Three members of the Visual Social Media Lab attended the What is an Image? conference in Copenhagen last week. Farida Vis gave an overview of various approaches and concerns relevant to the study of social media photography and Simon Faulkner discussed the development of the Remembering Thatcher on Social Media project. I concluded our session by outlining the plan for Imaging Sheffield: the categories I would be using, the field sites I had begun to examine and the process of developing an ethical research framework.

What struck me was that my initial fears about this talk – that I had little to say, given that the research was yet to formally ‘start’ – were unfounded. Rather, the experience of talking about what I was going to do turned out to be just as valid as reporting what I had done, for two reasons: firstly, it forced me to turn my vague ideas into something more definite, and secondly, the act of communicating the plan to other people consolidated it in my mind. These two points – of working out and then familiarising ourselves with what we are going to do – are crucial steps in the research process, but all too often they can be deferred, until some sort of deadline forces us into the uncomfortable act of actually making decisions. This is why it is important to share our work – both in person and online – and to make it a regular habit.

For the last year of my PhD, I wrote a weekly research blog, in which I talked about my own work, as well as discussing relevant news stories. Looking back, I regard this as a crucial factor in enabling me to develop my overall argument, as every week I needed to formulate and present my thoughts to a public audience. This was a process of repeatedly putting myself on the spot, much like giving a talk or submitting a piece of work, and I am certain that without it I would have found it much harder to write my thesis as a whole. Likewise, this blog is similarly forcing me to think about my new project – what am I looking for? What is my approach? – and to make firm plans that otherwise might remain unfocused. I therefore urge anyone starting out on a new research project, especially a PhD, to consider writing a blog. It might feel uncomfortable to share your thoughts when they are undeveloped, but this is an important part of working it all out. If we keep our ideas to ourselves, they are never tested, either by others or by ourselves, for it is only once our ideas are put ‘out there’ that we can gain perspective on them.

In addition to this personal value of sharing work as we go along, I would also argue that this is useful to the wider research community, as it presents a more honest and rounded impression of what research actually is. Research is typically shared at the point of completion, with findings and recommendations presented in a neat summary. But this gives little indication about how research is actually conducted – the thought processes involved, the planning, the adapting to unforeseen circumstances – and offers little in the way of an example to new researchers.

Sharing work therefore benefits everyone, by offering an opportunity to formulate ideas, and by countering the idea that research plans and conclusions somehow emerge unproblematically and fully-formed.


‘Soapbox waiting for your speech’ by lastonein, used under Flickr Creative Commons license, available at:

‘Picturing the Social: Transforming our Understanding of Images in Social Media and Big Data research’ is an 18-month research project that started in September 2014 and is based at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. It is funded through an ESRC’s Transformative Research grant and is focused on transforming the social science research landscape by carving out a more central place for image research within the emerging fields of social media and Big Data research. The project aims to better understand the huge volumes of images that are now routinely shared on social media and what this means for society. This project involves an interdisciplinary team of seven researchers from four universities as well as industry with expertise in: Media and Communication Studies (Farida Vis and Anne Burns, University of Sheffield), Visual Culture (Simon Faulkner and Jim Aulich, Manchester School of Art), Software Studies and Sociology (Olga Goriunova, Warwick University), Computer and Information Science (Francesco D’Orazio, Pulsar and Mike Thelwall, University of Wolverhampton). The project is part of the Visual Social Media Lab.