Last week I sent an email reply to danah boyd in response to her thoughtful post about the Facebook study. She encouraged me to post it publicly, but I was a bit scared by the viciousness and panic of the reactions. At the same time, I worried that the silence of people who do research in social computing (often relying on designing, building, and releasing systems for people to use) would be counterproductive in the long run.
Along with other colleagues in the social computing community who are writing their own take on this topic [1,2], my hope is that, together, our voices are heard along with the voices of those who have dominated the discussion so far, those whose research is mainly rhetorical.
So here is my (slightly edited) response to danah:
danah, I enjoyed your post. While critical, it didn’t have the panic tone that has bothered me so much from other articles. Also, I liked that it looks beyond the Facebook experiment itself.
I liked this part where you talk about beneficence and maleficence in research: Getting children to talk about these awful experiences can be quite psychologically tolling. Yet, better understanding what they experienced has huge benefits for society. So we make our trade-offs and we do research that can have consequences.
I liked it because it’s important that we do not throw out the baby out with the bath water. I do not want to see the research community completely avoiding experimental research in online systems. As a designer and someone who has done this type of work, I do want to engage in ethics discussions that go beyond IRBs and liability. I want to engage in discussions with my peers about the experiments I do. I don’t want to feel scared of proposing studies, or witch hunted like our colleagues in the Facebook Data Science team. I want to work with colleagues in figuring out if the risks involved in my work are worth the knowledge we could obtain. I also don’t want to feel paralyzed and having to completely avoid risky but valuable research. The way the Facebook experiment has been framed, feels almost like we’re talking about Milgram or Tuskegee. To be honest, this whole experience made me wonder if I want to publish every finding we have in our work to the academic community, or to keep it internally within product teams.
If anything, studies like this one allow us to learn more about the power and limitations of these platforms. For that, I am grateful to the authors. But I am not going to defend the paper, as I have no idea what went through the researchers head when they were doing it. I do feel that it could be defended, and it’s a shame that the main author seems to have been forced to come out and apologize, without engaging in a discussion about the work and the thinking process that it went through.
The other piece of your post that left me thinking is the one about power, which echoes what Zeynep Tufekci had written about too:
This study isn’t really what’s at stake. What’s at stake is the underlying dynamic of how Facebook runs its business, operates its system, and makes decisions that have nothing to do with how its users want Facebook to operate. It’s not about research. It’s a question of power.
I agree, every social computing system gives power to its designers. This power is also a function of scale and openness. It makes me wonder how one might take these two variables into consideration when assessing research in this space. For example, why did the Wikipedia A/B testing of their fundraising banner did not seem to raise concerns ? Similarly, this experiment on Wikipedia without informed consent did not raise any flags either. Could it be partly because of how open the Wikipedia community is to making decisions about their internal processes? I think the publication of the Facebook emotion study is a step towards this openness, which is why I think the reaction to it is unfortunate.