It’s easy to forget the larger, community benefits of an Open Internet that doesn’t discriminate based on the content flowing through the fiber (or however it gets to you). But let’s get specific. How does this open network nurture and support underserved and marginalized LGBT communities and why does something like Net Neutrality matter to our future?
Earlier this year, The LGBT Technology Partnership released research that I co-authored with media scholar and sociologist Jessie Daniels. In it, we lay out the reasons that LGBT-identifying individuals and our communities became early adopters of broadband technology and why the Internet continues to play such a pivotal part in our political and social lives. Maintaining Net Neutrality–keeping all information equally accessible on the Internet–is something that all LGBT-identifying people and our allies should care about and fight to maintain.
I have researched the Internet’s role in LGBT life for more than a decade. I study how and why LGBT-identifying young people and youth questioning their identities use the Internet and other media. There are 2 main reasons that marginalized communities, including LGBT people, use the Internet more than the typical U.S. citizen: 1) we are able to go online and connect to people we identify with, without having to battle the stigma and potential physical threat that comes with accessing LGBT-supportive physical spaces and 2) we are able to access services and information specifically for us–from dating sites to health information–tailored to our needs…not just a clumsy version of what’s made available to our heterosexual peers.
Let me give 2 concrete examples from my fieldwork among LGBT youth in rural towns throughout Southeast Appalachia. When Brandon, a young person living in Eastern Kentucky, wanted to find other young African-American, bi-identifying people to talk with about the pros and cons of coming out before turning 18, he literally knew no one and found no organizations in his town of 5,000 where he could meet other out, bi-identifying youth. He went online and found chat rooms for his region. All of them were dominated by adults. He had to spend a significant amount of time, searching through various websites and YouTube videos to access other kids his age to talk with. In a perfect world, he wouldn’t need to work so hard to find someone just like himself online and he’d have neighbors and friends in his high school to turn to for support. But there’s no critical mass of LGBT-identifying people in his home town (yet! We can hope that changes for him). That makes the Internet an important communication channel connecting him to a broader community of LGBT-identifying folks. But the Internet is not just for accessing other LGBT-identifying people online.
As I said, the Internet has become a vital resource for accessing information specifically tailored to us. So, for example, many of the towns I worked in had no LGBT-specific public health services or HIV prevention information available for LGBT-identifying youth. That meant braving the school nurse or walking into a local health clinic and talking with someone who they could not assume to be an advocate for LGBT rights. Adults in big cities like DC might struggle with doing that. Imagine being a 14 year old in a very small town doing that. Youth I work with depend on web-based resources, like Trevor Project, Advocates for Youth, YouTube, and other non-profits that list resources for LGBT-specific health information. The Internet is a vital communication and information channel. The presumption that heterosexuality is the default setting makes the Internet a precious resource for LGBT-identifying people. LGBT and questioning youth in particular need places for them and information written for them readily available. It’s not a perk. The Internet has become a basic need and a public good.
From my perspective, the Net Neutrality debate is important to LGBT communities because, simply put, LGBT-identifying people will be collateral damage if Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are allowed to discriminate among content, apps, or services. without Net Neutrality protections, content providers generating critical information would likely have to pay more to get their content into (and from!) the hands of LGBT people. That means ISPs become the defacto gatekeepers controlling what content survives and what content falls by the wayside in the wake of a market-driven content tsunami. This, in turn, will raise the cost of providing LGBT content, reducing the overall amount of LGBT content available. This will be a significant barrier to the non-profit sources of content that have proven critical to LGBT communities, including information provided by the U.S. Government.
Net Neutrality is a simple principle: don’t make it harder to access or download something on the Internet based on the content of that information or service. Individuals, not our Internet Service Providers, should determine the information that they can access online. ISPs should not be legally allowed to block content or limit a private citizen’s opportunity to see what information is available online for them to purchase or made available to them for free.
Like broadcast TV, phones, and libraries, the Internet plays a special and critical role in connecting and educating citizens. I wish that every public school, community center, and local radio and public access TV station offered a wealth of LGBT-specific resources. They do not. The Internet, currently, picks up this important duty for the public.
Right now, like all citizens, LGBT people and our allies have the basic right to access any information available on the Internet. LGBT-specific information on the Internet–from other young people’s websites to the It Gets Better campaign on YouTube–can be vital to LGBT lives, particularly young people looking for affirmation and reflections of themselves. LGBT-specific information is typically hosted or created by non-profits and private individuals who care about LGBT people’s needs. In the same way that it should not be harder at the public library to see the stack of books most relevant to LGBT communities, it shouldn’t be harder or cost more to access information specific to LGBT communities.
The providers of Internet access are not just delivering binge TV through Netflix. They are serving up those webpages that LGBT-identifying and questioning young people rely on to survive and thrive. As much as I love the entire catalogue of Queer as Folk, it is not the same content–and cannot do the same vital community-building work–as coming out videos accessible on YouTube or HIV prevention information, local resource lists, and opportunities to access other LGBT-identifying people available through non-profit websites. If ISPs are allowed to sort content differently, those random, youth-created and driven websites that offer crucial, eclectic information to small, niche audiences, are, potentially, at risk of being lost to us. I don’t think we, as LGBT people and allies, can afford that loss.
On Monday November 10, 2014, President Obama made a statement outlining four “bright-line rules” for maintaining Net Neutrality, including no blocking, no throttling, increased transparency and no paid prioritization. I wish that we could achieve keeping content equally accessible without regulation. I sincerely do. But, right now, all we have are promises from the Internet service provider’s major companies that they will not block content, throttle download/upload rates, decrease transparency behind their billing or let content owners pay ISPs to “cut to the front of the line” of the information buffet that is the Internet.
There are several cases, dating back to the beginning of the content-rich web of the mid-2000s, that suggest Internet service providers will block or slow down content delivery and price some content differently to keep competition at bay. There are 3 options: 1) make it illegal for Internet service providers to discriminate among content, apps, or services online or 2) fund municipal broadband for every community in the United States so that all citizens have access to the Internet’s content or 3) do both 1 and 2 and let the market and innovations, like playing with unlicensed spectrum, handle the rest. The Internet operates as a public good. We need it to register for many government services at this point. We can’t go back and say, “Internet content and services are just extras that society can do without.” We’ve got to have clear guidance and enforceable rules to maintain the deep investments we’ve already made in making the Internet one of the world’s greatest information repositories and sites for community connection, particularly among communities, like those of LGBT folks, with limited resources and social opposition offline.
Having worked in the rural U.S. for some time, my sense is that the best solution for ensuring an open Internet is by recognizing what ISPs have become: stewards of a critical public resource. We use our Internet connections to talk to people, pay our parking tickets, and make appointments to get our drivers licenses. LGBT communities use Internet connections to reach people like them and share strategies on how to move through a world that still can’t decide if we have the right to marry the people we love. Those are services and information resources necessary for a robust and healthy civic and civil society. It’s too late to treat the Internet like an expendable, frivolity. LGBT communities are particularly dependent on the Internet to find and connect with the people and information that we need to live healthy and productive lives. What can you do about all of this? Get the facts, advocate for a free and open Internet to your local representatives, and support your local LGBT activists creating content that reflects the richness and diversity of our lives and communities.
The Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England (MSRNE) is looking for a social media postdoctoral researcher (start date: 1 July, 2015). This position is an ideal opportunity for a scholar whose work draws on anthropology, communication, media studies, sociology, and/or science and technology studies to bring empirical and critical perspectives to complex socio-technical issues. Application deadline: Monday 3 November, 2014.
Microsoft Research provides a vibrant multidisciplinary research environment with an open publications policy and close links to top academic institutions around the world. Postdoctoral researcher positions provide emerging scholars (PhDs received in 2014 or to be conferred by July 2015) an opportunity to develop their research career and to interact with some of the top minds in the research community. Postdoctoral researchers are invited to define their own research agenda and demonstrate their ability to drive forward an effective program of research. Successful candidates will have a well-established research track record as demonstrated by journal publications and conference papers, as well as participation on program committees, editorial boards, and advisory panels. The position offers the potential to have research realized in products and services that will be used world-wide.
Postdoctoral researchers receive a competitive salary and benefits package, and are eligible for relocation expenses. Postdoctoral researchers are hired for a two-year term appointment following the academic calendar, starting in July 2015. Applicants must have completed the requirements for a PhD, including submission of their dissertation, prior to joining Microsoft Research. We do accept applicants with tenure-track job offers from other institutions so long as they are able to negotiate deferring their start date to accept our position.
While each of the Microsoft Research labs has openings in a variety of different disciplines, this position with the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England is especially interested in identifying social science/humanities candidates with critical approaches to their topics. SMC postdocs are based at Microsoft Research New England (located in Cambridge, MA) and enjoy opportunities to visit and collaborate with our sister Social Media Collective members in the New York City Lab.
Qualifications include a strong academic record in anthropology, communication, media studies, sociology, science and technology studies, or a related field. The ideal candidate may be trained in any number of disciplines, but should have a strong social scientific or humanistic methodological, analytical, and theoretical foundation, be interested in questions related to technology or the internet and society or culture, and be interested in working in a highly interdisciplinary environment that includes computer scientists, mathematicians, and economists.
The Social Media Collective is comprised of full-time researchers, postdocs, visiting faculty, PhD interns, and research assistants. Our current projects include:
– How does the use of social media affect relationships between artists and audiences in creative industries and what does that tell us about the future of work? (Nancy Baym)
– What are the cultural, political, and economic implications of crowdsourcing as a new form of semi-automated, globally-distributed digital labor? (Mary L. Gray)
– What are the social and political consequences of popular computing folklore? (Kevin Driscoll)
– How do online technologies shape countercultures and communities of alterity? (Jessa Lingel)
– What are the social and cultural issues arising from data-centric technological development? (danah boyd)
– What are the politics, ethics and policy implications of big data science? (Kate Crawford)
To apply for a postdoc position at MSRNE:
Submit an online application here.
– Indicate that your research area of interest is “Anthropology, Communication, Media Studies, and Sociology” and that your location preference is “New England, MA, U.S.”
– In addition to the CV and names of three referees (including your dissertation advisor) that the online application will require you to include, upload the following 3 attachments with your online application:
- two journal articles, book chapters, or equivalent writing samples (uploaded as 2 separate attachments);
- a single research statement (four page maximum length) that does the following: outlines the questions and methodologies central to your research agenda (~two page maximum length); provides an abstract and chapter outline of your dissertation (~one page maximum length); offers a description of how your research agenda relates to research conducted by the social media collective (~one page maximum length)
After you submit your application, a request for letters will be sent to your list of referees on your behalf. You can check the status of progress on individual reference requests at any time by clicking the status tab within your application page. Note that a complete application includes three submitted letters of reference.
THE APPLICATION SYSTEM WILL NOT REQUEST REFERENCE LETTERS UNTIL AFTER YOU HAVE SUBMITTED YOUR APPLICATION! Please warn your letter writers in advance so that they will be ready to submit them when they receive the prompt. The email they receive will automatically tell them they have two weeks to respond but that an individual call for applicants may have an earlier deadline. Please ensure that they expect this and are prepared to submit your letter by the deadline. Please make sure to check back with your referees if you have any questions about the status of your requested letters of recommendation.
For more information, see here.
Feel free to ask questions about the position in the comments below.
Members of Congress and 20 LGBT and ally organizations, led by Congressman Mike Honda, Founder and Chair of the Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus, are calling on the FCC to stop the indiscrimate blocking of online LGBT Resources. And, guess what? They used a report that Jessie Daniels and I wrote this summer to make the case and urge others to join the cause. Ok. I know that this is a small step forward but, today, I’m feeling really good about some tangible action on this front. Hey, industry leaders? Please take up the charge to make a difference?
New special issue of JOBEM: “Old Against New, or a Coming of Age? Rethinking Broadcasting in an Era of Electronic Media”
A little over a year ago, JOBEM editor Zizi Papacharissi approached me, R. Stuart Geiger (UC Berkeley) and Stacy Blasiola (University of Illinois at Chicago) with the idea of a JOBEM special issue hat would be edited and authored by graduate students. We were excited to accept the invitation and set out for the adventure.
The resulting special issue, titled Old Against New, or a Coming of Age? Rethinking Broadcasting in an Era of Electronic Media, has now been published. We are proud to present this issue that begins a new thread in the longstanding conversation about what it means for media to be ‘‘old’’ and ‘‘new.’’ While this distinction is not one we should take for granted, the articles in this issue all demonstrate how we can strategically approach the intricate intersections and interconnections of different media—both old and new.
We were very impressed by the thoughtful and provocative work graduate students across many disciplinary fields contributed in response to our call. Presenting a wide range of international scholarship from graduate students across many different disciplinary backgrounds, topical literatures, methodological approaches, and theoretical frameworks, this special issue represents an emerging approach to what it means to study broadcasting in an era of electronic media.
The guest-edited issue features the following seven articles, along with our Introduction:
- Building Buzz and Episodes with Bite-Sized Content: Portlandia’s Formula for Turning a Video Project into a Television Series by Elia Powers
- Extending the Broadcast: Streaming Culture and the Problems of Digital Geographies by Benjamin Burroughs & Adam Rugg
- Giving the “Viewser” a Voice? Situating the Individual in Relation to Personalization, Narrowcasting, and Public Service Broadcasting by Tanya Kant
- Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed From Something Blue: Experiments on Dual Viewing TV and Twitter by Jaclyn Cameron & Nick Geidner
- Talking to the Broadcasters on Twitter: Networked Gatekeeping in Twitter Conversations with Journalists by Weiai Wayne Xu & Miao Feng
- Changing the Game: The Role of Social Media in Overcoming Old Media’s Attention Deficit Toward Women’s Sport by Portia Vann
- Going Mental: Podcasting, Authenticity, and Artist–Fan Identification on Paul Gilmartin’s Mental Illness Happy Hour by Vincent M. Meserko
We hope that you’ll find the collection inspiring and productive, and we invite you to share them with others who might enjoy them too!
Last but not least, if you are coming to IR15 in a few weeks, we hope to see you at the similarly named fishbowl on the first day of the conference. This will be an opportunity to take the conversation further, together with the community of Internet researchers!
[Cross-posted to www.maryLgray.org]
When the Facebook Emotions Study first made international news, I felt strongly (still do) that researchers, from those honing algorithms to people like me studying the social impact of media and technologies, need to come together. There are no easy answers or obvious courses of action. But we all have a stake in understanding the ethical implications of studying social media as equal parts data analysis and human subjects research. And we need common ground.
At the end of the day, researchers are also well-positioned to change things for two simple reasons: 1) individual researchers design and execute research and data analysis for both corporations and universities. If we change how we do things, our institutions will follow suit. 2) Today’s social media researchers and corporate data scientists will mentor and train the next generation of data researchers. Our students will continue and advance the exploration of social media data at jobs based in industry and university settings. The ethical principles that they learn from us will define not only the future of this field but the general public’s relationship to it. But it’s not easy to bring together such a wide range of researchers. Social media researchers and data scientists are rarely all in the same place.
As luck would have it, Microsoft Research’s Faculty Summit, held annually on the MSR Redmond campus in the great state of Washington, USA, gathers just such a mixed scholarly audience. It was scheduled for July 14-15, a mere two weeks into the public fallout over the Study. Through the support of Microsoft Research and MSR’s Faculty Summit organizers, we organized an ad-hoc session for July 14, 2014, 11:30a-12:30p PT, entitled “When Data Science & Human Subject Research Collide: Ethics, Implications, Responsibilities.” Jeff Hancock, co-author of the Facebook Emotions Study, generously agreed to participate in the discussion. I scoured the list of Faculty Summit attendees and found three other participants to round out the conversation: Jeffrey Bigham, Amy Bruckman, and Christian Sandvig. These scholars (their bios are below) offer the expertise and range of perspectives we need to think through what to do next.
Below, you will find a transcript of the brief panel presentations and a long, long list of excellent questions generated by the more than 100 attendees. I have anonymized the sources of the questions, but if you contact me and would like your name attached to your comment or question, please let me know and I’ll edit this document.
I asked that the session not be recorded for public circulation because I wanted all those present to feel completely free to speak their minds. I encouraged everyone to “think before they tweet” which did not bar social media reports from the event (but, I was delighted to see how many of us focused on each other rather than our screens). We agreed early on that the best contribution we could, collectively, make was to generate questions rather than presume anyone had the answers. I hope that you find this document helpful as you work through your own thoughts on these issues. My thanks to MSR and the Faculty Summit organizers (particularly Jaya, who was so patient with the ever-changing details), the panelists for their participation, to the audience for their collegiality and kindness, and a special shout out to Liz Lawley for sharing her notes with me.
Mary L. Gray
Session title: When Data Science & Human Subject Research Collide: Ethics, Implications, Responsibilities
Chair: Mary L. Gray, Microsoft Research
Abstract: Join us for a conversation to reflect on the ethics, implications, and responsibilities of social media research, in the wake of the Facebook emotion study. What obligations must researchers consider when studying human interaction online? When does data science become human subjects research? What can we learn as a collective from the public’s reaction to Facebook’s recent research as well as reflection on our own work? Mary L. Gray (Microsoft Research) and Jeff Hancock (Cornell University and co-author of the Facebook emotion study), will facilitate a panel discussion among researchers based at Microsoft Research and across academia from the fields of data science, computational social science, qualitative social science, and computer science.
– communication studies
– data science
– experimental research design
– human computation
– information sciences
– social psychology
– usability studies
Each panelist had 5 minutes to reflect on:
- What can we learn?
- Where do we go from here?
- What is one BURNING QUESTION we should address together?
- think B4 you tweet
- not a “gotcha!” session
- step up/step back (if you tend to talk a lot, let someone else take the mic first)
Christian Sandvig—Speaker 1 (able to speak from an Information Sciences perspective)
Associate Professor of Information, School of Information, Faculty Associate, Center for Political Studies, ISR and Associate Professor of Communication, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Sandvig is a faculty member at the School of Information specializing in the design and implications of Internet infrastructure and social computing. He is also a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Before moving to Michigan, Sandvig taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Oxford University. Sandvig’s research has appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Associated Press, National Public Radio, CBS News, and The Huffington Post. His work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council. He has consulted for Intel, Microsoft, and the San Francisco Public Library. Sandvig received his Ph.D. in Communication Research from Stanford University in 2002. https://www.si.umich.edu/people/christian-sandvig
Jeffrey P. Bigham—Speaker 2 (able to speak from a computer science/accessible technologies perspective)
Associate Professor of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute and Language Technologies Institute in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. Jeffrey’s work sits at the intersection of human-computer interaction, human computation, and artificial intelligence, with a focus on developing innovative technology that serves people with disabilities in their everyday lives. Jeffrey received his B.S.E degree in Computer Science from Princeton University in 2003. He received his M.Sc. degree in 2005 and his Ph.D. in 2009, both in Computer Science and Engineering from the University of Washington. http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~jbigham/
Amy Bruckman—Speaker 3 (able to speak from the builder/designer perspective)
Professor in the School of Interactive Computing in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, and a member of the Graphics, Visualization, and Usability (GVU) Center. She received her PhD from the Epistemology and Learning Group at the MIT Media Lab in 1997, and a BA in physics from Harvard University in 1987. She does research on online communities and education, and is the founder of the Electronic Learning Communities (ELC) research group. Bruckman studies how people collaborate to create content online, with a focus on how the Internet can support constructionist, project-based learning. Her newer work focuses on the products of online collaboration as ends in themselves. How do we support people in this creative process, and what new kinds of collaborations might be possible? How do interaction patterns shape the final product? How do software features shape interaction patterns? How does Wikipedia really work, and why do people contribute to it? http://www.cc.gatech.edu/fac/Amy.Bruckman/
Jeff Hancock—Speaker 4 (co-author of the Facebook Emotions Study)
Dr. Jeffrey T. Hancock is a Professor in the Communications and Information Science departments at Cornell University and is the Co-Chair of the Information Science department. He is interested in social interactions mediated by information and communication technology, with an emphasis on how people produce and understand language in these contexts. His research has focused on two types of language, verbal irony and deception, and on a number of cognitive and social psychological factors affected by online communication. https://communication.cals.cornell.edu/people/jeffrey-hancock
Opening remarks (Mary L. Gray):
I asked each of our speakers to introduce themselves, tell us a little bit about the perspective they’re coming from. The goal of the panel was to bring together as many different disciplinary perspectives as possible among people who are studying what is perhaps best understood as a shared object: social media. We came together to think about the implications and ramifications of the public response to the Facebook study. I gave a special shoutout and thanks to Jeff Hancock for being willing to attend Faculty Summit at the very last minute. I want to publicly say how impressed I am by his collegiality and his willingness to engage. I think we are so lucky that this is the case that became the opportunity for us to talk about this. I think all of us researching social media can imagine really bad cases that could have come to light and instantly eroded public trust in our efforts to understand social media. So I’m really very happy that this opportunity to talk about how to move forward in our research was prompted by the work of a scholar who I really respect and admire. So with that, I handed it off to our first speaker, Christian Sandvig. Each person spoke for a little bit and then we had a chance for them to pose one burning question.
Thanks, Mary. Mary asked us to say a little bit where we might relate to this topic. I’m a Professor at the School of Information and the Communications Studies Department at the University of Michigan. I’m interested in information and public policy. I’m interested in this particular controversy because I have a forthcoming book about studying human behavior online. I’ve taught about applied ethics and research methods. I have a graduate class called Unorthodox Research Methods, about new research methods and the controversies they provoke. And I’m a former member of an Institutional Review Board. So that’s my background. I want to use my very brief time to mention a study that often comes up in historical reviews of psychology. It’s the Middlemist “bathroom study” (http://www2.uncp.edu/home/marson/Powerpoints/3610Bathroom1.pdf). It’s sometimes called the micturition study, if you have a preference for scientific terminology. To be clear: I’m not trying to say that the Facebook experiment is like the bathroom experiment. But there are some interesting parallels. So I’ll just give you a quick rundown of those parallels. This is a research study conducted by psychologists in a men’s restroom at a large Midwestern university. Basically the researchers built a small periscope-like device that allowed a professor sitting in a toilet stall to observe patrons at the urinals from a side angle. The reason that the researchers did this is that they had a hypothesis about physiologic excitation and personal space. So they designed an experimental design where a confederate, a student on the research team, would stand near or at a distance from an individual who came into the bathroom to use the urinal. They did this without consent and they didn’t have a debriefing process. They timed, with a stopwatch, the urination to help them draw conclusions about physiologic excitation and physical proximity of strangers.
The reason that the Middlemist “bathroom study” is a useful parallel to today’s uproar over the Facebook Emotions Study is that public criticism of the research did not focus on physical harms to human subjects but, rather, the perceived indignity and disregard for individual privacy that the study suggested. The researchers defended themselves and used reasonably sound logic, arguing that going to the bathroom is an everyday experience. They studied a public bathroom after all. The worst that could happen is that a subject feels a little weird that someone’s watching them in a public bathroom. And, in fact, they argued debriefing would have produced the harm in this study. If they’d told men that they’ve been watched in a public bathroom, it may then make them uncomfortable. So in fact, telling subjects about the study produces the only harm that could happen. So, they reasoned, we shouldn’t debrief subjects about the study. The debate about this study is extensive. But one of the conclusions that followed from it is that researchers in this case focused on the wrong harms. They argued that individuals in this study probably couldn’t be harmed because it’s only mildly embarrassing or creepy to be watched in a public bathroom. But the harm that the researchers should have addressed or considered was the potential harm to the image of the profession or all of science. Some research subjects were actually very upset about the study and felt it violated human decency and their individual dignity. They were not harmed individually, but found this study creepy and invasive. Avoiding telling people that you’re doing this kind of research because telling them would upset them doesn’t help at all. Researchers simply delay the harm that will follow when the public eventually find out how the study was conducted. Such delays only leave the public more angry that researchers didn’t tell subjects, at some point in the study, because it suggests that the researchers are hiding something. So the question I have for the panel and the audience is: Is it possible for us to anticipate this kind of harm? Is it possible for us as researchers to design research and say this is something that’s going to cause controversy because people are going to think it’s very creepy, versus this is something that no one’s going to have a problem with. That’s actually a difficult question to answer.
Some people have argued, well, you know, Facebook’s already done a variety of other studies that changed users’ information without their knowledge, so why does this one produce the controversy? I would argue that there research cases and topics where there are foreseeable harms because we know that people feel differently about certain areas of their lives. People feel differently about whether there’s an intervention or not. People feel differently about the valence of the intervention. For example, people will feel differently about whether an intervention or research experiment is done for science or for a corporation. But, really, the only way that we’re going to be able to predict whether the “creepiness factor” will register as a problem is to involve research participants in the research design at some level. Participants’ involvement could help researchers figure out the level of threat before we execute our research. Fundamentally, researchers aren’t the ones who decide what is threatening or crossing the line for the public. If participants feel our research methods are creepy and they hate it, we don’t want to be in the business of doing that research. We’re not going to be able to argue participants out of their feelings and say “no, it’s all right; people look at you in the bathroom all the time. We’re not going to be able to do that. We need a different approach and understanding of “harm” to conduct social research.
I’m Jeff Bingham from Carnegie Mellon University. I approached this research area a little bit differently. I work on building systems to support people with disabilities, often using human computation. Mary asked us to think about what skin we have in this game. So the skin I have in this game is that social media are the primary way that we recruit the people that power the systems we build for people with disabilities, via friend sourcing, community sourcing, citizen science, traditional crowdsourcing. It’s also the resource we have to understand those people using our systems. As Mary said in her talk earlier this morning, “crowds are people,” and it is really important for us to make these systems work well–make them sustainable and make them scalable.
We’re increasingly moving away from, say, Amazon Mechanical Turk, to services like Facebook, to power our systems for people with disabilities. Ultimately, we need users to trust the platforms on which we are recruiting workers. So if they don’t trust Facebook, for instance, they may not use it or they may move to closed systems that don’t allow us the kind of access or the ability to incorporate human work into our systems. I’ve tried bootstrapping sociotechnical systems on my own, and it’s actually really hard without piggybacking on existing platforms. So it’s really important that we have continued access to the general public using commercial platforms. I think that we can all agree this is about a lot more than one study or one research article. And so my fear is that, as a result of this experience, we will be more likely to miss out on the upsides and rewards that could come from engaging with users of these services in interesting ways. My hope is that we can find a way to preserve the utility of these sites and our ability to do important research and innovate on social media platforms. I also hope that researchers can continue partnering with industry while addressing the very real concerns of users. So my question is what practical steps should researchers take right now, while public opinion and corporate policies are still being sorted out, to help ensure our long-term ability to work with companies who are running these very interesting platforms?
Thank you, Mary, so much for organizing this. It’s really timely. I launched an online, programmable virtual world for children in 1995. I got interested in Internet research ethics because I asked people what is the ethical way to do this and nobody knew. So I had to think ethically and invent the ethical things to do. In the 1990s, I was part of three different working groups focused on developing ethical policies for Internet research: One for the Association of Internet Researchers; another for AAS; and a third one for the APA. The APA group, led by Bob Kraut, resulted in a paper which you may find useful and is available on my website, along with a long list of other papers on research ethics. I think it may be time for us to have another round of working groups. It’s been a long time since the ’90s. There are some new issues emerging and we could use some updated statements of what the ethical issues are here and how to handle them. Several of my papers on research ethics have dealt with the issue of disguising subjects’ online identities.
I argue that, in many cases, contrary to the traditional approach of always disguising research subjects, if they are doing creative work on the Internet, for which they deserve credit, we are ethically obligated to ask them: “Do you want me to use your real name?” It would be unethical to hide their names without their consent. I want to be a little bit deliberately provocative here: I have done research on Internet users without their consent, and I would do it again. According to U.S. law, you can do work without consent. You can get a full waiver of consent if the research can’t be practicably done without a waiver, if the benefits outweigh the risk and if the risk is low. I have a post on my blog at nextbison.wordpress.com about a study that I did in 2003 where we walked into IRC chat rooms and recorded chat room participants’ reactions. Actually, we were really studying whether we would get kicked out of the chat room. We had four conditions: A control, where we walked in and didn’t say anything; a treatment where we walked in and said “Hi. I’m recording this for a study of language online;” an opt-in treatment; and an opt-out treatment. I know this gets very meta. And a little circular. But we found that people really didn’t want us to be in their IRC chat rooms. Almost no one opted in. And no one opted out. We have a colorful collection of the boot messages we received as we were kicked out of these chat rooms. My favorite is “Yo mama’s so ugly she turned Medusa to stone.” So ironically, despite the fact that our research documents that we made people angry, I still think the study itself was ethical. It’s certainly not something that we did lightly. But the level of disturbance we created was relatively small. I think what we learned from it was beneficial to people and to science in general. The original papers are available on my blog. And if you’re interested in more details, I’d be happy to discuss it with you. But my point in referencing this study is to argue that it is possible to do research that upsets people and we should be careful about overreactions to our work.
I want to say that the reaction to the Facebook study was out of proportion. And I hope that Jeff knows that we, his colleagues, are behind him. The reaction to Facebook, the company, also was excessive. I love a lot of the research that Facebook does. I’m not saying it’s perfect. There’s a lot that all of us have to learn about researching social media. And I will say there’s a lot we can learn from this incident. I’m glad it started these series of conversations. A couple of questions that I have for the future are: Should companies be required to have something more like a real IRB? That’s a tough one. It has a lot of complications. Distinguishing social science research from how companies do their business and make their sites usable is almost impossible. My other burning question, that I hope we can discuss, is should conferences and journals that do peer review also review the ethics of a study?
A while ago I reviewed an Internet-based study submitted to the conference, CHI. I objected to the ethics of the study, and objected violently. I was really offended by this study. I put my objections in my CHI review and I gave the paper a 1. I never give 1s; I’m nice. I got back a response from the program committee that year that the researchers had their study approved by their campus Institutional Review Board (IRB) and they proceeded in good faith; so, we declare this study to be ethical. Therefore, it’s not the reviewer’s place to question the ethics of the study. I’m not sure that’s how we should be handling things. I think we need to think about our ethics review as an incredibly complicated socio technical system, with tools and rules and divisions of labor and different activity systems run by different IRBs that come to different solutions. Somehow, there has to be some error correction when we come together to share our work. On the other hand, the practical question of how we do this without causing tremendous practical problems and unfairness in the meta review is difficult, too. So I don’t think it’s easy. But I don’t think the hand waving, “oh, it was approved, it’s not our business,” is the right answer, either. So I’m looking forward to more conversations from here. Thanks.
Thank you everybody for coming in today. Thank you Mary for organizing this. And for the fellow panelists for being part of this on pretty short notice. And thank you all for this morning. I’ve seen many colleagues and friends. It’s been great to feel supported and people reaching out to make sure I’m doing okay. It was my first experience with global worldwide Internet heat wrath, and it was very difficult. I will admit. My family paid a price for it. I paid a price, but I feel much better being amongst colleagues. Mostly because this is a really important conversation, and I feel now a privilege and a responsibility to be a part of that. I thought I would take a different approach from the rest of the panelists and describe a little bit of what I learned from the various e-mails I received from around the world in response to this. And I’ll keep it a little bit higher level, away from specific identities. Some of them are pretty intense. And I think that the intensity actually points to something important.
I received a couple hundred e-mails from people from around the world. The e-mails that I want to discuss with you are ones from the people using Facebook. This was their role as a stakeholder. These e-mails are distinct from those that I received from other academics with questions about ethical issues, around informed consent, around how IRB dealt with this, et cetera.
Facebook users’ emails tended to fall into three main categories. The first one was: How dare you manipulate my news feed! And this was a really fervent response—and very common. I think it points to something that Christian Sandvig and other scholars, thinking about algorithms and the social world have been taking up in their work. As Tarleton Gillespie puts it, we don’t have metaphors in place for what the news feed is. We have a metaphor for the postal service: messages are delivered without tampering from one person to the next. We have a metaphor from the newsroom: editors choose things that we think will be of interest. But there’s no stable metaphor that people hold for what the news feed is. I think this is a really important thing. I’m not sure whether this means we need to bring in an education component to help people understand that their news feeds are altered all the time by Facebook? but the huge number of e-mails about people’s frustration that researchers would change the news feed indicates that there’s just no sense that the news feed was anything other than an objective window into their social world.
The second category of e-mail that I received signals that the news feed is really important to people. I got a number of e-mails saying things like: “You know my good friend’s father just died. And if I didn’t have the news feed I may not have known about it.” This surfaced a theme that the news isn’t just about what people are having for breakfast or all the typical mass media put-downs of Twitter and Facebook. Rather, this thing that emerged about seven years ago [Facebook] is now really important to people’s lives. It’s central and integrated in their lives. And that was really important for me to understand. That was one of the things that caught me off guard, even though maybe in hindsight it shouldn’t have.
The last category of e-mail that I received: A lot of people asked me why I thought this study attracted this kind of attention and controversy, whereas other similar studies did not. I thought a lot about that. One of the things that came out of the e-mails is that, as Christian Sandvig argued earlier, we were looking at the wrong place for what would register as “harm.” People have a very strong sense of autonomy. We know that quite well from social psychology and from sociology. I think our study violated people’s sense of autonomy and the fact that they do not want their emotions manipulated or mood controlled. And I think it’s a separate issue whether we think emotions are being manipulated all the time, through advertising, et cetera. What became very clear in the e-mail was that emotions are special. And I think it’s one example of a class of things that will fall into some of the spaces that Christian Sandvig talked about. If we work on one of these special classes or categories of human experience, like emotion, without informed consent, without debriefing, we could do larger harm than just harm to participants.
I can now have some sense of humor around some of the hate mail. And it’s been an amazing learning experience for me. I hope that by turning it over to the floor here and having ongoing conversations, we can really move things forward. My burning question would be: I think that this is a huge turning point or advance for social sciences potentially in the same way that, say, evolutionary theory was important for biology or the microscope was for chemistry. And I would want us to think about how we would continue doing the research on social media platforms ethically. So in the same way that Stanley Milgram’s study caused us to rethink what ethical research practices are, in the same way that Amy Bruckman’s calling on us to return to reflecting on how we do Internet research, now that we can do social psychology essentially at scale, how do we bring ethics along with that?
MARY L. GRAY:
I think what we can do concretely, with the time we have left — we have a little bit of time remaining. But I think the most productive thing we could do, I would argue, is get a lot of questions on the table. Because we are recording this, I can get a transcript and we can collect all the questions. And I would honestly say I don’t really listen to anybody who tells me right now they have the answer, because we’ve only been studying this thing for about ten years. This is entirely new to us. I don’t know that our objective should be answering anything today. I think we should be listening to each other, hearing our concerns and hearing some really important questions. So with that in mind, let’s hear some questions.
Questions and comments generated by the audience:
- Where do you think this [conversation about what to do next] should happen? I don’t think it’s just a matter of us having a special issue of a journal and people publish their opinions, and I know that stuff like that is happening. But it feels like we have to have some real dialogue. Who are the people who you think need to be involved in these conversations and where do you think some of these conversations can happen?
- I think the value of this experiment and the reaction to it is that it has raised the awareness of the algorithmic power that these organizations [social media companies] have. What is the responsibility of the Facebooks and the Googles of the world to be aware of this?
- Do we all agree that corporations have a role in this conversation?
- Information is being presented and it’s being manipulated [through social media interfaces] by definition. If you’re working in a mass medium with a corporation, you’re changing the presentation of information all the time. How do we draw any lines about this to distinguish what is ethical or unethical presentation of this kind of information?
- How can we take this up to be a national and an international conversation. I think we need to be thinking [beyond] the campus level. The variability among IRBs is hopeless because if one campus IRB has approved something that doesn’t mean that meets some national/international level of standard. How can we think about this internationally, since these are international corporations and international data we’re talking about. These aren’t just Cornell, Berkeley or UCLA data.
- For the most part Facebook is occupied all time by highly vulnerable populations. Even if there was an open consent process there, how do you know the populations there really would have been in a position to fully give informed consent?
- Could there be something that companies with social media sites actually do to let end users know this is or specify how they want their information to be reused or it’s like the organic food sticker on foods? Could we create some way to very simple allow people to say to us, “sure, go ahead, modify my stuff, or don’t touch my stuff” or something like that? Maybe there’s some trigger especially for anything that’s private.
- How, as industrial researchers, do we maintain ethical obligations to our subjects similar to those of academic researchers?
- As a community how do we agree, when we acknowledge they’re going to be many, many different partners, some industry, some academia, doing lots of kinds of research who’s responsible for the ethical treatment of human subjects and their data?
- I think if you have a Ph.D., perhaps part of that professional training should mean that we can assume that you can behave ethically until it’s proven otherwise.
- What is the argument towards industry [for tighter ethical regulation] that’s going to make sense? And number one is losing your customer base. I’m sure Facebook has taken a hit and every single advertiser has taken a hit because you’re going to think twice about clicking on the button. How do we speak to corporate organizations and convince them that they should change their actions?
- So I’m somewhat still puzzled by what you [Jeff Hancock] think about your findings. Do you really feel like you imposed some sort of negative valence on people that hurt them, or is there a lot of uncertainty here? And how is this different than the day-to-day interactions we have? Why is this special?
As someone who does work on online communities and spatial informatics, I’m very much aware of the extent to which we tend to use spatial metaphors to talk about web-based technologies. I asked around the Social Media Collective (including our mighty network of esteemed colleagues) for favorite critiques of the intertwining of space and the internet, and thought I’d share the list of sources here.
(written up with Nikki Usher, GWU)
Anyone tackling fieldwork these days can chose from a wide selection of digital tools to put in their methodological toolkit. Among the best of these tools are platforms that let you archive, analyze, and disseminate at the same time. It used to be that these were fairly distinct stages of research, especially for the most positivist among us. You came up with research questions, chose a field site, entered the field site, left the field site, analyzed your findings, got them published, and shared your research output with friends and colleagues.
But the post-positivist approach that many of us like involves adapting your research questions—reflexively and responsively—while doing fieldwork. Entering and leaving your field site is not a cool, clean and complete process. We analyze findings as we go, and involve our research subjects in the analysis. We publish, but often in journals or books that can’t reproduce the myriad digital artifacts that are meaningful in network ethnography. Actor network theory, activity theory, science and technology studies and several other modes of social and humanistic inquiry approach research as something that involves both people and devices. (Yes yes we know but these wikipedia entries aren’t bad.) Moreover, the dissemination of work doesn’t have to be something that happens after publication or even at the end of a research plan.
Nikki’s work involves qualitative ethnographic work at field sites where research can last from five months to a brief week visit to a quick drop in day. She learned the hard way from her research for Making News at The New York Times that failing to find a good way to organize and capture images was a missed opportunity post-data collection. Since then, Nikki’s been using Pinterest for fieldwork image gathering quite a bit. Phil’s work on The Managed Citizen was set back when he lost two weeks of field notes on the chaotic floor of the Republican National Convention in 2000 (security incinerates all the detritus left by convention goers). He’s been digitizing field observations ever since.
Some people put together personal websites about their research journey. Some share over Twitter. And there are plenty of beta tools, open source or otherwise, that people play with. We’ve both enjoyed using Pinterest for our research projects. Here are some points on how we use it and why we like it.
How To Use It
- When you start, think of this as your research tool and your resource. If you dedicate yourself to this as your primary archiving system for digital artifacts you are more likely to build it up over time. If you think of this as a social media publicity gimmick for your research, you’ll eventually lose interest and it is less likely to be useful for anyone else.
- Integrate it with your mobile phone because this amps up your capacity for portable, taggable, image data collection.
- Link the board posts to Twitter or your other social media feeds. Pinterest itself isn’t that lively a place for researchers yet. The people who want to visit your Pinterest page are probably actively following your activities on other platforms so be sure to let content flow across platforms.
- Pin lots of things, and lots of different kinds of things. Include decent captions though be aware that if you are feeding Twitter you need to fit character limits.
- Use it to collect images you have found online, images you’ve taken yourself during your fieldwork, and invite the communities you are working with to contribute.
- Backup and export things once in a while for safe keeping. There is no built-in export function, but there are a wide variety of hacks and workarounds for transporting your archive.
What You Get
- Pinterest makes it easy to track the progress of the image data you gather. You may find yourself taking more photos in the field because they can be easily arranged, saved and categorized.
- Using it regularly adds another level of data as photos and documents captured on phone and then added on Pinterest can be quickly field captioned and then re-catalogued, giving you a chance to review the visual and built environment of your field site and interrogate your observations afresh.
- Visually-enhanced constant comparative methods: post-data collection, you can go beyond notes to images and captions that are easily scanned for patterns and points of divergence. This may be going far beyond what Glaser and Strauss had imagined, of course.
- Perhaps most important, when you forget what something looks like when you’re writing up your results, you’ve got an instant, easily searchable database of images and clues to refresh your memory.
Why We Like It
- It’s great for spontaneous presentations. Images are such an important part of presenting any research. Having a quick publically accessible archive of content allows you to speak, on the fly, about what you are up to. You can’t give a tour of your Pinterest page for a job talk. But having the resource there means you can call on images quickly during a Q&A period, or quickly load something relevant on a phone or browser during a casual conversation about your work.
- It gives you a way to interact with subjects. Having the Pinterest link allows you to show a potential research subject what you are up to and what you are interested in. During interviews it allows you to engage people on their interpretation of things. Having visual prompts handy can enrich and enliven any focus group or single subject interview. These don’t only prompt further conversation, they can prompt subjects to give you even more links, images, videos and other digital artifacts.
- It makes your research interests transparent. Having the images, videos and artifacts for anyone to see is a way for us to show what we are doing. Anyone with interest in the project and the board link is privy to our research goals. Our Pinterest page may be far less complicated than many of our other efforts to explain our work to a general audience.
- You can disseminate as you go. If you get the content flow right, you can tell people about your research as you are doing it. Letting people know about what you are working on is always a good career strategy. Giving people images rather than article abstracts and draft chapters gives them something to visualize and improves the ambient contact with your research community
- It makes digital artifacts more permanent. As long as you keep your Pinterest, what you have gathered can become a stable resource for anyone interested in your subjects. As sites and material artifacts change, what you have gathered offers a permanent and easily accessible snapshot of a particular moment of inquiry for posterity.
One of us is a Windows Phone user (yes really) and it would be great if there was a real Pinterest app for the Windows Phone. One touch integration from the iPhone, much like Twitter, Facebook, and Flicker from the camera roll would be great (though there is an easy hack).
We wish it would be easier to have open, collaborative boards. Right now, the only person who can add to a board is you, at least at first. You can invite other people to join a “group board” via email, but Pinterest does not have open boards that allow anyone with a board link to add content.