The troubles with studying Facebook profiles at Harvard

Many researchers would like to get their hands on SNS/Facebook profile data but one well-known dataset put together by Harvard researchers has come under fire:

But today the data-sharing venture has collapsed. The Facebook archive is more like plutonium than gold—its contents yanked offline, its future release uncertain, its creators scolded by some scholars for downloading the profiles without students’ knowledge and for failing to protect their privacy. Those students have been identified as Harvard College’s Class of 2009…

The Harvard sociologists argue that the data pulled from students’ Facebook profiles could lead to great scientific benefits, and that substantial efforts have been made to protect the students. Jason Kaufman, the project’s principal investigator and a research fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, points out that data were redacted to minimize the risk of identification. No student seems to have suffered any harm. Mr. Kaufman accuses his critics of acting like “academic paparazzi.”…

The Facebook project began to unravel in 2008, when a privacy scholar at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Michael Zimmer, showed that the “anonymous” data of Mr. Kaufman and his colleagues could be cracked to identify the source as Harvard undergraduates…

But that boon brings new pitfalls. Researchers must navigate the shifting privacy standards of social networks and their users. And the committees set up to protect research subjects—institutional review boards, or IRB’s—lack experience with Web-based research, Mr. Zimmer says. Most tend to focus on evaluating biomedical studies or traditional, survey-based social science. He has pointed to the Harvard case in urging the federal government to do more to educate IRB’s about Web research.

It sounds like academics, IRBs, and granting agencies still need to figure out acceptable standards for collecting such data. But I’m not surprised that the primary issue that arose had to do with identifying individual users and their profiles as this is a common issue when researchers ask for or collect personal information. Additionally, this dataset intersects with a lot of open concerns about Internet privacy. Perhaps some IRBs could take on the task of leading the way for academics and other researchers who want to get their hands on such data.

It is interesting that these concerns arose because of the growing interest in sharing datasets. The Harvard researchers and IRB allowed the research to take place so I wonder if all of this would have ever happened if the dataset didn’t have to be shared where others could then raise issues.

I understand that the researchers wanted to collect the profiles quietly but why not ask for permission? How many Harvard students would have turned them down? I think most college students are quite aware of what can happen with their profile data and they take care of the issue on the front end by making selections about what they display. The researchers could then offer some protections in terms of anonymity and who would have access to the data. Or what about having interviews with students who would then be asked to load their profile and walk the researcher through what they have put online and why it is there?

“Electronic justice” after Vancouver riots

Some online responses to the recent Vancouver riots (see here and here) are now being called “electronic justice“:

The more than 3,000 words posted online (replicated in full below) were called an apology and it seemed a remarkable display of contrition by a young woman caught on video looting a tuxedo rental outlet, wearing a Canucks shirt and a broad grin, during Vancouver’s ignoble Stanley Cup riot. But the screed that followed dished as much justification and vitriol as self-flagellation and regret, leaving many readers cold to Camille Cacnio’s reconciliation.

It is seen as the next stage in an emerging form of “electronic justice” that has accompanied the riot. The naming and shaming came first, a time-honoured way for a community to express dismay and disgust, as people posted photos of suspected perpetrators online. It was a modern version of the medieval stocks, when an offender was held in a square for public humiliation. It seemed a suitable response: a mob exposing participants in a mob; crowdsourcing v. herd mentality.

But the extent and viciousness of the online identifications and humiliation is causing discomfort as well. Self-appointed cyber sheriffs emailed the employers, family, schools of the suspects…

Christopher Schneider, sociology professor at the University of British Columbia, calls it “vigilante justice in cyberspace…. It is a very dangerous path we’re taking. It is quite unsettling. The role of social media in this is profound.”

I’m sure this could be tied to larger discussions about online anonymity and what people are willing to do online that they may not be willing to do in person.

I’m not sure what the lesson is for the woman who posted this long apology. On one hand, it sounds like she wanted to take some responsibility. On the other hand, she simply made herself a bigger target. Perhaps we could settle on this: beware what one posts and/or admits online.

I wonder what the “employers, family, schools of suspects” did when they received news of who had been involved in the riots. Without such emails, many might not have known who was involved. But regardless of how they find out, are these collectives obligated to take action?

If this “electronic justice” is dangerous, might we reach a point where authorities crack down? Already, more websites have become much more strict about what comments they will tolerate.

The location of the actual “Tally’s Corner” is revealed

Tally’s Corner is a classic ethnographic work:

It’s a remarkable book, an academic work – it grew out of Liebow’s doctoral thesis – that isn’t dry or boring. It’s an in-depth look at a group of men who routinely hung out on a Washington street corner in the early 1960s. These are poor men, flawed men, unemployed and underemployed men. But they are treated with respect. And although Liebow used pseudonyms, giving the men such names as Tally, Sea Cat, Richard and Leroy, they come across as flesh-and-blood individuals. When “Tally’s Corner” was published in 1967, the New York Times called it “a valuable and even surprising triumph.” The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) called it “nothing short of brilliant.”…

“Tally’s Corner” remains in print, has been translated into multiple languages, and has sold more than a million copies, an amazing feat for an anthropological text.

But there has been some confusion over the years about where exactly Elliott Liebow interacted with the men who were the focus of his study:

According to many sources, it was Ninth and P streets NW. Except Answer Man happens to know it wasn’t…

Liebow picked a location that would be easy to get to from his office and his home in Brookland: 11th and M streets NW in Shaw, a corner that had a carryout, liquor store, dry cleaner and shoe-repair shop. This is the first time the exact location has been revealed. “I feel free to say that because it’s no longer that street corner,” Harriet told Answer Man. “The carryout’s gone. That whole world is gone from that street corner.

It is often the case that ethnographic works conceal the location of the study as well as the identity of the participants. And it sounds like the location was only revealed now because the area has changed so much that no individuals or businesses could be identified at that corner.

I’ve had discussions with people about the exact location of ethnographic works, as if the location was some mystery that needed to be solved. The authors sometimes do a better job to conceal the location that others – it can often take quite a consistent effort. I feel like I have read some studies that try to use vague terms like “a liberal-arts college in the Midwest” but then later give enough clues (unintentionally?) for the reader to figure it out.

Depression in cyber-bullying vs. in-person bullying

Cyber-bullying has drawn a lot of recent attention from commentators, schools, and parents. A new research study in the Journal of Adolescent Health argues that in contrast to in-person bullying where both the bully and bullied are more likely to be depressed, in cyber-bullying, it is the victim who is more likely to be depressed. The research examined “7,500 students from 43 countries.”

The researchers argue this finding may be due to the unique traits of cyber-bullying:

A big reason for the depression could be that word spreads faster and more easily online: Blog posts, comments and e-mails can be written anonymously and readily copied and pasted, said researcher Ronald Iannotti, a staff scientist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Once made, such posts may survive indefinitely.

“Cyber-bullying goes on, it persists,” Iannotti told MyHealthNewsDaily. “So not only does it happen the first time you’ve seen it, but you know it’s still out there circulating.”

Unlike traditional face-to-face bullying, where there is a limited number of witnesses, cyber-bullying can have an audience of hundreds or thousands of online bystanders. The anonymity of the poster can add to the victim’s stress because there’s no easy way to get the person to stop, Iannotti said.

While this may explain why those who are bullied suffer more from depression, it doesn’t explain why the bullies feel less depressed when their bullying takes place online. Perhaps because they are able to remain anonymous and can’t feel any backlash or public pressure if no one knows who they are?