Ethics and Research on Social Media – a case study

I recently completed a MOOC (Massive open online course), entitled Why We Post, run by UCL (University College London).  During the course, which looked at the use of social media around the world, the point was made that young rural Chinese use a social media site, QQ, as a means to discuss emotive topics with friends, without the awareness of their families (who tend to not use the site).

I made the comparison, during the MOOC, between this use of QQ and the way that an adult (kink based networking) social media site,, is utilised by a proportion of its users.  My own observations had previously shown users using the news feed and/or the area of their profile set aside for writing, to write about things that were important to them in their non-kink lives, as their family/work colleagues/non-kink aware friends wouldn’t see the posts – there have been (anonymised) complaints about family members, posts on health concerns, and discussions of jobs etc., on the understanding that, although there is a listening audience, the posts won’t be read by the subjects of the writing.

Having considered using these observations as the basis for my Social Media as Culture research report, I have realised a number of points from the paper ‘Social Media Research: A Guide to Ethics’ need to be considered.  Firstly, the terms and conditions of Fetlife state there is no permission to “use FetLife to do any academic or corporate research without the expressed written consent of BitLove (the parent company)”.    This would presumably include using even wholly anonymised data without written permission (which can be very difficult to obtain).

Secondly, users posting on the site can reasonably expect that “People seeing their data are likeminded (i.e.using the platform for similar reasons)” (Townsend and Wallace, 2016, pg.13).  Additionally, privacy settings on the site allow writings to be set to ‘friends only’ meaning those posting would not expect strangers to be viewing their writing.  Ethically, this would suggest that permission should be gained from each individual before using the data for analysis.  On a practical level, this may well rule out quantitative analysis.  However, as direct permission would need to be sought in order to proceed, qualitative analysis of a small group of consenting individuals may be possible, and could “provide a rich source of data that allow us to go beyond description” (Marwick, 2013).

Furthermore, the subject matter of Fetlife is by its nature emotive and sensitive.  This would suggest great care should be taken to anonymise any data that was used as part of research, ensuring that no individuals could be identified, directly or indirectly.

Ultimately, it may prove impossible to work directly with the postings on Fetlife itself.  However, other research methods may still be possible.  Anonymised on or offline interviews with individual users of the site are one option (subject to initial permission to make contact with users of the site).  There is the risk of a low response rate with this method (Marwick, 2013), but it can certainly allow for “the testing of assumptions” (Marwick, 2013, p.112). This method would, of course, still carry ethical concerns.  However, it may offer the best possibility for gaining meaningful research on a potentially important aspect of social media.


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