I will be participating in an event held by the Association for Research Ethics at the University of Bristol in April, on the topic of ethics in social media research. A link to the programme is available here. As a result, I have begun to consider some of the examples of good, and less good, practice in ethical research that I have observed over the last few years. One particular instance stands out for me, and exemplifies the shift in approaches to social media research.

At a conference some time ago, an academic presented a series of slides featuring screenshots from Grindr, in which the users’ profile details were still visible. This caused a ripple of discomfort to go through the room, and questions were asked at the end concerning the ethics of reproducing personal data in this way. The academic in question clearly seemed troubled to think his approach was unethical, but also couldn’t see the problem of using material that he saw as in the public domain. His rationale was presumably that anyone could sign up to Grindr, and therefore anyone could see this information. But as the audience identified, seeing information is not the same as reproducing it and subjecting it to public scrutiny. This example demonstrates the current terrain within academia regarding social media research: perceptions of online data as being ‘public’ have shifted, and the subjects of online study now need to be accorded the same kind of ethical consideration that has long been mandatory for offline research participants.

The assumption that whatever has been posted online is ‘fair game’ for research was the result of two factors: firstly, the technological affordances of the medium, and secondly, a combination of attitudes towards online activity that variously positioned it as ‘non-real’ or as universally public. If something could be found quite easily online, it was thought that this visibility then authenticated all future acts of reproduction. The problematic nature of this stance was made evident in my PhD research, which focused on the rhetorical use of ‘choice’ in the victim-blaming concerning involuntary pornography. Victims were accused of having ‘chosen’ to make themselves public by taking and sharing intimate photographs, and therefore they could not then complain when these images were circulated more widely. Although this is an extreme example of the ethics of data accessibility, it nevertheless demonstrates the problematic nature of any social media research that reproduces material without taking due care to consult and protect the subject. Therefore as theoretical approaches to the Internet have become more sophisticated, these kind of attitudes towards online data have become unsustainable.

I have needed to carefully think through these issues whilst writing the ethical framework for the ethnographic project I am currently planning. Although I will be able to talk about the things I observe quite generally, in order to quote or reproduce any material gathered, I will need to gain full participant consent. After all, in a study that examines practices of photographic sharing, it would be wrong of me to approach the photographs people share online, whether in Facebook groups or on Flickr, as being automatically available for me as a researcher.