Case Study: Tracking social processes on Twitter

Tracking the social processes of groups of people with eating disorders who use Twitter to communicate with one another

Project description: Social media networks enable minority groups to join and form communities. That is very powerful. There are many situations where people who are in a minority – from people who have a particular interest, to people with rare medical conditions – have in the past, felt isolated from society or their peers. Social media networks have enabled minority groups to find each other, form communities and share their experiences and feelings. This project intends to track the communication and social processes of people with eating disorders.

 

Introduction

People with eating disorders are ostracised. Their immediate community disapproves of the condition so they try to hide it. People with eating disorders feel very strongly emotionally about it and they want to communicate with other people. Twitter provides them with a place where they can go where they can be anonymous and have a community.

This provides an excellent opportunity for research into this community. If researchers capture the tweets that this community is making, they are actually capturing most of the communication that takes place. That kind of understanding on social media isn’t possible when communities have lots of different communication channels.

Researchers want to find out whether the fact that these individuals can form a community on Twitter is a good or a bad thing. Some research says it’s a good thing and it gives individuals a chance to talk to one another and reduces that sense of isolation. But can it compound the condition, providing encouragement and reinforcement? That’s one aspect what will be explored.

This research may provide clues to the nature of the condition and how to help the communities involved.

 

  1. Twitter data is publicly available. Users are posting publicly and researchers have permission to use this data.

The biggest concern for researchers is what happens to the research after this project. This project is simply trying to interpret and understand the social processes of a particular community. However, could there be unintended consequences of bringing this data together? Could someone set up a web service that mines this data to find out who has anorexia? The information could be of value to parents, employers even health or life insurance companies. Could they utilise the research for their own ends?

 

Key question 1: Could the datasets that result from this project be subject to misuse in the future?

Key question 2: Do researchers have any role to play in preventing misuse of their research?

Key question 3: Should the potential for future misuse of research generally, play a role in decision making about which projects to pursue?

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