Social media offers four different ways to collect information from a substantial number of sources. First, you can apply knowledge organization to classify and catalog information or content, such as creating a playlist on YouTube and adding videos associated with that category. Second, social networking offers opportunities for collaboration and interactivity. Facebook, for instance, lets users share information such as a New York Times article to their profile page, allowing their online community to view and distribute that knowledge to others. Social media environments are a place for users to engage with a database that is dedicated to producing and potentially archiving information regularly. Finally, users can practice information retrieval by collecting and gathering data through a particular social media site. The universal tool to retrieve data and information on social media sites is the hashtag. By placing a pound symbol in front of a word or phrase, users locate and compile content associated with the chosen hashtag, including images, videos, and articles.

Higher-ed students in all disciplines can use the hashtag as a research mechanism. Because these students typically use the hashtag for entertainment purposes and building community, I recommend focusing on how they can use hashtags and social media platforms to research various topics and locate information. Here are two sample social media research assignments I’ve conducted using hashtags and social media. While the studies are associated with my courses, the concept and theory can be applied to all disciplines.

Social media research assignment example 1: Using hashtags to analyze reactions of a television series. Over the last several years, TV has greatly evolved. Today, viewers consume an episode through a streaming on demand service (Netflix, Hulu), watch on a variety of mobile devices, and binge multiple episodes in a row. Another new feature of modern television viewing is the act of companion television, in which an individual uses a second device (phone, tablet, laptop) to communicate and interact with other fans of the show who share similar interests. Many television series include their hashtag on the top left or right of the screen. For example, ABC’s Dancing with the Stars puts #DWTS on the screen.

In my media literacy course, students analyze Twitter posts for the duration of an episode of a television series. The goal is to evaluate the different emotions and reactions viewers share with others through social media sites when watching television. Students use Twitter to retrieve data in real time. I suggest dramas on traditional/cable television, but students select the show they want to use. Then they collect tweets to analyze viewer’s reactions toward an episode of a television program.

Whether watching an episode live or using Twitter’s advanced search feature later, students place tweets into a classification system consisting of four categories. It should be noted that students analyze only public tweets that are open for all online users. They collect tweets for the entire duration of a new episode. The theory students base the assignment on “Tweeting television: Exploring communication activities on Twitter while watching TV,” a study by Christopher Buschow, Beate Schneider, and Simon Ueberheide.

The first category is whether the tweet is positive or negative toward what is happening on the episode. The second category comprises of any tweets that focus on the storylines, plot, or characters. The third category adds tweets that cause the viewer and social media user to post an emotional response such as sadness or happiness. The last category encompasses tweets that reference what happens on the show or what a character does toward something in a user’s personal life. For example, if two characters on the episode get into an argument and the social media user posts how the scene reminds him or her of a previous disagreement.

After organizing each tweet into the classification system, students are able to evaluate their results in several ways, including whether there is an online community of fans that discuss the show through social media, what those fans and viewers discuss, and the overall reactions of the episode. Furthermore, students will be able to tell if current storylines or characters are resonating with the audience watching or if changes could be implemented as the series continues.

Social media research assignment example 2: Using hashtags to understand how higher education uses social media sites. A few semesters ago, when teaching a course titled Understanding Social Media, I came up with a month-long assignment in which students analyze a social media site from two local institutions. When doing this assignment, students organize every tweet in the one-month period into categories to see how the educational facility uses Twitter (or another social media platform). Students collect public tweets and use only the main Twitter channel for the college/university.

Students place the tweets are placed into a classification system of 10 categories based on a study by Sultan M. Al-Daihani and Suha A. AlAwadhi titled “Exploring academic libraries’ use of Twitter: a content analysis,” as well as Jo Williams, Susan J. Chinn, and James Suleiman’s classification of sports tweets in their article, “The value of Twitter for sports fans.” The categories are academics (majors/minors), campus life (clubs, events), campus services (library, writing center), content (pictures, videos), technology (software, devices), suggestions/encouragement (greetings, advice, wishes, inspirational words), interactions (students mentioned or retweeted), opinions (religious or political commentary), promotional and marketing (media campaigns), and community service.

When applying the classification system, students quickly realize that tweets can be placed in more than one category. After placing each tweet with the appropriate label or labels (which may be a lot since colleges may tweet multiple times a day!), students add up the data to see which category received the highest number of tweets. This lets students analyze how a college uses a social media site. Is the institution using Twitter to promote campus activities, attract new students with information about academics offered, or for other purposes?

I hope you can find ways for your students to use social media sites to conduct original research. Think of how you can use Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to collect information through the use of a hashtag. The sites offer a full database of knowledge and information. Social media as a research technique will only add another skill when students complete your course.

About the Author:

Tom Kenny is a full-time instructor for the communications department at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, NY. He teaches courses focusing on media studies, film & television production, social media, and creating professional content for the Web. He is the co-author of the textbook Producing New and Digital Media: Your Guide to Savvy Use of the Web.

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