Dorothy Kim has an piece titled “Social Media and Academic Surveillance: The Ethics of Digital Bodies” on Model View Culture. I have to admit I don’t find her particular argument regarding these concerns to be especially convincing. However, that isn’t to say that ethical issues surrounding research using digital-social media don’t need to be addressed. As I often argue here, I think we continue to struggle to live in digital contexts. We import legal and social concepts like public and private, which don’t really work or at least don’t work as they once did. Kim also makes an analogy between digital and physical bodies, which I see as even harder to work out thoroughly. Ultimately, socially-legally, as well as academic/professionally, we need to develop some better understanding of what these spaces and practices are and develop ethics that are independent of past contexts (though obviously they will be informed by them).
For example, we know that all the sites/services in question are not public in the sense of a public park or street, in the sense of being publicly owned. Everything one sees on all these sites is owned by someone whether it be through terms of service, intellectual property, or copyright law. Maybe we should have a “public” Internet, one that is maintained through government and tax-payer money (as if anyone would feel like communicating opening on a government website!). When we think about a public park or street, we think of having certain rights and responsibilities related to our shared ownership of the space. This is a specific definition of public “Of or relating to the people as a whole; that belongs to, affects, or concerns the community or the nation” (according to the OED). But in social media we don’t have shared ownership of anything. Instead public has a different meaning here, though not one that is surprising or rare.
To quote the OED again, it’s somewhere between:
Open to general observation, view, or knowledge; existing, performed, or carried out without concealment, so that all may see or hear. Of a person: that acts or performs in public.
Of a book, piece of writing, etc.: in print, published; esp. in to make public
I suppose I think about it this way. Media that are published on the Internet are public in a way that combines the two definitions above. While it is possible we could redefine informed consent in some way, even then I think it would be very hard to say that publishing something on the Internet is not informed consent. There is a grayer area in the case of Facebook where statements are made to a limited audience of “friends.”
On the other hand, conducting research in a social media space where one is interacting with users, asking them questions or otherwise experimenting with them, seems to me to be a different matter, one that should involve informed consent. For example, Kim discusses the #raceswap experiments on Twitter where users changed their avatars to suggest they were of a different race and examined how other users treated them differently. Certainly the experiment recently done on Facebook (also mentioned by Kim) falls into that category. If that research were undertaken in an academic context for purposes of publication or with grant support, would it be the kind of thing we would expect to have IRB review and involve some kind of informed consent? In my view this is different from observing and studying public statements.
I can understand that as a member of a group of people, one might be unhappy with the way one’s public text is analyzed or believe that some other kind of research could or should be done. As Kim points out, users on Twitter have the right to shout back, protest, or whatever. And one could study that as well. As academics, we may or may not consider those specific complaints to be legitimate. Any specific research may be done well or poorly. The research might be poorly communicated or represented. Academics have freedom to define and pursue their research but that freedom is always constrained by what other academics will agree to fund or publish. We can decide as an academic community what we value. To me that is all a very different matter from the ethical issues concerned with interacting with human subjects either face-to-face or online.
I don’t see anything unethical, as a general principle, with studying public texts. In specific cases, might that research be done poorly or unethically? Certainly. One could do poor or unethical research with anything. Should experimental interaction with users be done with IRB review and informed consent? Absolutely, but that’s a whole different question.