The study of social media has great promise, but we always need to understand its limitations. This sounds rather basic, but it is often not reflexively thought about. Though social media is not as shiny as it was several years ago, the zeitgeist still persists and it often clouds our ability to frame what it is exactly that we are doing with all the social data we have access to.[1] Specifically, if we use Twitter data, it is not enough to just leave research at the level of frequency counts (top hashtags, top retweets, most engaged with comments, etc.). David De Roure [2] warns that this type analysis of social media misses the social aspects of web technologies. Ultimately, social media spaces are sociotechnical systems and the social that is (re)produced – like face-to-face communication – is highly nuanced. I think that it is fundamentally important for researchers of social media data across the disciplines to think critically beyond the literal results of brute force machine learning. Rather, this is an opportunity for us to ask large and important social questions. My point is epistemological in that I think it is important for our results to contribute to our understanding of these social questions. This is not to say that quantitative methods such as natural language processing, n-grams (and other co-occurrence methods), and various descriptive statistics are not important to the study of social media. But, rather, they are often the starting or mid point of a research project. In my work, Big Data analytical models provide a great way to get a birds-eye view of social media data. However, they cannot answer social questions as such. However, these methods are valuable to, for example, grounded theory approaches, which can help produce valuable research questions or social insights. Additionally, the mixing of methods this encourages is exciting as it provides opportunities for us to innovate new research methods rather than trying to fit traditional research methods (though doing this is valuable of course too).

[1] Ramesh Jain in his talk at the NUS Web Science & Big Data Analytics workshop puts this as data being everywhere and that we have access to billions of data streams.

[2] In his talk at the NUS Web Science & Big Data Analytics workshop (December 8th, 2014)

Yesterday, JL Johnson @jaeljohnson was teaching my Twitter book to his Sociology 101 class at George Mason University. He asked his class to summarize my Twitter book in less than 140 characters.

@jaeljohnson tweeted: “Limitless comm in digi era&brevity reigns @dhirajmurthy asks good/bad? Look @ history 4 connections w/past tech says +info -depth #sociology”

When he and some of his students tweeted at me regarding this assignment, it reminded me of the many occasions I have been asked to summarize my book into a tweet. A former colleague of mine, Brian Purnell, asked me to do this during a filmed discussion (on YouTube) we had about my book. The best I could come up with on the spot, at the time was ‘I tweet therefore I am’, a reference to a chapter in my book which plays on the famous Cartesian aphorism. But, I quickly backtracked (as I do in my book) saying that Twitter does not follow the strict, reductive Cartesian dualism (separating mind and body), but rather is a part of modern social communication for many of us. What I mean by this is that Twitter is highly socially embedded for many users and any strict dualism is highly problematic. I ended up in my response to Professor Purnell [around 1:13 on the YouTube video] with the answer: ‘I am social therefore, I tweet’. This ties in with the larger argument in my book that Twitter is part of complex social relations and we tweet for a multitude of  sociopolitical reasons, which span from updating our followers to what we just ate to a cancer diagnosis or, more criminally, to hitting a cyclist (with that tweet leading to the Tweeter getting arrested).

I’m glad to hear my book went down well in @jaeljohnson’s sociology 101 class! I thought that the class’ tweet was insightful in teasing out some of the key aspects of my book, including its commitment to historicizing Twitter.

I teach an undergraduate Social Media class. As a sociology class, the class explores issues of privacy, the public and private (jokingly referred to as the ‘theme of the semester’ by my students), technological determinism, and power/influence. In today’s class, we discussed celebrity culture on Twitter. In my forthcoming book about Twitter, I argue that Twitter’s ease of use to connect to people is one reason for its popularity. My class has been interested in how much this applies to ‘connecting with’ celebrities. To explore this question ’empirically’, my class sent a total of 57 tweets to ‘celebrities’ (defined very broadly as ‘famous people’). Some examples of tweets they sent were:

  •  @ellenDegeneres_ So proud to share my name with such an amazing person. #ellenssticktogether #yougogirl
  • @ryanlochte I’ve heard rumors you’re doing a workout video for swimmers…is that true?
  • Gonna wear my @jermaineoneal Eau Claire jersey tomorrow. Let’s Get It SUNS!
  • @JLo where did you get your sideway cross necklace?

Within five minutes, one student received a retweet and, within an hour, one received an @ mention

The retweet:

  • @RosaAcosta love your youtube workouts.. they are so effective and great to follow

The @ mention:

  1. STUDENT: @OliverPhelps We’re looking at whether or not Twitter connects us with celebs. Help me out? 😉
  2. @OliverPhelps@STUDENT yes it does
  3. STUDENT: […] verdict by @OliverPhelps: Twitter can indeed connect you with celebs. Thanks a bunch, Oliver. 🙂
[NB Oliver Phelps = George Weasley in the Harry Potter films] 

Their conclusion was that having a 2 in 57 chance of being ‘noticed’/’interacting’ with a celebrity was not only noteworthy, but provided a leg to stand on in terms of Twitter’s ability to connect ‘normal’ people with influential people on Twitter.

One interesting discussion which emerged from this exercise was whether the tone/content of these tweets was an independent variable which we should be considering in our analysis. My students then posted more ‘cerebral’ tweets to the same genre of celebrity they had initially tweeted to (e.g. now a tweet to Kanye when previously one was sent to 50 Cent). Some examples of tweets they sent were:

  • For what do fictional worlds serve? @jk_rowling
  • @ladygaga what are your views on gay marriage?
  • @MicheleBachmann what will you be doing to encourage people to get out and vote this Tuesday? #election #MN
  • @Eminem Have you been watching the debates? Any thoughts on the two candidate’s views on economy?

Within a minute of the student who had tweeted Lady Gaga about gay marriage, Lady Gaga tweeted a link to a blog post titled ‘#VOTE2013 #OBAMA Romney’s on drugs.

My students found it interesting, but completely unsurprising, that their initial tweets tended to be more ‘banal’ and that they actually had to be ‘forced’ to tweet more ‘intellectual’ ones. Of course, I was not passing a normative value on either genre of tweets. Rather, part of the exercise was for my students to reflect on forms of talk in Twitter (they have read a lot of Goffman!). My students seemed surprised by the fact they received some responses. If others out there have done similar exercises with their classes, please post a comment!


Earlier this year, I gave a talk about teaching with blogs at Bowdoin College. During that talk, I mentioned how I also have been developing pedagogies centered around Apple iTouches and iPads. I wanted to share some of my experiences (good and bad), applications, and thoughts on using iPads in the classroom.

You have by now heard about the iPad (and now the iPad2) which has two cameras, HD video, and a faster processor than the original iPad). There’s no question that the iPad is emblematic of the  techno-aesthetic zeitgeist that has followed from the boom of the iPod (and its ubiquity). However, if you look beyond the zeitgeist and take a look at the specific features of the iPad, there may potentially be a fit for you to use it in the classroom.

Before I dive into my thoughts on the iPad and teaching, let me give you some context. I have used iPads in two classes over the last year: Sociology 022 ‘In the Facebook Age’ (first-year students only) and Sociology 214 ‘Critical Theory and New Media’. The former is a class which seeks to introduce students to sociological perspectives of new media and society. We explore historical work on the Information Society at the start of the course and end with discussions of Facebook and YouTube. In Critical Theory and New Media, we begin with an introduction to The Frankfurt School over the first half of the course and then move to applied case studies of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other new media platforms.

The way I have used iPads has varied in both classes (given the different levels of the courses). However, I feel that my experiences in both classes have provided me with some generalizable thoughts which might be useful to you.

Should I use iPads in my class?

My best response is: Maybe. Let me clarify. It really depends on three key factors: 1) How you teach, 2) What material you need to teach, 3) and How confident you are in the technology aiding pedagogy, rather than being a ‘distracting shiny thing’.

Regarding point 1: if you incorporate small group exercises which are based around problem-solving a question, an iPad can be a very rewarding tool. Though laptops can be passed around from student to student, I have found that the ease of passing an iPad between students is extremely conducive to including more students in the group in the exercise at hand. For example, I have seen students in the classroom quickly pass an iPad to a fellow student if she/he suggests running a particular Google search to help gather information. This is in distinction to what I see with students and laptops: where one student is in the ‘drivers seat’.

Regarding point 2: if you teach material which is digitally available, but would benefit from a more haptic engagement, the iPad can be a miracle worker. For example, in my Critical Theory and New Media class, we were discussing the effect of the digitization of art to the consumption of art. I had students break into groups of 4 with each group given an iPad. One group chose to ‘look’ at The Starry Night (van Gogh 1889). They zoomed into the painting and had a fascinating discussion about the painting and what it means to see the painting on an iPad versus at the MOMA. But, the interesting thing is that the same painting can be viewed in much higher resolution via Google’s Art Project (which is not supported on the iPad due to Flash incompatibility). The reason I had them use iPads was for the more intense *shared* haptic experience the groups derived. Additionally, I used iPads for student group exercises where they had to choose YouTube videos most relevant to a discussion we were having in class on social networks.

Regarding point 3: like any new technology, the decision to use an iPad in teaching should be carefully thought about and clearly integrated into your pedagogy. In other words, don’t just think: iPads are cool and it would be great to use them in class. Rather, put the horse first and have a clear idea of what your pedagogical objectives are. If you have a need for a haptic device, FaceTime, or video which needs to be shot, edited, and ready all during class, the iPad is pretty handy. Then, take the time to have a clear lesson plan in which students understand how exactly their use of an iPad is contributing to their educational experience. This is critical!

Some Pros

  • Using laptops means you have to power them up before class and have them ready. An iPad just takes a second to get set up. This is great if you are in a classroom which has a class scheduled right before yours
  • Because of the ubiquity of the iPhone and iPod (for most though NOT all students), the learning curve for using the iPad is minimal
  • One small group exercise I found tremendously useful was to have students look at a physical copy of the New York Times and then navigate the Times from the iPad. (We were discussing shifts in media communication)
  • iPads can engage otherwise quiet students. This is not a blanket statement by any means. But I have seen shy students blossom with iPad exercises (I have seen the same with Twitter in the classroom). Specifically, some students can experience content at a deeper level through the haptic facets of the iPad (though projects need to be carefully thought out; see above).

There are a wide variety of excellent (and easy to use) teaching-oriented apps including concept mapping software

Some Cons

  • Laptops and desktops have a wider range of computing applications and are fast and easy to use
  • Laptops have full Flash compatibility (Example of Google Art Project at
  • For the same reasons it can engage students, it can seriously discourage other students. If they think use of an iPad in class is ‘gimmicky’, their learning experience is directly deterred
  • Just like laptops or any technology in the classroom can distract, iPads can too. A well structured assignment or project is the best defense against this. If you see students on Facebook, it may be an issue (or an assignment in my class) 🙂

Following on from my last blog post regarding blogging in the classroom, I wanted to blog about ways to potentially help students with the challenges of class-related blogging. I wanted to share some techniques I have employed:
.    Students often found it difficult to fit ‘everything’ into one blog entry. This is definitely a challenge for educators to clearly explain. However, it is an excellent way to develop concise writing and it should be emphasized to students. I have encouraged my students to think about one or two key points which are conveyed by the readings for that week. Then, I have recommended they focus on addressing those particular points rather than trying to bite off more than you can chew. Remember: less is more.
.    Some students felt the pressure of linking blog entries to real-life examples, given the embedding and linking functions of blog technologies. To help with this, I recommended students subscribe/read online newspapers such as the New York Times, and The Guardian. Additionally, if students use Twitter, they should think about following @nytimes and @bbctech to give them a breadth of news stories they can link to.
.    A tendency of many students when blogging is to summarize too much. To some extent, the medium makes this easy. However, encouraging students to take some time to reread their entries after they’ve written them and edit them produces miracles. That way their blog entry has elements of stream of consciousness, but is not merely a stream of consciousness summary.
.    Some of my students found it difficult making blog entries coherent. One way I have suggested to them to tackle this is to always make sure every blog entry has a clear thesis statement. It can be easy to think of a blog entry as not ‘serious’. But, after all, if teachers are assessing blog entries, it is clear that expectations of structure are clearly conveyed. I suggested to my students that a thesis statement can also be worked into an entry after you have typed some initial thoughts down
.    Another problem expressed is that blogs do not have as visible a limit like essays do (e.g. ‘two page paper’). As such, it can be difficult figuring out how to be concise. One suggestion for tackling this is for students to write their blog entries in the word processing program they usually write essays in so that they can ‘feel’ how much they have written. This has worked for some of my students in the past.
.    It can be easy for blog entries to turn into a personal statement or tirade if they are not taken as a scholarly exercise. In that way, I recommend giving students methods to maintain a critical analytical approach when blogging (not always needed, but this can be a useful change!). One way to foster this is to ask students to play devil’s advocate when blogging (e.g. argue that if Facebook disappeared, the world would be a better place…). This forces students out of the blog as stream of consciousness mode and into a critical mindset.

I have been using blogs in the classroom for three years now. From class blogs to individual student blogs, I have tried out an assortment of implementations in eight classes (which have been deployed using modified themes in Movable Type and WordPress). Part of my experiences also include having students use iPod touches (via the WordPress app) to micro-blog. I have also used/tested blogs and wikis on Blackboard (and previously on Web CT). These are some of my thoughts  (including references to particular entries by my students.)


Benefits of blogs in the classroom:

  • Professors are able to read students’ posts before class, giving them an opportunity to assess students’ understanding of concepts, ideas, and arguments to be discussed in that day’s class.
  • Blogging can give some students added confidence to express themselves in class (sometimes encouraging students to bring hardcopies a blog entries can facilitate this)
  • When using blogs which other students can read, the class as a whole is exposed to a diverse set of perspectives on the topic students are blogging about. In addition to exposing them to different viewpoints, this fosters a deeper understanding of the material
  • Blogging outside of class can be used to continue discussions from class. Particularly, if a discussion had to be cut off in class, a professor can encourage students to continue the discussion in a class blog or on individual student blogs.
  • Links to news stories or radio clips can be posted on a class blog to stimulate out of class participation.
  • If class and/or student blogs are made public, this can encourage engagement with the wider public and, in my discipline, this facilitates a ‘public sociology’. Additionally, the material the class/Professor posts become part of the public domain and can be a resource for students and faculty at other institutions across the world.
  • Publicly accessible blogs can be shared with family and friends of students. I have found this to be of importance to some students as they feel they are able to discuss very specific aspects of their college experience with their family and friends via their blogs.

Drawbacks/potential pitfalls of blogs in the classroom:

  • Professors should be prepared to allocate substantial time to reading all student blog entries and comments. If students post a comment, YouTube clip, or response, their assumption is that their professor has looked at it (even if it was posted recently). The best way to help keep track is through an RSS reader (which are also available for mobile devices/smartphones). However, one has to make this part of their daily schedule
  • Students are often unsure as to what is expected of them in blog entries (in terms of content, frequency, and style). A detailed rubric is one method which I have used to help bring clarity of expectations for students.
  • Technology breaks !!! Professors will need to be comfortable with the technology and how it works. If a blog server goes down (and this happens on most campuses), what should students do. Should they e-mail their assignment to their professor? Post it somewhere else?
  • If the blog is made public, will it attract unwanted spam. One method is to install spam filter plug-ins such as Akismet. However, even the best of spam filters will still let spam messages through. Therefore, one should be prepared for students reporting the receipt of spam. An alternative is to disable comments or to turn off comments after 24 or 48 hours (a setting which can be modified in blog server software).
  • There is a learning curve, which can be very steep for some students depending on information technology skills. Professors should think carefully about what training/preparation students will need both in and out of class and set aside time/resources to accommodate this. It is a mistake (and one that has been researched (e.g Livingstone 2008) to assume all your students, by virtue of their age, to be technologically literate and, therefore, ready to hit the ground running with blogs. Therefore, in class demonstrations are most likely not going to be enough in most cases.
  • Are public blogs the right technology for your application? It may be that more private Blackboard forums or even Blackboard blogs (in new versions of Blackboard) will work better for you. Figuring out the right technology to facilitate increased classroom interactivity and participation by students is critical. I would highly recommend Professors to think about what their objectives are rather than trying to ‘force’ blogs into their pedagogy.
  • Student blogs can (and most likely will) be indexed by search engines including Google. Students should be made very clearly aware of privacy/data protection considerations. I always include a paragraph in my syllabi which describes the blogs and asks for students to see me to discuss privacy concerns. In some of my classes, I do not include the names of my students, but have used initials (I make clear to my students that I consider this to be semi-public).

Some blog entries from my students which reflect public comments, embedded videos, and the use of rich formatting in entries:






Use in a large Introductory Sociology (SOC101) class:

Here is a screenshot from my Theory class: