Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Why design matters in social media research ethics

Curtis Jessop is a Senior Researcher at NatCen Social Research and is the Network Lead for the NSMNSS network

I’m playing catch-up a little bit here, but thought I’d share some thoughts on a presentation from Professor Woodrow Hartzog (slides here) at an ethics symposium I attended on 19th July hosted by the Web Science Institute.

The presentation focussed on the ethics of how our data are collected online, arguing that insufficient attention is paid to the design of information technology. Giving a number of examples of how IT had failed ethically at a design stage, Professor Hartzog challenged the idea that ‘there are no bad technologies, only bad users’, asserting that there is no such thing as neutral design.

Following this thought, he suggested that the principle of giving users control (e.g. over privacy settings) does not reflect how people actually use technology and can be overwhelming (managing all settings for all accounts), or even manipulated to disguise/protect true intentions. This principle puts too much onus on the user, when the responsibility should lie with the designers.

I think this is an under-considered area in ethics of social media research. When we think about ‘data collection’, we are more likely to think about how we get the data out of its original context, but there is of course a stage before that: when the data was collected by the original platform. As researchers we are unlikely to have control over the design of our ‘data source’, but to what extent should we be considering it?

My second thought was that a lot of these principles translate over to research ethics – the design of a methodology is not neutral, and giving research participants control is not necessarily sufficient (or appropriate). As researchers the onus should be on us to ensure the design is ethically sound and protects the participant’s interests.

Overall, this event felt to me more rooted in data science than social science; in the advance materials I received for this event, it was suggested that ‘Principles of informed consent and anonymity in this environment are no longer the answer’ and I can’t say I’m convinced of that. However, given the often necessarily inter-disciplinary nature of social media research, it is important that these perspectives are included and this did give me plenty to think about.

I should also say that the second keynote given by Professor Mireille Hildebrandt (slides here) which looked at the ethics of data-sharing through philosophical and legal lenses was excellent, as was the panel discussion in between. For more information on the event, have a look here, and there are a couple of other blogs from the event here and here

Friday, 19 August 2016

An introduction to tools for social media research - Registration open & speakers announced

We are pleased to announce that our next event, 'An introduction to tools for social media research' is now open for bookings!

It will be a full-day event run on Tuesday 11th October 2016, and we have lined up eight great speakers to introduce a mix of (mostly) free-to-use tools, demonstrating with real examples how they can be used in the analysis of a range of social media platforms. You can find out more information about the day and the speakers on our event page here.

Tickets are £95 for SRA members, and £115 for non-members. If you'd like to attend, please visit the SRA event page to register.

Look out for more information on the timetable for the day and abstracts for the individual sessions shortly!

The #NSMNSS team

Monday, 15 August 2016

DIY Research Methods for the Digital+Social Age

Masumi Izawa is an energy-efficiency consultant in Portland, Oregon, USA with a background in social media market research and environmental psychology. She is the lead author of a myth-busting journal article on the Hawthorne Illumination Experiments–the experi- ments synonymous with the “Hawthorne effect.” On the side, she blogs about  online  dating.

Friendster was all the rage back when I was being schooled on social science research methods in college. By the time I reached grad school and was studying social science research methods again, social media had become commonplace. It was also during this time that I began using social media and digital communication tools to complete grad school research projects, primarily out of efficiency and convenience reasons. This included using Facebook to recruit participants, Skype to conduct a focus group, an online dating site for a photo experiment, and Facebook to advertise a survey. Then after grad school, I joined a social media research group on LinkedIn and was spotted by the director of a future employer for a job as a social media and market research analyst. You could say that the digital+social sphere has had a pull on me.

I’m an advocate for developing and adapting research methods to the digital+social age. One of the best reasons to consider using digital tools and social media to conduct research is flexibility. Sure, digital+social methods currently lack the standards and rigor of academic research. However, digital+social methods allow flexibility in creating an original method unique to the research objective. At the moment, this flexibility in methods may be a better fit for real-world clients who have very specific and ever changing needs than for academia.

Moreover, the flexibility in conducting research using digital tools and social media can lead to innovative, DIY research. An interesting example of this DIY research can be found in online dating. If you’ve ever googled for online dating tips and stories, then you’ve probably come across many data mining, experimental, and ethnographic research conducted by regular members of dating sites who just wanted better results; so they developed their own method for answering their dating questions. One of these DIY researchers gave a TED talk about it.

Alongside flexibility in methods is the flexibility in recruiting participants using digital tools and social media. Perhaps the quickest and cheapest way to recruit participants nowadays is through social media. The market for smartphones and other mobile devices continues to grow, and these digital tools that are coupled with social media will be the primary ways through which many participants will be found and recruited. Research studies conducted in academia can finally recruit beyond WEIRD college students!

What’s possible with the current digital tools and social media? To convince you some more about the flexibility and possibilities of research methods, here’s a matrix of some of the adaptations and applications of methods I’ve come up with so far.

Technologies change and social media companies come and go. Conducting research
using digital tools and social media is understanding that communication and data
constantly evolve. And research methods should evolve too.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Consultation – Asking consent to link Twitter data and survey data

Curtis Jessop is a Senior Researcher at NatCen Social Research where he works on longitudinal surveys and is the Network Lead for the NSMNSS network

Next year, I, along with Luke Sloan and Tarek Al Baghal, will be running an experiment on the Understanding Society Innovation Panel to look at the feasibilities and practicalities of linking Twitter and survey data in a longitudinal context, and how they can be combined to improve the quality of both.

We will be specifically focussing on how survey data can be enhanced using social media data (for example by creating new measures, validating survey estimates or improving non-response adjustments) and how social media data can be validated using survey data. However, we are aware that such a dataset has a greater potential than this, so we are also thinking about the ethics and practicalities that may be involved in making this dataset available more widely.

This will no doubt be tricky – as far as we are aware it is unprecedented to attempt to link data in this way and make it available to wider set of researchers, and it is therefore difficult to predict what issues may arise. We therefore aim to be as open as possible about these issues; this will involve documentation of the choices we make so others may learn from mistakes we may make, but we would also like to consult with the wider research community at key points in the process:

  • Consent to data linkage
  • Social media data collection/linking to survey data
  • Data archiving

We are currently at the first stage – asking consent to link participants’ survey data and Twitter data. To an extent, by asking consent we are going beyond what many social media researchers may do, but by linking to survey data and aiming to archive, this changes the dynamic somewhat.

There are constraints to what we can do: the survey will be administered in web, telephone or face-to-face modes, so the process must work in all contexts. There is also limited questionnaire space, so we cannot add any more questions, and we also need to consider burden on the participant – a large amount of information may overwhelm and leave them less informed.

Below, I have outlined the template for the three questions we would like to ask. We are proposing to use ‘help links’ during the questionnaire to allow the participant to find out more information if they want it online, or an interviewer to answer questions in an interviewer-administered mode:

Q1 [Ask All]
Do you have a personal Twitter account?
1. Yes
2. No

Q2 [IF Q1 = Yes]
We are interested in being able to link people’s answers to this survey to the ways in which they use Twitter. We would also like to know who uses Twitter.

We will not use your tweets to identify you in any way and your Twitter information will be treated as confidential and given the same protections as your interview data. Your Twitter name, and any information that would allow you to be identified would not be published.

HELP SCREEN: What data will you collect from my Twitter account?
HELP SCREEN: What will the data be used for?
HELP SCREEN: Who will be able to access the linked data?
HELP SCREEN: What will you do to protect my data?

Are you willing to tell me the name of your personal Twitter account and for your Twitter information to be linked with your answers to this survey?
1. Yes
2. No

Q3 [IF Q2 = Yes]

INTERVIEWER: Please enter the respondent’s Twitter name here: [OPEN]

We would really appreciate any feedback you may have on what information we might include in these help links, or how we might change the question wording/ administration. If you do also have any thoughts that may not be possible in this context, they would also still be useful to hear so we can document them for others that may want to do this in the future.

If you have any suggestions, or would like to discuss this further, please do contact me at As we need to submit our final version of the question text to ISER by mid-September, please do try to get any comments to me by the end of August.