Using social media for student research, part 2: practices and habits of mind
In an earlier post, I discussed how to get students set up to do research using social media. This is the advice I’ll give them on how to actually go about doing the research.
The Technical Side of Things
Managing social media can be overwhelming, so I’d give my students the following advice:
- Get the right apps. A good RSS reader and a good Twitter platform are key. Personally, I use NetNewsWire for blogs, and Tweetdeck for Twitter.
- Create a Twitter list for your project. Put all the relevant Twitter feeds for your project in a list, then create a column in Tweetdeck just for that feed. It will enable you to do your social media research quickly and easily, by enabling you to focus on just that project during your research time.
Managing your time
There is so much information out there, it can be overwhelming. Either you spend too much time reading online material, to the exclusion of other good sources like books, or you find it so overwhelming that you don’t do it at all.
So give yourself a time limit; tell yourself to read through your blog and your twitter feed for 15 or 20 minutes a day. And remember the mantra: You don’t have to read everything. Just read what you can, and don’t waste time worrying about what you might have missed.
Social media research time is about finding the sources, so you should spend that 15 or 20 minutes just combing through sources. When you find a source you like, use a program like Evernote or Instapaper to store it for later, more detailed reading and note-taking, then continue skimming through your RSS reader and Twitter feed for additional good sources.
Habits of mind
Everything I’ve said so far, in this post and the previous one, is about the technical side of things. But social media research is, at bottom, just another kind of research, like research in books or journal articles, and the habits of mind required for traditional research are equally necessary in social media research:
- Read widely. Blog posts tend to be short. You might get some interesting facts from a blog post, but you won’t get a lot of them. So read widely–you never know what might be useful.
- Read selectively. Though this sounds like the opposite of habit #1, it’s actually the essential complement. If you’re going to read widely but also keep your sanity, you have to learn to skim and read selectively. Read the post, but focus on the key information. You don’t need everything–just the important facts or ideas.
- Use one source to find other sources. I’ve been telling this rule to my students for years. In print media it means: use the bibliography of a book to find other books. Or, use the “Works Cited” in a journal article to find other articles. Now we have the social media version: use blogs to find other blogs, and Twitter feeds to find other Twitter feeds. I mentioned this in my previous post, but here it’s worth stressing that ultimately it’s a habit of mind that you have to develop. You have to always be asking yourself, “Is this blog I just linked to another possible source to add to my RSS feed?”
- Be a critical reader. Again, this isn’t new. It applies to traditional print media as well. But it may be even more important with social media. Books have editors; journals have peer review. They are curated sources, and those curators have staked their reputation on the quality of what they publish. Websites are different: Blogger and WordPress and Posterous don’t care about the intellectual quality of what they’re publishing. So you need to read critically. You need to develop the habit of asking yourself, “Does this seem plausible, given other things I’ve read? Does the author seem credible? Does he or she cite a credible source that I can check out myself?” It’s not that you should ignore the contradictory perspective or contradictory fact; careers have been built on overturning conventional wisdom. But you have to be careful in accepting what you read too readily. You have to be skeptical of everything you read.
Some final thoughts
So that’s the gist of it: how to get set up for social media research, how to do it, and how to cultivate the necessary habits of mind. Ultimately, I think it’s the habit of minds that are crucial. The technology is a tool, but without the right habits of mind it can a useless tool, or worse. There’s lots of inaccurate or misleading material on the web, and students need to learn to filter it. In the past, filtering mechanisms were provided for students. I remember poring over the green-covered Readers Guide as part of my research projects for many years. Those filters don’t work anymore, at least not on the web, so we need to teach students new filtering mechanisms. Twitter and RSS feeds can be two tools to help with that, but ultimately, research using social media, just like research using traditional media, depends on developing the right habits of mind in our students.