Social media and caring

September 15, 2016

Northern Alberta wildfires prompt sociology research


Like many people in Alberta, Shelley Boulianne, an associate professor in Sociology, first heard about the Fort McMurray wildfires and city-wide evacuation on social media. Through Facebook, her cousin announced to friends and family that they were safe and heading down to Edmonton. After reading that post, Shelley tried to figure out what was happening, and first saw the images of wildfires roaring across Highway 63.

The Fort Mac fire is easily Alberta’s biggest news story of the year—made all the more so because the news was shared via social media throughout Alberta, across Canada and beyond.

Joanne Minaker, also an associate professor in Sociology, recently spoke at TEDxUAlberta about the power of meaningful connections. “As sociologists, we're really motivated to understand social relational aspects, so what does care look like and how is social media influencing people’s actions toward demonstrating that care?” says Joanne.

She partnered with Shelley, who studies the role of digital media in civic and political life. Their new research examines the role of social media in the outpouring of support for those displaced by the Fort McMurray wildfire. How do people give and receive support both online and off-line? What is the relationship between social media and social caring?


RELATED STORY: Economics profs assess the impact of the Fort McMurray fire


 Joanne and Shelley started their research with a survey of 1,200 Albertans conducted by the University of Alberta’s Population Research Lab. They are working with Tim Haney, director of Mount Royal University’s Centre for Community Disaster Research, to analyze the data. The poll found that almost half of Albertans were using social media to follow news about the wildfire. They also found that 40 per cent of Albertans personally knew someone displaced by the fire.

The second part of their analysis involves looking at social media (Twitter in particular) and a dataset of 12,000 posts from two weeks of intense social media engagement.

“We see those tweets as giving us some context to the poll data, but also allowing us to look for clues where calls to action are followed up—not just sharing a tweet, but where people actually did something,” Joanne explains.

The final phase of the project will be qualitative—interviews and potentially focus groups of citizens and relief organizations exploring further the messages and their meanings circulated on social media.

“We’ll have our aggregate data, our larger community response for Albertans, but interviews and focus groups provide more nuanced, detailed descriptions of how people went from just reading a tweet and sharing it to becoming a volunteer,” says Joanne.

Though Shelley is on sabbatical and working on a number of research projects, this one is the most pressing and timely. “A lot of the research about Twitter is around popular culture, political campaigns and social movements, but there is not a lot of research that looks at the civic/community side of social media use, so this is what we want to look at.”

She adds, “It’s a much larger project than what we had thought when we first exchanged emails. The project gets bigger, but that also means we're going to tackle bigger questions.”

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