Privacy and research in (digital) social networks

[Wordpress is having some kind of serious issues, so the formatting on this is absolutely absurd at the moment. I’ll try to fix it later when things are working properly.]

A fieldwork issue I need to work out: many of the political groups I’m starting to work with do most of their organizing, and a lot of their daily socializing, online. Not just online, but on Facebook, and Facebook’s Russian cousin VKontakte. Recall that Facebook is run by this guy:

Talking in San Francisco over the weekend at the Crunchie Awards, which recognise technological achievements, the 25 year-old web entrepreneur said: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.”
He went on to say that privacy was no longer a ‘social norm’ and had just evolved over time.(

Mmkay… So what to do when my research requires that I “socialize openly” with members of two groups which are adamantly opposed to one another? I’m just beginning this grand adventure, so I don’t yet have stories of consequences, but even the typical everyday porousness of Facebook privacy is troubling enough: what do I make of the new local friend who’s been been browsing my high school classmate’s wedding pictures? How wary should I be about interacting with one community or the other, given that my comments and questions on one page–and the group’s answers and responses–will become visible to members of the other group, especially if we “friend” each other? Will I be inadvertently exposing information meant to be internal or private to a wider, possibly hostile audience?

In a way this is a familiar concern for any social researcher, perhaps especially ethnographers, whose work is uncovering and publicly discussing the inner workings of social groups. Yet the immediacy of Facebook’s exposures troubles me; while the ethical concern is the same, as a practical matter the consequences of revealing a secret in a publication four years after the fact are a bit different from making that same secret public in a matter of moments. More important, the decisions about what to make public and how to release the information is controlled neither by me, nor by the people I’m working with, but by a corporation totally disconnected from any of the real social networks it claims to represent in digital form.

In short, it’s unfortunate that control over data is so far out of the hands of its producers. And if you have any suggestions for how to manage these issues in the field, please let me know.I toyed very briefly with the idea of creating separate accounts for each group I want to work with, which would also separate my “personal” profile from my “professional” profile, but it was simply too unwieldy. Not to mention that it immediately becomes difficult to separate these two spheres once you’ve made any kind of relationship with people “in the field.” When I go snowboarding with people I meet here, are they potential research subjects? Friends?


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