Archive | April 2015

AfRE research ethics event: Social media and the internet – all in this together?

This was originally posted at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research (BCMCR) blogI have also blogged there about my research seminar presentation and my attendance to Prof Mark Banks’ research seminar, both in February 2015. 

On 23 April 2015 I attended an event at Bristol University organised by the Association for Research Ethics (AfRE). The day featured a great line up of speakers who are all doing really interesting research in social media and raising important questions about social media ethics.

First was Carl Miller of Demos, who is part of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM). He provided an interesting (and very topical) insight into tweets around the live debate for the 2015 General Election which took place a few weeks ago. By measuring the sentiment of tweets during the election, he could gauge how each politican was being received on Twitter (grouping positive and negative tweets into ‘boos’ and ‘cheers’). Carl used the term ‘computational social science’ to describe the type of work CASM does, and though the centre uses a lot of ‘big data’ Carl emphasised the importance of understanding individuals and the importance of context, which is the rationale behind my own methodological choices of interviews, diary keeping as well as ‘small data’ social media post analysis, possibly using discourse analysis or a similar framework. This approach addresses concerns brought up by attendees such as picking up sarcasm and irony, which ‘big data’ software doesn’t always do.

Farida Vis of the University of Sheffield was next, talking about her work in researching social media images. Of particular interest to me was her point about a shift from the traditional media studies-based communication model of ‘production-message-reception’ to ‘structures-users-content’ with the structures being the structures of social media platforms and their ability to determine how information is presented (e.g. Twitter’s 140 characters). In my PhD I am looking at social media as a medium for performance of expertise, and there is a lot to be explored there in terms of how social media is structured and its relationship with users, which Farida stresses is very important – more research needs to be done on social media and the individual.

She then talked about her project Reading the Riots which received a lot of backlash with regard to ethics because the social media posts used were not anonymised. However, those Tweets were ‘public’ and the debate about public tweets and privacy in research was a prevalent one at this conference, which is another point my research is considering.

Sanjay Sharma (who happens to be speaking at a BCMCR research seminar next month) talked about his research into the #notracist hashtag as an example of an ambient hashtag which never trends, but bubbles away in the background. Sanjay said this hashtag is legitimising casual racism on Twitter, with people using #notracist instead of saying ‘I’m not racist, but…’ Sanjay raised concerns about privacy when looking at tweets like this which are controversial. Sanjay addresses this by blurring people’s picture and Twitter name, and slightly altering the text in the tweet so it cannot be altered. For me, who is taking a qualitative approach to Twitter analysis, text altering needs to be done very carefully so as not to radically alter the meaning of a tweet.

No matter how controversial or offensive people are being, there was a general consensus at this conference that people’s privacy still needs to be protected. This was echoed in Anne Burns’ great talk about her research, also about social media images and particularly the ‘Picturing the Social’ project, for which I attended the launch conference last year. Anne is interested in what social media practice can tell us about people and the ways in which this can be conceptualised. She has focused particularly on ‘selfies’ and ‘revenge porn’ in her research and she flagged up important questions in this talk about harm and privacy. For example with regards to revenge porn, how do you define harm in this context? Other social media users are the ones causing harm, what can the researcher do about this to protect the victims? Should the perpetrators be protected too even though they are causing harm?

ethicsAnne also talked about the public/private debate. She argued that sharing is becoming a social norm (which Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg wants to encourage as much as possible) yet at the same time people are still very concerned about privacy, and this presents a problem for researchers. What also needs to be considered are the different ethical considerations for not only individuals, but also groups and organisations. She finished her talk by suggesting that there are no straightforward answers to the ethical concerns of social media research, but what is required is a reflexive approach, and to treat the research process as a series of ethical questions. I think this is the best way to approach such a muddy area, and though more questions were raised than answered, events like this are important for discussing these issues and sharing ideas.

The main image above is from Anne’s final slide, which lists some current and potentially useful literature on social media research.

Expertise in the creative industries and reputation

Since the last post I’ve been focusing much more on literature on expertise in the creative industries. Before I proceed with that however I should restate why I am looking at expertise.

One of the main research questions for my PhD is How is expertise performed on social media? Expertise, as I will demonstrate in my discussion in this blog post, is essential in order to progress and develop a career in the creative industries. Reputations are built on the expertise one has (or appears to have) and it is reputation that leads to more work. On social media, there are multiple opportunities for self-branding and self-promotion, and expertise, and the performance of expertise on social media, is yet to be explored among creative industries workers. What insights can this bring about social media in the life of the creative worker? What new insights can this bring about creative work?

Social network markets, expertise in the creative industries and reputation

In reading more around expertise in the creative industries, I’ve been led to the concept of social network markets, which I think could be a useful way of conceptualising the ideas of reputation and expertise and relating them to the wider context of the creative industries. According to Potts (2011):

“A social network market emerges when consumer choice shifts attention away from price information and toward observations of other agents’ choices as a rational reaction to uncertainties about product quality arising from novelty or complexity” (p.80).

The concept of social network markets has been used to look at the creative industries from a market-based perspective (Potts et al, 2008) and user co-creation online (Hartley, 2007; Banks 2009).

Banks (2009) looked at co creative expertise and the complexity of interrelations between “traditional expertise and emergent community knowledge structures” (p. 13). He proposes the analytical framework of social network markets to try and work through this complexity:

“This model of social network markets is based on the notion that this problem of co-creative expertise is neither an economic nor a cultural phenomenon in itself, but rather the outcome of a co-evolutionary dynamic between both economic and cultural considerations.” (p.13)

The framework of social network markets picks up on the economic and social aspects of the creative industries, which is useful for looking at ideas of reputation and expertise and relating it to the wider context of the creative industries. In Art Worlds, Becker (2008) articulates this social aspect in more depth in relation to the value of reputation in the creative industries.  According to Becker, the term ‘Art World’ is used:

“To denote the network of people whose cooperative activity, organized via their joint knowledge of conventional means of doing things, produces the kind of art works that art world is noted for.” (xxiv).

Becker claims that reputation as a social process, and argues against the common tendency in policy discourse to emphasise the genius individual with a unique and rare talent (Bilton, 2010). Other people have as much to do with the value and reputation of a person or work of art, and it is this idea which is the base argument of Art Worlds. Becker emphasises the importance of consensus among peers and consumers, as well as the role of production and distribution systems, in forging a reputation. Becker’s account was written before social media and the internet, and so some of what he talks about with regards to distribution systems could be problematised in this context, for example:

“That writers do not achieve major reputations does not mean that no one is doing work that would, by the standards of those worlds, deserve such reputations, only that the world’s distribution system does not let participants know what they need to to make the comparisons that would allow credible judgments.” (p.363).

The internet and social media have made production and distribution of creative work much easier to do. Though it is still very difficult to gain the mass exposure that the larger media companies can generate, it is slightly easier to gain at least some form of exposure on sites such as YouTube. One also still has to rely on social networks (and a form of consensus) in order for their work to reach many people, and this aspect remains the same from Becker’s original account.

So even though anyone can now create something and publish it online, people still need to see it. This is where the importance of signalling expertise comes in, for getting one’s work noticed.

Expertise and signalling 

Signalling is a way of communicating one’s expertise and building reputation, which leads to other forms of value, as Potts (2011) outlines:

“Credible signalling builds reputation, and reputation is social capital; a capital that is then fungible over future market and non-market contexts. Creative production occurs in a social context that gives rise to arbitrage opportunities over market and non-market spaces. The currency through which these transactions occur is not always monetary; indeed as often it is reputational, in the sense of being an investment in the wealth of a credible signal” (p.81).

Again, the internet and social media are worth considering in this context. How does the performance of expertise on social media play out here? Social media appears to be a ‘social context’ in which opportunities for creative production and distribution occur. What form does ‘signalling’ take here?

Candace Jones (2002) talks about signalling of expertise in the creative industries, utilising the work of Goffman to put together a theoretical framework to conceptualise signalling strategies. Again, there are ideas here which could be worth further exploration in a social media context. Jones talks about signalling content which consists of knowing why (identity), knowing how (performance) and knowing whom (relationships) (p.213) all of which are aspects of the online presence which I aim to explore in my own work (particularly performance).

She then talks about signalling strategies which are vitally important for reputation building. Reputation building strategies involve the types of relations someone pursues, and Jones talks about this using some of the terminology from Mark Granovetter’s strong and weak ties, claiming that strong ties dampen negative and amplify positive signals (and weak ties are more likely to invert that, i.e. amplifying negative signals). She also talks about reputation and self-presentation in terms of the audience and picking up ‘clues’ (using Goffman’s terminology) to best manage an impression. Again, these are ideas which are worth looking at on social media. A lot of work has been done on self-presentation online using Goffman’s framework, but not in terms of signalling of expertise.

Another interesting aspect which Jones mentions signalling as expertise – i.e. being an expert in signalling. Again, this is an idea which is worth exploring for my research in terms of social media usage. If you are highly competent, or expert, at using social media, does that make you appear more of an ‘expert’ in your creative field, because you are able to communicate it effectively online? What does this mean for peers who may not be so ‘expert’ at using social media? Jones claims that this practice of signalling as expertise involves analysis and intuition; intuition in particular is honed through experience. This idea of intuition has paralells with the ‘everydayness’ of expertise as talked about in my previous post.

If performance of expertise on social media becomes intuitive and natural for a practitioner, does that mean they are experts at social media, or experts in their field? What bearing does one have on the other in terms of time and effort invested into it?

Jones could have unpacked this idea of signalling as expertise further, however this is where I could pick up and explore in the context of social media use, particularly in treating it as a medium for communication and a part of creative workers’ everyday practice.


Banks, J. (2009). Co-creative expertise: Auran Games and Fury – A case study. Media International Australia, 130(February), pp. 77–89.

Becker, H. (2008) Art Worlds: 25th Anniversary Edition, updated and expanded. University of California Press.

Hartley, J. (2007). The evolution of the creative industries – Creative clusters , creative citizens and social network markets. Keynote address to Creative Industries Conference, Asia-Pacific Weeks, Berlin, September 2007.

Jones, C (2002) ‘Signaling expertise: how signals shape careers in the creative industries’ in M. Peiperl, M. Arthur and N. Anand, Eds Creativity: Explorations in the remaking of work. Oxford University Press, pp. 209-228.

Potts, J (2011) Creative industries and economic evolution. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Potts, J., Cunningham, S., Hartley, J., & Ormerod, P. (2008). Social network markets: a new definition of the creative industries. Journal of Cultural Economics, 32(3), pp. 167–18