The newly created Social Media Lab at Ryerson University is one of the many hubs sprouting up in Toronto investigating the problems that arise with mass migration to social media.  

As social media giants like Facebook and Twitter drastically change the way we communicate, collaborate and share information, researchers grapple to figure out the ethics and protocols for how to study the data generated by these online tools.

“More and more Canadians are joining social media sites,” says Anatoliy Gruzd an associate professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University and the director of the school’s newly created Social Media Lab.

“All these people contribute all kinds of data about themselves, their relationships, their interests.  This data is publicly available for decision makers,” adds Gruzd who recently moved to Toronto from Halifax’s Dalhousie University to set up the lab.

Gruzd says that while looking at data from social media can answer many questions about how to engage Canadians in various issues, causes and campaigns, examining these new data sets does pose some questions.

“To the average person there is the issue that their data is being used for analysis, sometimes without their knowledge or consent,” says Gruzd.

Some of the challenges with studying data generated by social media users is the sheer volume of the available material.

“How do you analyze this vast amount of data and make reliable conclusions and decisions?” asks Gruzd.

He notes another obstacle is sifting through the material to figure out what information is coming from what sources.

“There’s the question of how do you see what is reliable and subtract information from things like fake accounts spam posts,” says Gruzd.  

Gruzd believes that Ryerson will be an ideal place to establish the Social Media Lab because it already houses a number of laboratories and centers that are dedicated to these areas of study like the Digital Media Zone not to mention the university’s partnerships with industry leaders like Google.

Toronto a hub for social media

While the Social Media Lab at Ryerson is new, Toronto is well on it’s way to establishing itself as an important social media hotspot.

Social media lab

Ryerson's social media lab sorts through a large volume of social media posts to study the effects on society. (Anatoliy Gruzd/Social Media Lab)

“We have a very vibrant and active social media community in this city,” says Jenna Jacobson, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information.  

Jacobson, alongside Gruzd, is one of four co-organizers for this year’s Social Media & Society conference taking place in Toronto on September 27 and 28.  

The conference will bring social media researchers coming from over 100 institutions and 21 different countries together to discuss the impact and implications of social media in our society.  

“We need to figure out the best practices on how do we research and analyze this phenomenon and its impact,” says Jacobson who says that researchers are still trying to understand the ethics of social media.  

For Jacobson the implications of studying social media go far beyond commercial interests. She says there’s also a social justice component.  

“We’re not just looking at how we can make more money by marketing things to people. We are also looking at how we can empower individual citizens to use social media for social good."