Viewpoint: The power (and danger) of the story in social media research

Gareth Price

Precise

The substitution of numbers for words seemed to make the stories more valid. (Adam Curtis)

Adam Curtis is a wonderful storyteller who has produced some fascinating documentaries that illustrate the tragicomic consequences of imposing narratives on events and warn us about the attractiveness of stories that help us to simplify and make sense of a chaotic world.

Researchers have always been drawn towards the comforting mathematical respectability provided by numbers. However, in the new and emerging field of social media research, there appears to be a particular keenness to prove the validity of what we do by imposing mathematical order on our work.

We seem, as an industry, to be increasingly drawn to quasi-science, with some agencies making bold claims about replacing traditional research methodologies, producing some wonderfully inventive mathematical formulas to predict future voting patterns using ‘big data’ derived from social media, or using grand calculations to place ‘influence’ scores on anyone with a digital footprint.