Last July, I had the pleasure of attending the International Conference on Social Media & Society in Toronto along with my research advisor and hundreds of other social media enthusiasts.
If you’re not familiar with the conference, the SMS event is a three day event organized by the Social Media Lab at Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University.
Each year, researchers from around the world gather to exchange ideas, present original research, learn about recent and ongoing studies, and network with peers. The conference, affectionately known as #SMS15, featured a keynote address, full papers, works in progress, panel presentations, workshops, and poster sessions.
Unlike many of the conferences I’ve attended in my academic career, #SMS attendees come from a wide variety of fields, which is a nod to the wide variety of research being done in the digital world. The diversity of the presentation topics, methods, and participant backgrounds helped to create a unique and energetic atmosphere at #SMS, which incorporated elements of Communication Studies, Computer Science, Education, Journalism, Information Science, Management, Sociology, and Political Ecology. As a side note, conferences like #SMS are also great because they’re one of the few places I know of where enthusiastic conversations about the need for more digital research in academia (often over the shared remnants of a pita) are actively encouraged and not just met with the knowing eye-rolls of my roommates.
Aside from the pita-chats, my primary reason for attending #SMS15 was to gain insight on methods currently being practiced in digital research, and to build my own skill-set by participating in workshops and exchanging ideas with other attendees.
The second workshop of my trip was on Trace Interviews, a new method of interviewing research participants using their own digital trail, or “trace data.” First proposed and tested by Elizabeth Dubois and Heather Ford in 2015, trace interviews “are useful for enhancing recall, validating trace data-generated results, addressing data joining problems and responding to ethical concerns that have surfaced in the current era of surveillance and big data.”
Essentially, trace interviewing allows the researcher and the research participant to start out (and hopefully stay) on the same page when discussing digital spaces and experiences that exist outside ourselves but inside the internet, like social media. Because trace interviewing is a great way to connect with participants, share visuals, and enhance conversations, I’ll be using this method in a few follow up interviews with current research participants.
Along with the workshops, I also attended a number of paper sessions. Paper sessions are the presentation style that I’m personally the most comfortable with, so I enjoy seeing how others communicate ideas while listening to their research.
One of the presentations that stuck with me the most was the work of Anne Suphan and Bozena Mierzejewska, who presented a paper titled “Happy online and in real life too? How social media interactions affect real life well being of students in US and Germany.”
Suphan and Mierzejewska’s research was impressive not only because of its unique focus on the relationship between happiness and homepages, but also because of its surprising finding that social media leads to more positive emotional outcomes than negative ones. The experiences of both German and US students are detailed, and if you’re interested in reading more about their online (and offline) feelings, I highly recommend checking out Suphan and Mierzejewska’s paper on ResearchGate.
Overall, my experiences at #SMS15 gave me a renewed appreciation for the digital environment, and even for my own research. With online spaces, communication, and applications being so relatively new in our lives, there is still so much left to learn and discover! Of course, there is great work on society, space, and communications being done today, and even more that we may apply from the past — but there is also something distinctly new about the digital landscape. Even if (as some have argued) virtual ‘places’ and ‘experiences’ are simply reproductions of their more material counterparts, our understanding of the scale and scope of our virtual lives is still only the tip of the iceberg. What can we learn about ourselves from studying the growth of technology? What does the virtual tell us about our own perceptions of nature, politics, gender, or work? What will the digital look like ten years from now? How will the world around us change the virtual — or vice versa?
If you’d like to take these questions (or your own) on the road — the 7th annual Social Media & Society International Conference will be held from July 11th to July 13th, 2016 in London, England. For more information, check out the conference website at www.socialmediaandsociety.org or just type #SMS16 into Twitter!