Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Hubris, academic research, and ethics

I was in continuous disbelief as I read Zimmer's (2010) painstakingly precise smackdown of the "Taste, Ties, and Times" (T3) project's approach to research ethics. Wow. I just couldn't believe the hubris of the researchers. A point that really stuck out to me, was how the T3 researchers trumpeted how they got permission from the school and Facebook to access the data. Um, gee, don't worry about the actual students whose personal data you're snooping on. My god! I suppose when people are reduced to numbers, or thought of as simply data, then there is a greater likelihood that their concerns will not be considered.

I think the T3 case underscores how important it is to have outside perspectives check out your research. One of the researchers is quoted in Zimmer (2010) saying "we're sociologists, not technologists, so a lot of this is new to us" (p. 316). That realization should have instigated an attempt to get expert opinions on whether their privacy safeguards were sufficient. Instead, it is revealed that they did not consult any experts in privacy. Again--wow.

A lot of lessons to be learned from this. The T3 researchers would have been better off trying to learn from their mistakes, as opposed to arrogantly firing back at critics, saying that they did enough.

Works Cited
Zimmer, M. (2010). "But the data is already public": On the ethics of research in Facebook. In Ethics and Information Technology, 12, 313-325.


  1. The ethics of using Facebook profiles is really interesting to me. I agree with Zimmer that the T3 study violated the students' privacy - I think the big thing is that there are levels of privacy on the internet. Yes, people post that information knowing that theoretically anyone could see it, but they also post it on the understanding that it's only being actively shared with the smaller community of people who share their Facebook circles. I think it would be different than something like a blog, which is (usually) more public in the sense that it's meant for anyone to see. I'm still thinking this through though - I would be curious to hear other people's thoughts.

  2. I think there are two separate issues here. First, is the fact that there are various levels of privacy on Facebook, and since the T3 researchers used in-network students to compile posts, they violated the level of privacy that was supposedly guaranteed. Secondly, there is the notion of saying things in a public setting (i.e. the internet) and expecting those things to be consumed by a limited audience. This is a much greyer area, ethically, to me. On the one hand, it should be known that if you post something publicly online then it is fair game. And, well, it is. But on the other hand, I think of having a conversation with someone in a public place and having someone eavesdrop on it and then announce what you are saying. Obviously that is not acceptable.

    I know that the two scenarios I mention above are not exactly the same, as they occur in different arenas. My thoughts are a little muddled on this topic. But it is something I have thought about before, especially in relation to documentary photography--a medium which I love. I love documentary photography, but am often disconcerted by what I consider the subjects' invasion of privacy and exploitation. Now some would say that you don't have privacy in public space, but there is still something unsettling about the issue to me. Unfortunately I've got no answers, just muddled questions and concerns.

  3. Oh, I should also add that a big problem with the T3 violation of privacy was not just that they had access to posts that they should not have, but that they also had students' personal information from the university. I think the combination of the two is what makes the T3 study even more egregious.

  4. I like the example of eavesdropping on a conversation. I don't know exactly where the lines should be drawn, but to me there is a difference between making it known that you are in a public place recording information, and deliberately listening in on information that, while in a public place, is not believed to be overheard much by others.

    Absolutely the other issues are clear privacy problems - that makes sense to me. The issue of using people's Facebook information without their consent is more difficult to articulate, for me anyway.