Beginning New Research: #sachat

I just received IRB approval to begin conducting research on the weekly student affairs-related discussions being held on Twitter.  The initial round of research is being conducted for Susan Herring‘s Computer-Mediated Discourse Analysis class but I plan to expand the research and present and publish it more broadly once I’m done with the class.

For those who are unfamiliar with #sachat, here is how I described it in my first paper for this class:

Beginning in the fall of 2009, a group of American higher education administrators began using the micro-blogging tool Twitter to communicate, collaborate, and connect with one another.  Each week for at least one hour, these professionals employ Twitter as a public synchronous mass communication medium by marking each of their messages with the #sachat hashtag and discussing a predetermined topic of professional interest.

Each Wednesday, student affairs professionals use Twitter to vote on a topic of discussion.  On Thursday, these same professionals discuss this topic (and others) for at least one hour.  These discussions are loosely coordinated and moderated by one user associated with the website.  Although the participants are highly-educated professionals and many of the topics are related to their professional interests, the tone of the discussions is informal and often playful.

Using Twitter for these conversations imposes particular properties and restrictions.  First, Twitter is nominally an asynchronous medium; by collectively participating at a prearranged time, these users are effectively using Twitter as if it were synchronous.  Second, to coordinate all of their discussions, including the voting and discussion outside of the established hours, participants must include in their messages the phrase “#sachat.”  This phrase – a Twitter “hashtag” – allows Twitter users to search for and categorize these messages.  Third, Twitter restricts messages to 140 characters.  Finally, although Twitter users can address particular users in their messages there is no threading or other advanced addressing functionality.

Since this class is focused on computer-mediated discourse, I’ll be analyzing patterns in these online conversations in terms of features such as participation, message complexity, speech acts, topic development, and politeness. I’m initially focusing on the discussion that occurred on January 21 so I can learn and begin to understand these methods used in discourse analysis.  Later in the semester, I’ll expand my analysis to also include January 14 and January 28 (daytime only; I can’t seem to locate an archive of the evening conversation) for my final paper in this class.  Eventually I would like to expand the analysis to include more discussions and to include content analysis in addition to discourse analysis so I can write a fully-formed paper for publication or presentation (I’m thinking maybe AERA 2011 if I can meet their submission deadline in late summer).

I am interested in conducting this research not because it focuses on Twitter but because it focuses on a grassroots community that has found a unique way to connect and communicate with one another.  It’s especially interesting because their method of communication is free and this is a time of financial stress with reductions to or eliminations of professional development budgets prominent at many institutions.

Many of the methods I’ll be using have been pioneered or extensively used by Susan Herring.  It’s terribly exciting to learn from and with her as she is probably the world’s foremost expert in these methods!  This is the second class I’ve taken with her and it’s a lot of fun to learn from someone who not only intimately knows the topic but is also still really excited about it and super supportive of new, young researchers.

If any #sachat participants have questions, concerns, or suggestions, please share them with me!  Although the data are all publicly-available, I will be using pseudonyms in all of my public presentations and papers so hopefully that will allay any privacy concerns.  Additionally, I imagine that I’ll eventually file an IRB amendment so I can officially talk to you about your experiences and opinions (because a study on this topic seems incomplete without actually talking to the participants).  But in the meantime I’m definitely open to informal discussion, especially if you have concerns about this research.

(And can someone throw a link to this post out there in Twitter and tag it with #sachat?  I would do so myself but I am trying to retain some distance as I study this phenomenon.  More importantly, I just don’t have time right now to jump into Twitter, at least not this month as I prepare for quals and begin preliminary work on my dissertation.  There are only so many hours in the day…)

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