Employing Social Media as a Tool in Information Systems Research

MJ Phythian, NB Fairweather and RG Howley


This paper deals with how a phenomenon that is frequently called social media can be employed in information systems research. The aim of the paper is to describe the decision to use social media, and to describe the development and employment of a number of social media tools to assist in a research project investigating the use of electronic media in government. The aim of the use of the tools was to gain contact with, and feedback from, the researchers’ practitioner audience.

Social media, also known as Web 2.0 services and tools, can perhaps be best defined by comparing them to their opposites, industrial media such newspapers, radio and television. ‘Social media’ is small-scale self-publishing employing tools such as Internet forums, weblogs, social weblogs, wikis, podcasts, and video.

The researchers developed a model, following a large-scale literature review, to consider the employment of feedback across multiple channels for all services, as a mechanism for local government service improvement. In order to test ongoing developments and any additional reading or events that might ratify or affect the model, it was decided to develop and use a weblog to facilitate discussion of these ideas.

The weblog became a ‘golden thread’ of continuity throughout all phases from when the writing of it was first started, towards the end of the initial literature review; to being a promotional tool for the research, best practice from the academic and practitioner literature; to assisting in the promotion of the surveys; and to the collection of feedback across a range of related topics. Importantly, a hardcopy research diary was also maintained in the background, although the weblog itself became a diary of events and thoughts upon the literature.

Establishing the weblog using standard tools available from WordPress was relatively easy. As with any tool, practice made use easier and the main thing was then to provide interesting content. Sources of material came from reading a range of publications but, in addition, setting up an automated daily Google newsfeed to search for anything e-government-related brought up content both for the weblog and the research. The newsfeed provided a daily email of any additional mentions of ‘e-government’ discovered by the Google search robots as they crawled the Internet, allowing the very latest news across the world to be researched and reported upon, if felt worthy. It also became necessary to subscribe to electronic media sources, such as newsletters from the major consultancy companies with an interest in e-government.

Although with practice, posting and managing the weblog, along with occasional changes to layout became easier, there was still a certain amount of time required for extracting, writing and establishing well-linked posts. After a while it became apparent that averaging ten posts per month maintained an active number of visitors, it also became clear that around two hours were employed drafting, finalising and laying out each weblog entry. In some cases it was possible to extract information from the draft dissertation to be employed as the weblog post, whilst other entries became content in the draft dissertation following posting on the weblog, when their value was realised.

The weblog was also a launch pad for the surveys, enabling supporting materials to be read, and then the survey be reached by those wanting to complete it. This was also convenient when encouraging responses, since each posting was used to promote the survey, in the case of the second survey, along with later posts reporting initial feedback and thus prompting additional responses. Having the weblog as a base for the survey, there was also an opportunity to have the ethical prologue displayed, along with background to the research, and interim feedback.

As the weblog developed additional tools were discovered and introduced including an Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed, a subscription tool and a tag cloud. The RSS feed was employed by another major public web site to deliver the weblog to a potentially different readership.

This paper describes this in more detail, and includes discussion around:

  • the statistics from various sources and how they were employed for monitoring purposes. The researchers maintained spreadsheets of a range of figures from the number of visitors, the number of words written on the weblog, to the numbers subscribing to the weblog and its feeds which were used to try and understand activity with the media
  • the benefits of using social media in comparison with traditional tools along with the limitations found. Since it is obviously difficult to get research reported quickly across the conventional mass media, what outcomes were demonstrated by it? The potential societal divisions were not seen as an issue in this particular context of academic research project, particularly when the researchers intended to continue to employ face-to-face communications in the promotion of any outcomes, along with interviewing others who may not have been aware of the other research mechanisms used.
  • some of the tools employed, such as the Google newsfeed, the Google Feedburner and employing other social media themselves to promote particular topics on the weblog as they arose
  • additional tools that might be used, including a brief exploration of wikis, video sharing and podcasting and if not used in this instance, why that was

The paper presents a summary of the findings around the use of social media as a research tool, and also examines the reasons behind one particular finding, that some government IT managers are guarded about the use of social media.

A primary conclusion to the employment of social media was that it facilitated the delivery of academic research to a wider audience, enabling a much quicker and more responsive feedback loop than purely relying on academic journal publishing, which may be little read outside of academia and takes a substantial time from research to publication.