Continuing look into social media and caring

October 10, 2017 | Society

Sociology professors explore the relationship between social media and social caring during the Fort McMurray wildfires


The Fort McMurray wildfires in 2016 were a disaster unlike any northern Alberta had ever faced before. It was also a time of unprecedented caring shown toward strangers—through donation centres working around the clock and people opening up their homes. And this kindness extended through social media. Two MacEwan University sociology professors were fascinated by the questions: How do people give and receive support both online and offline? What is the relationship between social media and social caring?

At a Dean’s Lecture Series event on October 11, sociology Associate Professors Dr. Shelley Boulianne (whose research expertise is in social media and civic engagement) and Dr. Joanne Minaker (whose research expertise is in care and the power of meaningful connection) will share their research into the relationship between social media and caring during that tumultuous time in 2016.

Related: Northern Alberta wildfires prompt sociology research into social media and caring

Shelley and Joanne presented their research in Toronto and Montreal this summer, before submitting it for publication in August. The paper delves into the initial survey data about charitable responses and analyzes people’s use of Twitter to demonstrate care in the aftermath of the wildfire. In the second part of their research, currently underway, they’re  reviewing data gathered from focus groups conducted in spring 2017.

“This part of our research is more about people demonstrating care,” says Shelley.

And to get to the heart of it, they organized focus groups to talk to people about how they demonstrated care.

“It’s not that we can prove that being engaged in social media is the only thing that made someone help—there are other factors,” says Joanne. “But we’ve seen from the survey data that there’s a strong relationship. The focus groups are going to try to tease out some of the nuances, and we’re going to rely on stories and narratives to fill in some of the gaps.”

The research from the focus groups, however, may not relate directly back to their first set of findings.

“ Disasters are becoming more frequent as our climate changes and we become more vulnerable.” Shelley Boulianne 

“It would be nice to integrate them, but of course with qualitative research, you’re not sure exactly what you’re going to get,” says Shelley. “Part of it is that the people you interview drive the research findings, and so we’re open to taking it in whatever direction participants have decided based on their commentaries.”

Joanne and Shelley worked with Tim Haney, director of Mount Royal University’s Centre for Community Disaster Research. They bridged their expertise into this research.

When they began looking at the Fort Mac situation, Shelley was drawn to the topic because she hails from northeastern Alberta. “What I’ve realized over the last few weeks is how critically important research on disasters is. Disasters are becoming more frequent as our climate changes and we become more vulnerable.”

Want to learn more? Check out Shelley and Joanne’s presentation, Social Media and Caring: Examining the Northern Alberta Wildfires of 2016 on October 11 as part of the School of Continuing Education’s Dean’s Lecture Series 2017/18.

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