I have been involved in many conversations lately about ethics and new technologies. The words “ethics” and “new technologies” bring to mind issues like personal data and surveillance, evoking the fear that big brother is watching everything we do online. But it’s not just government and big business that might record our online activities. Social media provides researchers with fantastic new opportunities to study people: all those posts, tweets, YouTube videos, etc, provide vast quantities of data that is free and often publicly available for researchers to use.
I read an interesting paper on this topic recently by Michael Henderson and colleagues, “Silences of ethical practice: dilemmas for researchers using social media”. The paper reviews published studies that have examined young people’s social media practices, with a view to identifying the ethical issues that have been discussed and addressed by researchers working with this material. The review found that ethical issues were conspicuous in their absence. Data obtained from social media is often publicly available, so there is a typically an assumption that consent is not required (or cannot be obtained in any case). Researchers, then, rarely included any considerations of ethical issues in their published reports of these studies.
Henderson and colleagues convincingly argue that more consideration needs to be given to the ethics of conducting research in this way. “Publicly available” does not necessarily imply consent to use the data in research. In social media, there are blurred boundaries between “public” and “private”. Just because somebody posts something online does not mean they want or expect it to be used by people other than the intended audience. A person may share a photograph, video, or status update, but only expect it to be viewed by their circle of friends - not to be broadcast more widely.
Then there is the issue of “traceability”. If a researcher quotes directly from the data they collect online, the anonymity of the source will be compromised. Running the quote through a search engine could possibly identify the person who originally posted that information. If anonymity is to be preserved, then, quotes have to be changed or not used at all.
This issue extends beyond using data collected online. Protecting anonymity is becoming more difficult, as search engines become more sophisticated. The people and organisations who contribute to research are more likely now to have an online presence that could be linked to the information they share with researchers. I attended an interested presentation last year on the topic of “un-googling” publications, which addressed the issue of preserving anonymity in published research. More recently, Pat Thompson has written a blog post on this topic, in which she notes that questions of anonymity, consent and confidentiality “will become more and more tricky the more we amass digital footprints”.
In some research contexts it is not always possible or desirable to preserve anonymity. In one project that I have been involved in recently, many participants requested to use their real names - they want to be associated with their contribution to the research. This brings to mind issues of ownership over research data. Should participants have intellectual ownership over the words they produce or content they create for a research project? This can be particularly contentious when the research data consists of content people have created and shared online. They may have shared this for a particular purpose and a particular audience - not for the purpose of contributing to a research project. It seems that conversations about ethics and research using new technologies need to go beyond identifying strategies to preserve anonymity/privacy and consider some of the complexities of identity, ownership, and consent over the use of online data.
"Overall scholars tend to agree that through images, video, status updates, profiles, friend lists, visible conversations, tastes and interests, and comments that appear within their profile, social media participants present a highly curated version of themselves" (Schwartz & Halegoua, 2014).
How we manage our multiple identities in the age of social media is a fascinating topic, and it is emerging as a common theme across some of the research I’m currently working on. Last year my colleagues and I published a paper about the potential consequences - both good and bad - of making students’ university assignments visible on the social web. What happens when students are asked to keep a weekly blog for a university assignment, to collaborate on a wiki that is to become a resource for other students, or to use a foreign social networking site to practice their language skills?
Our paper examined lecturers’ experiences of implementing and managing assignments like these. While lecturers believed there were clear learning benefits from using social technologies in education, they also hinted at potential dangers of asking students to present their work - and, by association, themselves - online.
We felt this was an area worthy of further investigation and we are now examining students’ perspectives on the topic. Some people might believe that students would be nonchalant, or even enthusiastic, about using social web technologies at university. After all, they post everything about themselves online anyway, don’t they? What we are finding, however, is that students are more sophisticated and cautious about social media than we might initially suspect. They don’t always want to mix their personal online selves with their student selves. And this does not just refer to using sites like Facebook - they also have reservations about sharing blog posts with classmates.
Social technologies encourage a particularly personal and informal style of communication. People can feel, then, that they are sharing something of themselves, and not just their work, when using social technologies to support learning or work practices. We often hear how pervasive technologies are making our work lives encroach on our personal lives. But what about the reverse? When social technologies are used in formal settings - like higher education or the workplace - does it become more difficult to maintain boundaries between personal and professional selves?
This certainly appeared to be the case in the field study my colleagues and I report on in our CHI 2014 paper. In that paper we discuss how aged care managers used a new social technology to communicate with their clients. The social technology - a photo-sharing application used on an iPad - provided opportunities to strengthen the relationship between care managers and their clients by supplementing their normal communications. However, it also introduced new challenges, particularly with regards to separating personal and professional identities. Photo-sharing is an evocative visual form of communication. By sending photos to clients that documented their everyday lives, care managers were providing clients with a window into their world that would not normally be available to the predominately housebound older people they worked with. Introducing a social technology into this professional context meant care managers had to take extra care to keep their personal and professional lives separate.
We used the term "boundary work" to describe the deliberate strategies care managers employed in order to effectively use the photo-sharing tool without communicating too much of their personal lives to clients. The term comes from a book by Christena Nippert-Eng, "Home and Work: Negotiating Boundaries Through Everyday Life," published in 1996. It seems timely to revisit the findings reported in this book in light of the blurring of boundaries that occur now that social technologies have become pervasive in both personal and professional worlds.
Dr Jenny Waycott, Senior Lecturer, School of Computing & Information Systems, The University of Melbourne
Contact: jwaycott @ unimelb.edu.au