In discussions about types of online research that draw on text or images users post online, the question inevitably arises: what do they think? When people make posts to their own or others’ sites or blogs, to social media or online communities does it occur to them that researchers might take what they’ve written as data for scholarly studies– without consent or permission? Do they expect their posts are private, public, or do they care?
Over the last year I have had the opportunity to serve as an advisor to a NatCen-based research team who conducted a fascinating study on users’ views. Now the report is out and available for free download. Anyone planning to download or scrape user-generated data should read this report!
A few findings in particular caught my attention. One is that users spanned a continuum of awareness about online privacy. This point raises questions about ways we need to respect digital literacy of users when we collect posts and tweets. Another intriguing was that users said that their posts were incomplete and sometimes false. So should we trust data collected from posts? Users themselves questioned the quality of research based on the assumption that their writing was an accurate reflection of views. A third point was that they were much more sensitive about images, versus text. Not surprisingly, profile information was considered most sensitive while tweets or comments to public sites were less sensitive.
As a qualitative researcher, this study confirms my belief that the use of online posts as data can be fruitfully complemented with interviews that allow us to ask users to tell us what they mean.
What do you think? We’re scheduling a Tweetchat soon to discuss the report, so take a look and think about the points you want to discuss!