Pictures shared on Twitter around the death and funeral of Margaret Thatcher will be examined as part of the world’s first academic research project studying the explosion of images now shared across different social media platforms and apps, led by Dr Farida Vis of the Information School.
Thanks to smartphones, most people now carry a camera with them at all times and use it to document different aspects of their lives – sharing more than 750 million social media images daily.
For the Thatcher research, academics have so far collected nearly 150,000 tweets containing images directly shared on Twitter and have downloaded 17,000 different images. This research can shed light on how a range of different types of images are used on Twitter to express opinions, discuss news and collectively remember well-known people and events.
The ‘Picturing the Social’ project is the first to explore the impact images of this kind have on society. This includes images taken during breaking news events and more everyday snaps like ‘selfies’ and friend photography.
As part of their wider inquiry, researchers will carry out a series of smaller projects focusing on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram and Vine.
Dr Vis said: “Images tend to be trickier to study than words. With the rise in techniques that focus on large volumes of text, specifically with the growing interest in so-called ‘Big Data’, images tend to get forgotten. They are not easy to ‘mine’ for content and even harder to interpret.”
The research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) will involve an interdisciplinary team from four universities as well as industry with expertise in: Media and Communication Studies (University of Sheffield), Visual Culture (Manchester School of Art), Software Studies and Sociology (Warwick University), Computer and Information Science (Pulsar and University of Wolverhampton).
A key aim of the project is to use the insight from both academia and industry to build a free research tool for the academic community – work which will be led by Professor Mike Thelwall, Head of the Statistical Cybermetrics Research Group at the University of Wolverhampton.
The tool will allow researchers to capture this visual data to highlight and study different aspects. This will include the popularity of different kinds of images, who shares these, how quickly they spread, how they’re tagged, may include location data as well as look more closely at how images are discussed and appropriated.
A new Visual Social Media Lab will officially launch in September, which will work with a number of different stakeholders, including the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
Dr Vis said: “What we see in industry is that there is a huge surge of interest in social media images.
“You see a lot of new apps, new companies and tools developing in this space. People are really interested in, for example, what users are doing with brands. From a research perspective a key issue that is raised over and over – and rightly so – is concern over ethics and privacy.
“What social media companies, marketers and researchers do with these images is important in the context of ethics. I feel that social media users themselves are often left out of these discussions, which is unhelpful and we hope to change that.”
Sian Thomas, Head of Analytics at the FSA, said: “We are delighted to be working in partnership with the University of Sheffield on this exciting initiative to better understand the opportunities of Big Data for government, and how it might contribute to evidence-based policy making.”
Dr Olga Goriunova, from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at Warwick University, said: “Being able to understand our contemporary condition means being able to draw upon computer science, design, social, media and art theory equally fluently.”
Academic research on social media is developing quickly and Kandy Woodfield, Director of Learning at NatCen Social Research and co-leader of the New Social Media, New Social Science? network highlights that using social media for social research has become a mainstream topic for debate amongst researchers over recent years.
She said: “We are delighted that the ESRC is funding projects, which will help us to seize this moment of opportunity to build new approaches to social science research. These innovative ways of researching social life present researchers with both challenges and opportunities and transformative projects like this will help us all to better understand how we can build robust and ethical approaches to using social media data.”
Two researchers from the Manchester School of Art, Dr Simon Faulkner and Professor James Aulich, add expertise in visual culture to the project.
Dr Faulkner, Senior Lecturer in Art History, said: “The School of Art is a place where visual practitioners work with academics to create, display, and interpret a wide range of images. This experience will be invaluable to a team of researchers concerned with the in-depth analysis of social media images and also with how the research might be creatively presented.”
The project also includes social scientist and industry researcher Dr Francesco D’Orazio, who is VP Products at Pulsar, a new social media-monitoring platform that has attracted significant interest within industry.
He said: “The Picturing the Social project gives us the opportunity to collaborate with a super talented team of likeminded researchers interested in mapping the genome of our visual digital culture and develop better tools to support other researchers in the process."
Samantha McGregor, Senior Policy Manager, of ESRC said: “We are committed to fostering and promoting greater transformative innovation and risk in the research that we support. This award particularly highlights the importance of Big Data, and specifically social media data, in achieving transformative social science, as well as their relevance to our broader research portfolio.”
Early findings of this work will be shared via the Visual Social Media Lab later this summer.