A Way Forward for Social Media Research

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Few would deny that technology and social media are changing the way we interact. People today can stay in touch with friends on Facebook, share vacation photos on Instagram, follow trends on Twitter, grow their networks on LinkedIn, and explore communities on Reddit. And people are staying connected wherever they go. The Pew Research Center recently reported that the percentage of U.S. adults who own smartphones has nearly doubled from four years ago to 68%. For U.S. adults between the ages 18 and 49 the figure is over 80%.

In her new book, Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in the Digital Age, MIT professor Sherry Turkle examines how technology is eroding our ability to meaningfully connect with one another. She argues that technology’s presence disrupts our conversations in subtle ways, and in the process we lose out on opportunities for deeper human interaction. She cites experimental research showing that the mere presence of a smartphone on a table when people are talking decreases their feelings of empathy and the amount of personal information they share. Professor Turkle does not argue that we boycott our devices entirely—she describes herself as pro-technology. Instead, she suggests that we make space for genuine conversation, uninterrupted by our devices.

Professor Turkle is not alone in warning of technology’s impact on human interaction. Studies have examined the possible link between the use of Facebook or other social media and envy or depression. But others argue that concerns are exaggerated. Madeleine George and Candice Odgers of Duke University looked at the effects of social media on teens and found little evidence of a negative impact—other than a disruptive effect on sleeping habits. Clearly, researchers have yet to reach a consensus on the effects of social media. If we hope to realize the benefits of digital connectivity while avoiding its potential harms, more research will be necessary. This research presents its own concerns, however. Many will remember the debate about Facebook’s collaboration with researchers to study the effects of showing users more sad stories from their connections.

But Facebook is not alone, as companies increasingly conduct data-driven research and consumer testing to tailor products and practices in the Internet’s crowded landscape. Such research could help us understand the impact of social media on its users and on society. At the same time, social media research often involves intimate details about people’s lives. Because companies need not follow federal standards governing human subjects experiments for internal research, this research has little ethical oversight and is rarely published. Thus, the ethical review that studies undergo is not clear and the findings they produce do not contribute to public knowledge.

To prevent unethical data research or experimentation, experts have proposed a range of solutions, including the creation of “consumer subject review boards,” formal privacy review boardsprivate IRBs, and other ethical processes implemented by individual companies. Organizations and researchers are increasingly encouraged to pursue internal or external review mechanisms to vet, approve and monitor data experimentation and research. However, many questions remain concerning the desirable structure of such review bodies as well as the content of ethical frameworks governing data use. In addition, considerable debate lingers around the proper role of consent in data research and analysis, particularly in an online context; and it is unclear how to apply basic principles of fairness to selective populations that are subject to research.

To address these challenges, the Future of Privacy Forum is hosting an invitation-only academic workshop supported by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation on Dec. 10, 2015, which will discuss ethical, legal, and technical guidance for organizations conducting research on personal information. Leading papers will also be selected for presentation at the workshop and for publication in the online edition of the Washington and Lee Law Review.

Sherry Turkle writes that we have “become accustomed to seeing life as something we can pause in order to document it, get another thread running in it, or hook it up to another feed.” Perhaps, with a way forward for meaningful research on social media and digital connectivity, we can decide whether the world Professor Turkle describes should be fought, navigated, or embraced.