Scholarly article on topic 'Studying Normal, Everyday Social Media'

Studying Normal, Everyday Social Media Academic research paper on "Media and communications"

Share paper
Academic journal
Social Media + Society
OECD Field of science

Academic research paper on topic "Studying Normal, Everyday Social Media"

SI: Manifesto

social media + society

Studying Normal, Everyday Social Media

Social Media + Society April-June 2015: 1-2 © The Author(s) 2015 DOI: 10.1177/2056305115580484

Daren C. Brabham


Social media research has tended to focus on stand-out cases and has made use of big data methods to make claims about human experience and sociality. This commentary urges researchers to consider the everyday, normal experiences of most social media users, to consider the place of social media in a broader social context, and to consider marrying big data approaches with interviews and surveys of users.


methods, everyday life, social

Scholars and practitioners alike seem to love focusing on the highlight reel of social media successes and failures. Inspiring reflections on the role of Twitter in the so-called Arab Spring protests or the protests surrounding the Ferguson trial have filled many paragraphs on blogs and in academic articles. Viral phenomena such as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge or any number of memes-of-the-week on Facebook catch the attention of pundits and professors. And case studies on the occasional high-profile social media blunders of companies and celebrities turn up in many keynote talks and university syllabi. It is easy to latch on to the most visible, newsworthy highlights of the social media sphere in order to make a point, and so much of the expert commentary on social media follows all that glitters.

However, the vast majority of what happens on social media is unremarkable, desperately and dreadfully corporate, and thus understandably ignored by scholars and analysts. Social media scholarship has so far tended to focus on the edge cases, the exceptions to the norm. What is more, in these studies of the exceptions to the rule, social media scholars too often seem content to rely on convenient data sets whose sheer size seems to indicate relevance and to make sometimes unsophisticated claims about engagement, connection, friendship, trust, or endorsement that point only to counts of "likes" or retweets or pins. Social life is much more messy than that, and what people seem to do online may have very little to do with how they feel about something.

All of this is not to skewer all social media scholarship. Indeed, much of it is interesting and methodologically rigorous, but the novelty and popular interest in social media do seem to have carried this body of research up until now. Perhaps as this area of scholarship matures and new

dedicated venues such as this journal strive to elevate the discussion, social media researchers can turn their attention to the everyday realities of social media and grapple with more complicated study designs to make more sophisticated claims about the role of social media in society. Going forward, new social media research ought to

• Study normal, everyday topics. Very few social media users use social media tools to coordinate revolutions. Just as the study of culture and history should consider the normal and the everyday experiences of populations alongside timelines of important battles and economic milestones, so too should the study of social media. The fact that people use social media to share photos of their children and their meals more often than they join in on politically charged hashtag trends should be reflected in the way scholars write about social media.

• Consider the role of strategic communication and the professionalization of online community management. Corporations have caught up with social media, and just about every organization staffs its social media accounts with one, two, or an army of professional strategic communicators. Much of the clutter on social media is carefully designed by organizations to persuade users to buy something. Organizations are increasingly using

University of Southern California, USA Corresponding Author:

Daren C. Brabham, University of Southern California, 3502 Watt Way, Los Angeles, CA 90089, USA. Email:

ice) CD® Creative Commons CC-BY-NC: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 License ^^^■sSMD^B ( which permits non-commercial use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (

Social Media + Society

social media platforms to handle customer service issues and engage stakeholders in transmedia branding dialogues, along with the usual—and rather ineffective—one-way promotion of goods. Scholars must keep in mind that activity on Twitter and Facebook takes place in the analog of a shopping mall and not in some romantic notion of the agora or even the intimate space of a home or social club.

• Remember that relatively few people are on social media. Only about 4% of the world is on Twitter in a given month, and many of those users are one-time egg-profile types, junk accounts, or corporate representatives. The voluminous research on Twitter, though, would give the impression that it is a much bigger deal than it is. There are issues of technology access and questions of privilege when one examines the demographics of social media users. But beyond that, there are questions of how and why these social media phenomena truly matter in the world or matter in terms of how they can explain human experience with any degree of generalizability.

• Talk to people. Big data sets do not always yield big insights. Just because there is an application programming interface (API) does not mean that scraping massive quantities of data is sufficient for making a sophisticated claim about social media use. A reliance on the data fire hose can strip away the nuance of human experience, and actually talking to social media users can do wonders to fill in these gaps in the data. Indeed, there seems to be an entire cottage industry within academia dedicated to methodological questions about how to play with APIs, rip clean data from the web, and process social media chatter in big batches. In some cases, these approaches have become hammers in search of nails. It would be wonderful to see more social media research marrying big data analysis with interviews and surveys of users to generate more elegant findings, and more focus generally

on the core questions of human experience sought in social media studies rather than clever new ways to parse gigantic piles of data.

• Complicate what engagement means. Most social media platforms offer crude approximations for human interaction, including retweets, "likes," at-replies, pins, hasthtags, and favoriting. Research should analyze these indicators with caution, for they capture very little of the nuance of sociality online and in face-to-face interactions. From an organizational perspective, social media may be no more effective than cheap banner advertisements at driving website traffic, and from a personal perspective, a retweet may carry a wide array of meanings, from endorsement to friendship to showing off to peers.

The exploratory phase in social media research has now faded, and new work should generate deeper theoretical insights and useful advice for practitioners. Enlarging the scope of social media research beyond the stand-out cases and into the space of the everyday could achieve this. Research that merges big data with small, intimate data would go a long way to enrich the conversation as well.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Author Biography

Daren C. Brabham (PhD, University of Utah) is an Assistant Professor of public relations and new media at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. His research interests include crowdsourcing, online communities, and technology for the public good.