Culture, identity, ethics and knowledge creation in Social Media

Identity is a major research issue in the humanities – one might say that the nature of who we are, what it means to be human, is a fundamental question for the humanities. Increasing, social media has come to play an important part how we shape our identity and how we interact with other people’s identities in our daily lives. With the growing awareness of the importance of social learning, knowledge construction in social media is also an interesting research area. There are several problems for the humanities scholar venturing into research using social media – speed and ethics – which interact.

When the subject of your research was dead, either in the bloodbath of Act IV or on the guillotine, ethics wasn’t a real problem. For a digital humanities scholar engaging with contemporary issues, universities and funding bodies require prior approval of research projects involving living people. You might argue that the issue is not as important in the humanities as it is in, or example, biomedical science or psychology, but given the damage which can be done to someone’s good name in the publication of research findings, it can equally be argued that research ethics for the digital humanities cannot be an afterthought.

Since social media trends flare and die across the net in days, sometimes in hours, no research or ethics approval committee can possibly review and approve the ethics elements of any research plan in time to keep up. Any project tied to a specific trend, app, or hashtag which is conceived of as a bright idea after the trend has started is too late.

Therefore the research plan and it’s ethics component need to be thought of as a long term project, spanning a range of social media, including services not yet in existence. It has to be broad enough to cover a range of possibilities, and open to improvisation. Therefore the plan for gathering and archiving raw data, storing it in its original form, anonymising and encoding and then analysis needs to be in place, ready to roll out when some new hashtag flickers into life.

There are additional complications. Data protection laws allow gathering and storage of data only for limited purposes and times, and often with only with consent. Users who sign up to a social media service have to agree to terms and conditions for the use of that service, but few of those include agreeing to have your postings pillaged for academic research by a third party (although many include fine print that allows the social media service to do whether they like with your data for commercial gain!).

Some social media services are a virtual ‘public space’ like Twitter, but others are not – Facebook has some privacy options, even if many users don not understand them or use ten effectively. There are a whole range site with reviews like Amazon or Tripadvisor, where reviewers post brutal, nasty and damning reviews, often under pseudonyms. Others (Tinder and similar) are, in theory, private spaces but we can see how that can easily be violated – the recent posting online of Tinder unredacted screenshots profiles of athletes and others at the Sochi Winter Olympics is ethically questionable.

These spaces are open to all ages – We now know that even sites like Facebook which have a formal age policy can be beaten by users who lie. Therefore any research into identity, interaction and culture has to assume that the research team will come into some sort of contact with minors, and may well need to pass state mandated vetting processes. This is a potential nightmare, since social media is global, and state laws are not – but some claim global reach. If you were to apply for funding to an EU research funding programme for research on social media, it could be argued that the project should comply with both data protection and researcher vetting protocols in all the EU member states

Research in online social media spaces touches on the boundaries between our concepts of public and private space online, and how we chose to present different facets of our identity in different places, to different audiences, for different purposes. These are interesting questions for the humanities, and ones which the digital humanities needs to engage with because society needs reflective, thoughtful research on these issues, but the planning and preparation seems like a huge mountain to climb. It is even more frustrating when one knows that commercial firms and government agencies probably do as much social media research as they like behind closed doors with having to consider many of the hoop which academic researchers planning public research are required to deal with.

I am sure it would be interesting to see how Irish people use social media in comparison to how people in other countries use it – while there may be groups of people who attitudes to and use of social media is universal, I imagine there are also distinct differences between cultures. Ireland, being a small place where everyone knows everyone else, probably manifests different patterns of social media use to large urban spaces where real work community networks are weaker. For example, from talking to undergrads in my own College, it is clear that Tinder in Ireland is often used in ‘Eurovision’ mode where a group of people sit round looking at it and critically – very critically- discuss the possible matches as an group. This is very different to the original concept behind the app, but perfectly normal to people in our cultural context. It also shows how social media tools, by virtue of being kept simple, can be culturally neutral and more easily used across cultures.

While I like simple social tools for universal use, I wonder if we can we develop tools for tracking meaning, for semantic analysis of social media which would also apply to the problems of developing semantic analysis to make knowledge creation visible in social learning tools? Social media are an important part of personal and social learning environments, and developing simple protocols to leverage them will be an important advance in eLearning. Open research on how people use social media will be an essential part of achieving that goal.

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