Tom Webster, writing and speaking

An Existential Question About Social Media Research

Added on by Tom Webster.

Last week I had the honor of speaking at the Council of American Survey Research Organization's (CASRO) 35th annual conference in San Diego, on the topic of social media monitoring and research. It was a fortuitous time to have addressed CASRO, because the day before my talk, the Wall Street Journal broke the story that Nielsen BuzzMetrics had logged into a velvet rope community about mental health, and "scraped" hundreds of personal posts about coping with depression and other conditions in the name of "social media research." There are dozens of social media monitoring sites and services, all operating under the pretense that if you put your information out there, you should expect that it will be used. There is no longer an expectation of privacy, proponents of this sort of research will tell you, so one should never be surprised when this sort of "scraping" occurs with your data. If you want privacy, don't post online.

In my line of work, I do a tremendous amount of research on and about what everyday, average Americans know, think and like about social media and other emerging activities and technologies, and here is one thing I can assure you: the average citizen of this country might know that what they post on Facebook is potentially public, but they don't know just how much of their complete social graph, including location and income, can be strung together across numerous sites with little more than a couple of usernames, an email address and potentially a zip code. At some point, there will be an incident, possibly involving someone's child, and America will wake up to exactly how much private data they are leaking onto the Internet everyday. When that happens, Congress will get involved, and then we'll see if we really "have no expectation of privacy" or not.

Until that day, we are all relying on social media monitoring and research practitioners to police themselves. Where should they draw the line? One would have thought that, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart's famous line about pornography, that the line may be nebulous, but you know it when you see it. When major players like Nielsen openly cross that line, however, maybe the industry isn't so clear on this. Certainly, I think most of us can agree that what Nielsen BuzzMetrics did - creating an account to log in to a velvet rope community in order to scrape content - seems worse than simply scraping public tweets or blog posts, but until standards are set, activities will continue to live in the gray, pushing the envelope until the day Congress pushes back.

I see a lot of parallels here to the days of the Do-Not-Call legislation. Then, market researchers believed themselves immune to the DNC restrictions, but it only takes a few bad actors to paint any unsolicited call as an intolerable intrusion. Today, though market researchers aren't selling anything, the mere existence of the DNC laws give consumers license to hang up on pretty much anyone they want, affecting response rates and ultimately sample quality. So, too, will the actions of a few bad actors ultimately sensitize everyone to even legal social media research activities, unless proactive steps are taken to protect both the public and the interests of legitimate actors in the space.

So, it's wonderful to see that CASRO is showing some leadership (I expect no less), and has formed a task force to address privacy and ethics in social media research. CASRO is one of the true gold standards in our industry (along with AAPOR), and their inclusion of folks like Jeffrey Henning from Vovici and Annie Pettit from Conversition shows that they are treating the matter with the appropriate gravitas.

Here's the thing, though. Often, when an organization seeks to understand a new field or development, a task force forms and returns with recommendations, which the organization processes, votes on, and implements. The issue of privacy and ethics in social media research, however, is a bit larger than I suspect many in CASRO have really come to terms with. Note well the opening paragraph of CASRO's code of ethics:

Researchers have professional and legal responsibilities to their respondents that are embodied in the procedures of a research study. Underlying these specific responsibilities are four fundamental ethical principles:

Respondents should be:

a. willing participants in survey research;

b. appropriately informed about the survey's intentions and how their personal information and survey responses will be used and protected;

c. sufficiently satisfied with their survey experience;

d. willing to participate again in survey research.

The very first admonition of the CASRO code - that respondents be willing participants in survey research - is cast out of the window in social media research. One cannot conduct social media research in the way that it is currently practiced, in fact, without violating pretty much all of this.

In that sense, what this task force is really confronted with is not simply another garden variety set of task force-y recommendations - it's an existential question for the very future of consumer research, period. To incorporate social media research into what we do will require breaking more than a few eggs. To the good folks on the CASRO social media task force, I have but one word:

Courage.