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THE UK: Subject Guides

Q&A with a Professor of Digital Society

Prof Helen Kennedy gives us an insight into sociological studies

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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.


According to The Complete University Guide 2020 league tables, Sheffield University ranks 1st for communication and media studies out of all other institutions in the UK.


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 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. Her research explores 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 plays 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?

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. One of the biggest cities in the UK, Sheffield is a great place to live – it has a vibrant creative and culture scene, 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 has obviously exploded in recent years, so this is obviously a really important area. Image-sharing, selfie culture, 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 graduates gone onto? 

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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