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.
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