Should you do research with Twitter data? A Fireside Chat with @dhirajmurthy on his new book “Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age”

Should you do research with Twitter data? What are some of the limitations and possibilities? Are there any ethical considerations? In light of the recent firestorm over the Facebook mood experiment, these questions around how researchers should handle social media data such as Tweets and Facebook posts are more relevant than ever. In this fireside chat recorded in London earlier this year, Anatoliy Gruzd, Director of the Social Media Lab, talks with Dhiraj Murthy, Sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London about his recent book, Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age (2013)The interview was conducted as part of the launch of the new SAGE open access journal “Big Data and Society.”  In the interview, Dr. Murthy discussed some of the advantages and pitfalls of working with social media data.

For many researchers, social media is a rich source of behavioral data that can reveal how we communicate and interact with each other online and what that means for society as we speed towards the future. The interview reminds us that there is still no consensus on the proper ways to collect and handle social media data. There are many reasons why this is still the case. But at the root of these ambiguities is the fact that these types of data are increasingly coming from privately owned communication platforms; all controlled by a handful of very influential companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Linkedin, etc…Together, these companies control much what we see and hear online and ultimately how we might think and feel about any particular issue. Despite their reassurances and promise to “don’t be evil,” there is no legal guarantee that they will always put the rights and expectations of the public over their corporate interests. As it stands, social media companies are the final arbiters as to who can use the data and for what purposes. Consequently, academic researchers who work with this type of data will inevitable be caught in the middle.

In retrospect, the firestorm over the Facebook emotions study did raise a lot of good discussions and awareness about the consequences of diving into social big data. It shows that we can not always rely on the private companies to police themselves nor can we rely on disparate university IRB committees to serve as gatekeepers. To solve these challenges, researchers from both academia and industry need to work together to develop and implement policies that will ensure clarity around data-intentions. Above all, we need to develop a clear and transparent approach to handling social media data, one that will engender trust and empower social media users to make decision about their personal data. Without the users trust, everything else is moot.