The ‘social media scroll back’ is a research method where researchers work with participants to ‘scroll back’ through their social media histories together. This might be in an interview scenario (in a physical space, on the phone, or via Zoom/Skype) where a researcher sits with a participant and scrolls back through their Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, Reddit or other platforms together. This could be through a profile like Facebook’s Timeline, a post history on Reddit, through stories on Instagram, or a newsfeed on Twitter. The key idea is that the participant narrates what they see, and the researcher prompts them as they go depending on the research questions, as if they were asking a participant to narrate and explain a diary or a photo album.
The core principle is to centre research participants as co-analysts of their own digital traces and the digital media they consume.
This method might be used to explore personal histories, experiences of particular events (like music festivals, drinking during a night out, weddings, childbirth, etc.), or broader digitally mediated experiences like elections, health promotion, advertising, or news consumption.
This method was developed by me, Brady Robards, and my excellent colleague, Sian Lincoln, but of course it also draws on a long history of qualitative methods like photo elicitation, journaling, and qualitative longitudinal research.
Here is a summary of our writing on the topic (please contact me for a copy of any of these if your library cannot assist with accessing them):
- A straight-forward, ‘how to’ guide: Robards, B., & Lincoln, S. (2019). Social Media Scroll Back Method in the SAGE Research Methods Foundations series: https://methods.sagepub.com/foundations/social-media-scroll-back-method
- Our original methods paper, that asks whether the social media scroll back can work alongside qualitative longitudinal research: Robards, B. & Lincoln, S. (2017) ‘Uncovering longitudinal life narratives: scrolling back on Facebook‘, Qualitative Research, 17(6): 715-730: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1468794117700707
- Here is an example of us applying the method in our research on sustained Facebook use, to study the experience of making a relationship ‘Facebook Official’ (or not): Robards, B. & Lincoln, S. (2016) ‘Making it ‘Facebook Official’: Reflecting on romantic relationships through sustained Facebook use‘, Social Media + Society, 2(4), special issue on ‘Making Digital Cultures of Gender and Sexuality with Social Media’, edited by J Burgess, E Cassidy, S Duguay, and B Light: http://sms.sagepub.com/content/2/4/2056305116672890.abstract
- And another example in the context of interrogating Giddens’ idea of the ‘reflexive project of the self’ applied to social media profiles as manifestations of that project: Lincoln, S. & Robards, B. (2017) ‘Editing the project of the self: Sustained Facebook use and growing up online‘, Journal of Youth Studies, 20(4): 518-531: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13676261.2016.1241869
Since we developed this method, it has been taken up, modified, and expanded upon in other research projects:
- A study of Men’s ‘risky drinking’ cultures in Victoria, Australia: Roberts, S., Ralph, B. L., Elliott, K. B., Robards, B. J., Savic, M., Lindsay, J. M., O’Brien, K. S. & Lubman, D. (2019) ‘Exploring men’s risky drinking cultures‘, commissioned report for VicHealth: https://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/-/media/ResourceCentre/PublicationsandResources/alcohol%20misuse/MensRiskyDrinking/Mens%20risky%20drinking%20final%20report.pdf
- Kristina Papanikolaou’ study on children’s digital practices in family routines (Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium): Papanikolaou, K. (2017) The Role of Children’s Digital Practices in the Creation and Maintenance of Family Routines and Feelings of Intimacy in Multilocal Everyday Life, a presentation at the World Congress of Sociology: https://isaconf.confex.com/isaconf/wc2018/webprogram/Paper97375.html
- Justine Gangeneux’s research on young people’s social media use in the context of neoliberalism (University of Glasgow, UK): Gangneux, J., & Docherty, S. (2018). At close quarters: Combatting Facebook design, features and temporalities in social research. Big Data & Society, 5(2): https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2053951718802316
- Eva Thulin’s work on how smartphones are transforming experiences of social contact among young Swedes (University of Gothenburg, Sweden): Thulin, E. (2018). Always on my mind: How smartphones are transforming social contact among young Swedes. Young, 26(5), 465-483: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1103308817734512