The ‘social media scroll back’ is a research method where researchers work with participants to ‘scroll back’ through their social media histories together. This is usually 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 ‘drives’ and 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 and produce.
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.
Social media can represent rich, complex, and long-term personal histories that can be immensvely valuable for researchers, but just because these digital traces of life can be accessed for research does not mean they are automatically ‘fair game’. The scroll back method is fundamentally about building and scaffolding informed consent around the incorporation of these digital traces, and reflections on them, into the research design. The people whose digital traces researchers are interested in are centred, as the approach is ‘people first’ rather than ‘media first’.
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
- Talbot et al. used the scroll back method to work with LGBTQ+ young people to understand how they managed their identities on social media: Talbot, C. V., Talbot, A., Roe, D. J., & Briggs, P. (2020). The management of LGBTQ+ identities on social media: A student perspective. New Media & Society: https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444820981009
- Taylor Annabell used the scroll back method to study memory-work among young women in London: Annabell, T. (2020). Curating Memories: The role of emotion in the digital memory work of young women on Instagram & Facebook’, AoIR Selected Papers of Internet Research: https://doi.org/10.5210/spir.v2020i0.11159
- Mari Lehto and Susanna Paasonen combined the scroll back method with diary-writing to study parenting culture in Finland: Lehto, M. & Paasonen, S. (2021) “‘I feel the irritation and frustration all over the body’Affective ambiguities in networked parenting culture.” International Journal of Cultural Studies: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F13678779211003584
- Jean Burgess and Nancy Baym in their work on Twitter: A Biography where, as Burgess explains in her 2021 chapter, “Platform Studies” in Creator Culture, “we undertook oral-history interviews with a small group of Twitter users, combining semistructured conversations with ‘scrollbacks’ (Robards and Lincoln 2017) through their own archives” (Burgess 2020: 35). Burgess and Baym projected these Twitter archives onto a wall during their interviews, inviting users to walk them through their tweeting histories and discuss changes in posting practices (Burgess & Baym 2020: 31): Burgess, J. (2021). Platform studies. Creator Culture: An Introduction to Global Social Media Entertainment, 21. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv27ftts6.5
- Hao Zheng’s research on queer international students in Australia involved scroll back interviews with 20 Chinese queer female students to explore how they navigated ‘pandemic immobility’: Zheng, H. (2022). ‘The pandemic helped me!’ Queer international students’ identity negotiation with family on social media in immobile times. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/13678779221144759