“Friending” a participant: Qualitative data collection and social network sites

Document Type

Conference Presentation

Conference Title

American Educational Research Association Annual Conference


New Orleans, LA

Date of Presentation



Objectives: The Internet has become a new space for social networks to form. Websites like Facebook, MySpace and Friendster provide opportunities for individuals and groups to remain connected, share information and establish new connections (Ellison, Steinfield & Lampe, 2007). Although Social Network Sites (SNS) are used at high rates, educational researchers have been slow to explore utilizing this space for data collection. In particular, qualitative research has been thin. The overarching purpose of this paper presentation will be to critically consider how virtual social networking spaces may be used in qualitative research. Three objectives frame this presentation:

1. Discussing how social network sites can be utilized to compliment other research methods.
2. Identifying potential strengths, limitations and ethical concerns related with collection data from social network sites.
3. Explaining how this method relates to research with high school and college students.

Perspectives: Three aspects of qualitative collect shape the data collection process: gaining access to data, ethics in the research process, and establishing trust within the research process. Much has been written about how each aspect and how the researcher, setting and participants influence the process (e.g. Frank, 2000; Tierney & Hallett, 2010). Drawing from this body of work, I consider how virtual spaces—specifically social network sites—require similar and different considerations.

Mode of Inquiry: The paper presentation is based upon two case studies I conducted over the past three years. The first was a year long study of high school students living in doubled-up residences as a result of economic crises. The second was an 18 month study of undocumented students attending a selective university in California. In this presentation I will focus on how I utilized data collected from social network sites.

Results and/or Substantiated Conclusions:

Using the aforementioned case studies as examples, this paper will highlight how I navigated challenges—access, presentation, and power—associated with using SNS as a space for data collection.

Access. Unlike studies that focused solely on virtual spaces to collect data, my interactions with the participants typically began in person. Once invited to be a “friend” by a participant, I was given access to their virtual social network. The virtual space also provided another method of remaining in contact with participants.

Presentation. SNSs encourage individuals to “accurately” represent themselves because only their social network of friends, family and colleagues has access to information posted. Observing interactions on the SNS allowed participants to use language that was comfortable and engage in topics of discussion they found interesting.

Power. Entering the virtual network of the participant allows the participant to also enter the researcher’s virtual network. Participants posted comments on my page, had access to information I posted, and contact information for individuals in my network.

Significance: A large, and growing, number of high school and college students in the United States utilize SNSs. Researchers interested in understanding how these individuals perceive the world, maintain social connections and present self need to consider how to navigate this space.

This document is currently not available here.