Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Different platforms? Different ethics?

We held our first knowledge exchange seminar at the Oxford Internet Institute on the 24th of July. Focusing on the ethical issues that arise in social media research, we looked at issues around understanding digital identities, the ethics of platforms and public and private data. This is the first in a series of posts detailing the discussions we held as part of the breakout session.   

Within social media user-generated content has become ubiquitous, given this it is not surprising that marketers and social researchers began to focus more attention on social media as a channel to communicate with consumers and to commission social or market research to gain insight into the opinions, attitudes and/or behaviour of social media users.  This has created new opportunities for researchers to observe, interact and gather information. It has also led to new techniques including the use of community panels, co-creation, netnography, blog-mining and web scraping.

The second discussion of our ethics knowledge exchange event explored the concept that the boundaries are now blurred between on and offline but that the nature of research in, and using,  social media may well require researchers to develop new ethical frameworks and concepts in response. In particular do the different platforms require researchers to adopt different ethical standards and a take a position on the ethics of different social media providers?

We began the discussion by airing a few key issues around the topic.

  1. Building on a theme from the tweet chat, which is touched on in more detail in the third session, is the definition of what is public space and what is private, do researchers have different ethical responsibilities in public spaces as opposed to private spaces. In essence are ethics mutable?
  2. As a key part of this is the consideration that should researchers be concerned with the ethical standards or lack thereof of the platform providers or of the communities on platforms? Should researchers have a role in exposing questionable ethical practices of platform providers or the communities that they are hosting?
  3. Further do we as researchers also need to consider the role of those within communities in terms of our research? Are community members co-creators; are they participants or are they authors? Does this change with the methodology adopted for the research?

The general consensus on the first point was that ethics might be a confusing term, and that it was more about a set of values and principles. In this regard it was felt that it was more likely to be about what those active within a social space actually expected in terms of values and principles, chiefly revolving around privacy and security and their protection in these regards both from within and without the social media space. It was felt that researchers have a role in challenging platform providers to develop practice that matches expectations and to highlight to all when this is not the case, transparency about what providers do with users’ data and how data might be shared or used was seen as important in this respect. The point was made that as platforms are in the main commercial ventures they adopt a caveat emptor approach in that all are expected to read and understand the terms of service they operate under. However given the importance of reputation and brand and the consideration that contributors to a social space can be viewed as co-creators of the brands of the platforms it might be best for researchers to take this ‘commercial’ rationale as a way of persuading platforms to adhere to expectations as opposed to making a purely ethical appeal. It could be naive to assume that platforms will respond to a call for more transparency and visibility of data usage policies based on purely ethical grounds and researcher concerns.

On the second and third point the discussion reached a consensus that it is about the expectations of those within a space and as such the ethical standards adopted by researchers should reflect the space itself. Context is critically important, the expectations of users of private ‘walled’ platforms may be very different to those of open social spaces; we also recognised that we know very little empirically about what user expectations are in relation to privacy or data use. The discussion considered space in a number of ways, a discussion which continued in session 4:

  • Public space – traditionally content is contributed with the expectation that it will be read by anyone in the public. Our discussion commented that it might be na├»ve for researchers to assume this though as even within the group very few had actually read the terms of service of platforms on which they themselves are active.  Despite this most thought that research can be carried out subject to the site’s terms of use; users can be identified and quoted unless this might cause harm, in which case quotes should be anonymous such they can’t be retraced via a search engine but without losing the essence of their meaning. As such researchers can assume that contributors are likely to be happy that it is linked to, copied or cited, such as public blogs and comments left on news websites.
  • Private space - where users would expect their comments to be private and available only to genuine community members. These are often called ‘walled gardens’ or ‘cloisters’. Such spaces require registration and passwords and include private forums, communities, chat rooms and instant messaging. There was a clear consensus that researchers require permission from the site owner to carry out work and users cannot be identified without their prior consent, anonymous citing is essential unless users’ permission for verbatim has been obtained. We also discussed how important it was in these spaces to identify oneself as a researcher to those you are conversing with, there was little support for covert ‘lurking’ in these spaces although some researchers had conducted studies in this way.  We recognised the similarities here to older ethical discussions about the ethics of undertaking covert/overt participant observation.
  • Semi-public spaces – one member of the group raised the issue that between private and public there are a semi-public set of spaces. The point was that in some cases the boundary between public and semi-public space is often be blurred, e.g. Facebook, a series of homepages and many niche (but open) forums or communities, open chat rooms and Twitter. These are semi-public as people contribute content and whilst open to all to read, many would not expect it to be read or used by people not interested in that topic. The first point the group agreed on was that if in doubt researchers are encouraged to treat sites as ‘semi-public’ not public which led on to broad agreement that research can be carried out subject to essentially the same terms as those within a private space.
  • Market research spaces – these are spaces that have been created for market, social and opinion research purposes where users have been specifically informed of its function and the use to which their comments might be put. Typically (but not always) these are also private spaces and include Market Research Online Communities (MROC’s) and online ethnographic (netnographic) and co-creational techniques (crowdsourcing) which utilise social media platforms. Due to the nature of these sites researchers face relatively few restrictions but that researchers here have clear responsibilities to consider if verbatim quotes could cause harm to respondents.

With apologies to those who contributed to the discussion whom I can’t all name as it was my first time meeting you all. Thank you for a lively discussion, which I found thought provoking. I look forward to meeting you all again in September.

Andrew Whalley is a teaching fellow in Marketing at Royal Holloway.