Jennifer Lena is [filling in her Facebook status]

At Michael Zimmer’s website there is an on-going discussion concerning a study of Facebook users by Sociologist Jason Kaufman and his colleagues.  Quick summary: Kaufman et al are interested in using the basic attributional data on facebook profiles to address questions of cultural taste and social networks among an incoming class of  college students, and how those networks & tastes transform over their years in school.  The data collection procedures were cleared by IRB and the research is supported by a grant from the NSF.

Zimmer raises a series of privacy concerns viz the data.  He is concerned the secure server on which the profile data is saved will be breached.  He is concerned that it is possible to identify the “northeastern, liberal arts university” using the number of members of the incoming cohort, in combination with other identifying characteristics of the student body, noted in the research design and likely, in the results.  He is concerned that “all identifying data” has not been removed, since the array of characteristics (age, race, nationality, gender, major course of study) could, in combination, point toward such a small number of students that identifying the correct individual is trivial.  Finally, although Kaufman et al will require researchers who use the data to sign a terms of use agreement that prohibits them from IDing individuals, Zimmer is concerned these will be disregarded.

Jason has responded to Zimmer’s post (which has been updated in response).  In his response, Jason articulates the difficult balance we scholars must strike between sharing data so that we can encourage the replication of results (which then provides us with more confidence in them, and better knowledge about the world, either way), and the dangers of sharing data.  Jason argues that all the Facebook data is semi-private anyway, since users have selected privacy filter settings that allowed RAs to gain access to these attributes.  In a later response,  Jason suggests there is a similarity between the Facebook data, and that which we might gather through ethnographic methods–and queries whether we would require individuals observed “while sitting in a public square” to sign consent forms.

I think it is an interesting tangle of issues, and while I am suspicious of “OMG this is TOTALLY UNPRECEDENTED” type arguments, there are unquestionably new concerns, new boundaries now that we record private (semi-private, and public) information on the Internet.  I would urge you to head over there and put in your two cents.  [h/t] mp

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One response to “Jennifer Lena is [filling in her Facebook status]

  1. Pingback: privacy issues « orgtheory.net

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