Last week, the news that Linkedin would be opting users into social advertising was met with a lot of warnings: “UNCHECK THIS BOX!” and “Linkedin thinks it’s Facebook!” were just a few. And it’s true — Facebook really has set the tone for opting users in to social advertising and third party promotions. In the marketing realm, another question circling around social media is whether or not “social listening” is ethical.
This short hand overview of informed consent is set out to protect users, who have a certain expectation of privacy. In other words, they share their interests because they believe those interests are being shared with friends. Just because the information is out there, they don’t necessarily know how it might be used.
For this reason, many users are against having to use their legal names online. Specifically, danah boyd recently argued against the Google mandate to use real names online, calling it an abuse of power and a way of silencing those who might want to adopt pseudonyms for privacy. Bernie Hogan also articulates the idea of user expectations and online vs. offline behaviors, writing “You are not online when you are in front of a computer – you are online when your actions are being digitized and networked. Online is on-the-record. Offline is off-the-record.”
Aside from the idea of establishing a “safe” sharing space (with privacy) online, MRS quotes the Nuremberg code (as any academic researcher had to memorize and understand thoroughly in order to go through Institutional Review Boards), laying out the principle of voluntary participation. That is,
“…The person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, over-reaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision.”
This is why doing academic research with children takes so much time — research participants have to go through many levels of consent in order to safely communicate with their subjects. Going through the IRB is full of red tape, but it’s there to protect participants and to prevent a slide down the slippery slope from “they pretty much understand” to “they don’t even know we’re watching.”
The other side of this coin, however, will show that users do volunteer information online, which is considered by many a public space. Digital MR writer Michalis Michael argues that the online space is a realm of performance, and that people use social media in order to be heard by the public. He writes:
“A garden can indeed be private; a public twitter account or a facebook fan-page is not. It is clear to the user, and if it isn’t it should be, that anybody has the right to read their comments and re-tweet (giving credit to the author) their tweets. As a matter of fact the writer in the majority of the cases, if not all, wants people to read their comments.”
Similarly, Ray Poynter argues that if researchers abide by “old” ethical standards, “…they will not be able to compete for business in most areas where market research is growing. This is because there will be no commercial benefits that will accrue to sticking to rules and ideas that nobody else does. To stick to out-dated rules simply provides a worse service for clients. Rules have costs, they only work when they also confer benefits.”
Dr. Annie Petit has also been following this topic and asking for research input on the subject. Through her account we found many arguments for and against setting standards, including a great post from Brian Tarran at Research Live, and also a link to CASRO’s call for comments on its draft for “guidelines that provide an ethical framework for research work performed within the unique formats, behavior systems, terminologies and varied privacy expectations of the social media space.”
So what do you think? Do users online deserve to know if they’re being listened to? Should they opt-in or opt-out of social listening? And what kinds of systematic changes would this mean for social networking sites and marketers alike?
About the Author
Elizabeth is an Online Research Strategist at GutCheck. She likes ghosts.