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?

Love in a time of fieldwork

Happy Valentine's Day. Let's Skype!

Super romantic.

I think about love a lot. Partly it’s a research matter: I’m looking into reproduction and family life in Russia, and certainly love is part of that. I’m interested in tracing ideas of love and family, what role romance plays in marriage (or non-marriage) and childbearing (or non-childbearing). I’ve read up on theories and histories of love, romance, and marriag. I’ve pondered how beliefs about passion and love relate to modernity in different parts of the world, and considered deep and lingering questions about the nature of love, its universality, how it is shaped by (or even originates in) culture.

But as I near the beginning of my fieldwork, I find myself considering love as an impractical matter. How does love fit into an academic life, and in particular an anthropologist’s life? Awkwardly, it seems.

I feel lucky to be in love. Of course life is unpredictable, the future unsettled, but we hold its possiblities in our imaginations, offer possible futures to one another as we talk. The immediate future, of course, is 1-2 years abroad, committed to focusing on research. E-mail and Skype make things easier; at least I’m no Malinowski. Imagine carrying on an engagement for years via letters shipped between the Trobriand Islands and England.

Dearest one,

This is an absurd and aimless life we are both living. I don’t know why you are there and I am here, and so much fuss and trouble and money goes just to keep us alive and going, when we are doing nothing else except living.

I think we waste an awful lot of our time and powers of concentration by jumping about from place to place in search of hypothetical perfection. […]

Goodbye, my far-off darling. Your Elsie loves you and again asks, what are we doing on Earth?

1921 Letter from Elsie to Bronislaw, written while they were living apart in the Canary Islands. [1]

Looking to colleagues and professors in my field is worrisome. Many are single or divorced. Few have children, and the ones who do seem a bit harried all the time. Many are in long-distance relationships, which feel like a hardship as a 20-something grad student; seeing full professors in their 50s and 60s who’ve never lived in the same city as their spouse is depressing.

And yet—there are those who make it through. The ones who suffer and survive the spatial rift of fieldwork, the ones who win the dual-hire game or who find other ways to make their careers compatible. (Even—gasp!—working outside academia.)

So a question for the holiday: How have you negotiated love in the time of fieldwork?

[1] The Story of a Marriage: The Letters of Bronislaw Malinowski and Elsie Masson. Helena Wayne, ed. New York: Routledge, 1995. P. 19

Poor blogging skills

It’s probably not good form to set up a new blog, write one post, and then go on vacation. By way of apology, here’s a photo!

The town of Segovia


View of Segovia, Spain from the top of the local impenetrable castle. It took a tight spiral staircase of 150+ steps to get to the view, so I hope you appreciate the trouble!