings of social networking to make the digital environment more comprehensibly navigable.

Thank you Ivan Forde for the original video. 


As someone who doesn't do qualitative work, I'm curious about what you think the best way to approach Facebook's data environments is. How do you sift through information there or, I suppose, more importantly, navigate information that isn't necessarily as clearly written as survey results? Or does this mimic bad handwriting, just another aspect of your participants that you, as the scholar, must adjust to?


thanks for the question - believe me, this is something i grapple with regularly in qualitative research.  i try to approach the data - that is, the words used by participants - as multiple truths.  i work under the belief that they do not "lie" to me, per se, but that there are multiple truths - the truth they tell me in a semi-formal interview and the truth they tell to their FB friends in newsfeed updates - these may conflict, but generally i've found they overlap (tho some postings are certainly more ... colorful than others). i like your idea abt handwriting - there's a lot of variation to it and, in some important ways, it is representative of its author, even if it isn't& indefatigable 'truth.'

thanks again for the question - sorry my response was delayed ... just moved & a few days without internet access go by quickly!

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