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Q&A with Helen Kennedy, Professor of Digital Society at Sheffield University

Prof Helen Kennedy gives us an insight into Sheffield's Department of Sociological Studies


Professor Helen Kennedy leads the MA Digital Media and Society in the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield. This Masters degree is unique in offering students an opportunity to develop a broad understanding of the interweaving of digital media and society from a sociological perspective.


What one aspect of the course you teach do you personally look forward to each year and why?

I like talking to young people about what happens to the things that they share on social media platforms like Facebook. Their knowledge and views about these things are not always what you might expect. Some people know that their social media data gets tracked and sold, but few are aware that combining this with other data can make us personally identifiable.


Concrete examples of digital data mining can help to make it real to students, such as the story of the teenage girl whose changed shopping habits (from scented to unscented soap) led an online store to conclude – rightly – that she was pregnant. Whether students care about this kind of thing depends on who is doing the tracking, and what for. It’s good then to talk about strategies for resisting tracking and for being more in control of our own data.


Tell us a bit about the faculty in the department.

The Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield has an established international reputation for world-leading research in relation to: Science, Technology and Society, Inter-Generational Dynamics, and Global and International Dimensions of Social Change. Our research has a direct impact on people, organisations and policy making.


The 2014 Research Excellence Framework rated 79% of our research activity as ‘internationally excellent’ or ‘world leading’. This ranks the Department in the top 10 amongst the Russell Group for research output.


Personally, I’ve been researching digital media since they came into existence in the mid-1990s, covering topics from web homepages to data visualisation, from exclusion and inequality to and web design, and from digital media work to social media data mining.


Another important member of staff is Bridgette Wessels, whose digital society research also spans a wide range. She is currently researching open data, participatory design and the relationship between social media and culture. Other folks in the department have expertise in a range of areas in which digital media play a role. For example, Clive Norris is an expert in surveillance and Katherine Davies researches intimate relationships, two fields which are hugely influenced by social media. In another example, Kate Reed is interested in how medical imaging technologies are used in videogames.


What are the benefits of studying this course at Sheffield in particular?

In our faculty, the subject of digital society is a big priority, so students will find themselves surrounded by people doing cutting-edge research in this field. We have a Digital Society Network, which hosts all sorts of exciting events, workshops and talks which students on the MA Digital Media and Society are welcome to attend. The University of Sheffield was voted the best of all UK universities for student experience in a recent survey. One of the biggest cities in the UK, Sheffield is a great place to live – it has a vibrant creative and culture scene and hills and countryside on our doorstep. Students who come here don’t want to leave!


Why is it an exciting time for prospective students to move into your field?

It’s always an exciting time for digital media! They are thoroughly embedded in every aspect of life, and in all possible professions, in one way or another, so having a deep understanding of them expands horizons in many areas. Social media have obviously exploded in recent years, so this is obviously a really important area. Image-sharing, selfie cultures, texting and dating apps and the proliferation of data that results from all of these practices are all important today. And in digital media, we never know what will be important tomorrow, but there is always something exciting around the corner.


What roles and jobs have graduate gone onto? 

This is a new programme, but I can give some examples from other digital media courses that I’ve taught. Social media marketing is a growing field, and quite a lot of graduates have gone into that. Others do client-facing work in digital marketing agencies. Search has been a big field for a while now – that is, helping companies get seen online and in search engines – and some of my graduates have gone into that field.


Some have gone to work for charities, for example as project managers on digital media projects. One became a user experience consultant at a global UX company. One works in communication at Twitter! A couple went on to do PhDs – one is studying internet policy in the US, and another is studying TV fan cultures on social media here in the UK. This is just a handful of examples. 


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About Author

Katie Duncan is Editor of Hotcourses Abroad and is an NCTJ-qualified journalist and University of Exeter graduate. Having worked at an English language school in the UK, as an educational consultant in Spain and as a reporter in the international education sector, she is well placed to guide you through your study abroad journey. Katie grew up in Australia, which perhaps explains her unusual reptile collection, comprising of a bearded dragon (Bill) and tortoise (Matilda).


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