Is facebook public?

OK, next.

NY Times article of a few days ago has me extremely interested on how this will pan out from an ethics perspective. New technological tool, new forum for conducting academic research, right? So here we have Facebook, the ultimate in social networking and a new means for data collection from participants unknowingly.

At my institution, participants are required to be thoroughly notified if “an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting research obtains (1) data through intervention or interaction with the individual, or (2) identifiable private information.” This, of course, is the case with Facebook. Any researcher who uses Facebook information fulfills both 1 and 2 above.

The article presents this “gray” area:

Although federal rules govern academic study of human subjects, universities, which approve professors’ research methods, have different interpretations of the guidelines. “The rules were made for a different world, a pre-Facebook world,” said Samuel D. Gosling, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, who uses Facebook to explore perception and identity. “There is a rule that you are allowed to observe public behavior, but it’s not clear if online behavior is public or not.”

Hmmm. is it or not? At least one institution has decided to make this black & white:

Indiana University appears to have one of the stricter policies. Its Web site states that the university will not approve academic research without permission from social networking sites or specific individuals.

As a researcher, yeah, it would be nice to skip the red tape and claim it’s gray, but on Facebook, I’m not convinced that it is public behavior…is it? What do you think?

2 pensieri riguardo “Is facebook public?

  1. although it gives an impression of privacy as a personal online diary, i am convinced it is a public forum because what ever is written is accessible not only to mates but also the broader community who may have interest in the activities taking place in such a network. to this end it becomes a public platform.

    this acessibility and lack of retrivability of text makes this platform one that has to be used with caution by students.

  2. Thank you for your comment.

    I agree that there can be many arguments made for Facebook as a public environment given that it is a medium of communication for the community at large (a form of mass media, if you will) and once a user joins the various communities (as users are inclined to do) or befriends other users (whether they actually know these other users or just virtual “friends”), they are in fact participating in public platforms. For research purposes then, in US academia at least, once we know the names of or have seen (even via picture only) & communicated with our research subjects (read “Facebook users”), that is, once anonymity of data no longer exists, we must have their permission to use this data in our research.

    When a user creates a Facebook account with a username & password, once these users join his/her academic communities (verified by institutional e-mail address), a user believes he/she has a certain “control” over the account and may select options to make his/her account more or less accessible to the community at large. So does to what extent, if at all, do all these safeguards render this a private platform?

    Is it simply now a case of “caveat utente” (let the user beware)?


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