We hear the word “social” a lot.
So much so, in fact, that it can become easy to glaze over its meanings and implications. There’s social media and social networks and the social sciences and of course social determinants of health. In the context of research and academia “social” probably means something closer to “public” or “human” than it does “interactional”.
For me, the notion of human interaction is one that defines virtually every experience. Writing is interactional. As I type, I’m literally thinking about the IRL fellows that I know will read this and calibrating, revising and editing this based on my assumptions of what they (you) will think. The various stages, activities, and processes of research leadership are interactional as well… especially in Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR). From designing a study to collecting data to dissemination- the need for us to interact with each other is embedded in each step along the way. Perhaps the clearest lesson I’ve learned from IRL is that these interactions energize and center me on the purpose underneath all of my work- the psychological liberation of African people.
In the African mind, social processes are often implicit and assumed. So much of the African worldview reflects the simple yet profound existence, acknowledgment and celebration of the group. Of “us”. Nowhere is this more relevant/ pertinent than in the digital realm of social media. The last 20 years have taken us from Black Planet to Black Twitter; today there are dissertations written on the role and implications of social media in Black folks’ lived experiences.
This convergence of research and social media is particularly relevant for those working to increase health equity. There is a violent, antagonistic history of research and science being used to marginalize and oppress people of African descent on a global scale. This history is actively with us; influencing and guiding the questions that we ask, the questions that we ask that get funded, and the questions that we ask that impact health for Black individuals, families, and communities. Through our work with parents and teachers in North Carolina (shout out to Team Guilford County!) and our work supporting researchers’ social media efforts through the SMRDI, I’m learning that a focus on the social element of community based participatory research offers an avenue to understanding the structural racism and colonization inherent in Western research methodology.
Social Media Research Dissemination is the applied science of connecting the research and academic communities with teachers, parents, patients, students, policymakers, consumers…. REAL PEOPLE: those individuals, families and communities impacted by scientific progress and discovery. Put simply, social media research dissemination represents a potential threat to power structures that contribute to and maintain inequity, undermine diversity and resist inclusion. This is GREAT news for researchers and community advocates looking to effect change and build a Culture of Health.
This is also great news for social media enthusiasts like me. To be clear: I’m not one of the folks who will tell you that the internet is some great liberator. I think that the internet (like all corporate media forms) is responsible for a great deal of colonization. But infusing social media into the scientific process can expose the classic problems and victimization experienced by Black and Brown folks; enabling honest conversations about these obstacles.
In my work supporting researchers interested in leveraging social media in their work, I often use the word reimagine. I believe that social media has power and potential to reach new audiences with research findings- sparking new conversations and access to reimagine the function and process of research in solving problems in the social-behavioral, health equity, and education arenas. Here are three quick ways that I believe research can be re-imagined through social media:
Way #1: Research as identity
I’ve found that many researchers have personal social media profiles AND academic social media profiles. This is at best unnecessary and at worst problematic. I think that members of the research community should be seen for who they are in real life- their values, histories, vacation spots and cuisine photos. This will enable communities impacted by research to identify and evaluate research projects that involve them accurately.
Way #2: Research as relevant
Part of this is, of course, making research relevant for social media. However, I also focus on trying to make the social media space relevant to the research community. For example: we’re currently developing human subjects research protections regulations on how to use social media to recruit research participants.
Way #3: Research as non-objective
Yes, researchers have agendas. This is generally only uncomfortable when the agendas are those of Black and Brown people. Not long ago, emancipatory journalism emerged as a response to hegemony and corporate consolidation in the field of journalism and mass communication. A similar movement is being birthed around the roles (and responsibilities) of researchers as advocates for the marginalized. As recently as 2013, IRL’s own Dr. Sarah Gollust documented researchers’ qualitative concerns about advocacy and agendas in social media. Hopefully, increased focus and attention on social media research dissemination efforts will leave the research community more willing to embrace advocacy online. Our work needs it.
Sure, I help researchers learn how to Tweet. But I’m much more interested in learning how social media affects and is affected by dynamics organic to the research community. IRL’s strategic investment in communications and dissemination resources for fellows has provided tons of support, and I applaud their leadership and vision. But this work is just the beginning. If any of this resonates with you, join us!
The views represented in this post are those of the authors, not of Interdisciplinary Research Leaders or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.