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    Friends, Lovers, and Social Media Experimentation: The Need for New Ethical Guidelines

    This summer, Facebook released findings from a controversial study. I blogged about my concerns. Less than a month later, OKCupid’s co-founder publicized his own company’s unethical experiments. What timing. The last six months, in fact, have been filled with troubling examples of data misuse and security leaks—think about it: Facebook, OKCupid, Heartbleed, Bash, and the breach of Apple’s iCloud and leaks of celebrity photos.

    The incidents have changed the tenor of the way we—and not just scholars and techies— think and talk about personal privacy and data use. Ello, a new social media platform, is even billing itself as the anti-Facebook.

    As someone who loves technology, social media, and the opportunities they provide, I have found myself more and more considering the ethical and privacy issues that arise in an increasingly connected, data-rich, and technology-reliant world. The issues are significant and we need to grapple with them. After the OKCupid incident, I extended my original post about Facebook, which I included below. If you are interested in reading a number of perspectives about the topic, the blog will also be in Social Media in Social Research: Blogs on Blurring the Boundaries, an upcoming book organized by NatCen Social Research and Sage. Their blog—#NSMNSS—is great too.

    Friends, Lovers, and Social Media Experimentation: The Need for New Ethical Guidelines

    I. Facebook doesn’t care about ethics, so why should you?

    The internet nearly broke when researchers published a new study, “Experimental Evidence of Massive-scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks.” Scientists, conducting a psychological experiment including approximately 700,000 Facebook users, manipulated news feeds to examine the effects of positive and negative posts. Researchers found that Facebook posts influence users’ moods; the general public and research community learned that Facebook does not care about ethics

    To conduct research, scholars must obtain approval from Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). The Facebook researchers neither obtained permission from an IRB nor received informed consent from participants. Instead, they used Facebook’s Data Use Policy to justify their methods. Data use policies and end-user agreements, if you don’t know, are those wordy and complicated messages that pop up when users join and dismiss within a few scrolls and a click. Anticipating backlash, the editorial board of the journal justified their decision by highlighting the import of the study and the fact that Facebook is a private company. The explanations raise more questions than they answer. 

    As evidenced by a dizzying array of advertisements running along the side of your feed, Facebook is a money-making enterprise. Their motivations differ from research universities. Timothy Ryan thoughtfully notes that businesses frequently conduct market research and commercial experiments. It is not until individuals translate private findings into public scholarship that issues arise. And, that is the major issue: Why is any group, regardless of industry, allowed to conduct unregulated experiments that may harm human subjects? 

    II. Move over Facebook, OKCupid loves unethical experiments too

    OKCupid, a popular matchmaking website, didn’t take long to provide a more egregious example of unethical practices. Less than a month after the Facebook controversy, they released findings from three studies. The most deceptive experiment included the company manipulating compatibility scores—in some cases, changing them from 30 to 90 percent—to monitor effects on interactions between matches. They emailed unknowing users the correct scores after the experiment. Like Facebook, OKCupid cited their user agreement as justification.

    Unlike Facebook’s experiment, OKCupid’s studies present dubious scientific value and perverse underlying assumptions. Facebook published their findings in a peer-reviewed journal. While the experiment undoubtedly helps the social media company, it also contributes to a body of scientific knowledge. The researchers did not obtain informed consent; however, they could plausibly argue that study benefits outweighed participants’ risks. There was a hint of beneficence. Capitalizing on the recent debate about the other experiment, OKCupid posted findings on OKTrends, their own quirky and entertaining marketing blog and used the attention to advertise an upcoming book. 

    Christian Rudder, OKCupid’s president and co-founder, published an unapologetic blog about the experiments. He justified the research, stating “We noticed recently that people didn’t like it when Facebook ‘experimented’ with their news feed. Even the FTC is getting involved. But guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work.” Rudder does not address ethics or informed consent. He invokes a coder’s ethos where curiosity, experimentation, and trial and error are key ingredients. He ignores a key fact: Data are people too, and tinkering with code could cause harm. He even belittles internet users, implying they are foolish to expect trustworthiness and transparency from companies. 

    Let’s think about Rudder’s point and extend it to a more accessible example. We all know that companies conduct market research. When I shop at a popular big box store, I understand that they gather data based on my shopping habits. They track my movements in the store and the impact of a new Transformers endcap on my purchasing habits. I also assume that what I see is what I get, that the store is not willfully deceiving me, and that any data they collect will be anonymous, unless I provide informed consent. When I take my Cheez-Its to the checkout counter, I expect to pay the advertised price for a box of delicious cheesy crackers. According to Rudder’s reasoning, the store has the right to change the contents of the box and the consumer is naive for expecting otherwise.  

    Now, let’s think about social media correlates. Most of us know that websites monitor our browsing habits. During my wife’s pregnancy, we spent nine months searching for baby gear. I’m not surprised when I see Babies R Us ads splattered across my Facebook page; I get that. There are trade-offs on social media. If I sign up for a dating website like (which, incidentally, is how I met my wife), I expect that the premise and underlying framework are trustworthy. I take a quiz. Someone else takes a quiz. Then, the website uses a well-tested algorithm to match us. Based on the OKCupid scenario, I’m foolish. At any moment, I could find out that my wife doesn’t share the same political views as me; she doesn’t like watching football; and, she doesn’t care about my level of education. 

    Rudder’s comments are shockingly tone deaf given the current milieu regarding social media ethics and best practices. His lack of remorse or awareness—coupled with his book promotion—add a level of creepiness. OKCupid’s experiments seem an equal measure of loose ethics and slimy publicity. Unfortunately for Rudder, even though he dismisses critics, the FTC may be getting involved with OKCupid too.

    III. Analog Ethics in a Digital World 

    The 20th century provides numerous examples of misguided research that placed individuals at risk, from the Tuskegee syphilis experiment to Stanford Prison Experiment. In the United States, the National Research Act of 1974, which created the first national committee to establish ethics policy, was an important step towards protecting human subjects and limiting the potential for malfeasance. But, there’s more work to be done.

    As we enter the 21st century, emerging technologies and digital spaces provide new opportunities for abuses of power. I have read a few commentators argue that people have a choice. Stay off social media or get informed, they say. That’s a naïve and unrealistic perspective. Facebook and YouTube both amass over a billion users per month. Social media has become a significant part of our lives. Others argue that all social media companies experiment. Social scientists don’t understand and they shouldn’t stifle a new golden age for knowledge creation. The arguments echo previous examples when a few power drunk individuals made unsound decisions that influenced many.

    As social media companies accumulate more power and influence, we should demand increased ethical responsibility and accountability. They cannot reasonably expect users to waive all personal rights through some end-user agreement sleight of hand.

    The Facebook and OKCupid studies are important not just because of what occurred but also because of what they portend. Before we have truly lamentable examples of user and data abuse, policymakers need to commission a new set of ethical principles that meet the needs of the 21st century.


    Stats, Stories, and Policy Design

    In my last post, I mentioned Illinois’ new testing plan, which sets different testing standards based on student demographics including race and class. The policy oozes the flawed logic that has defined the accountability era: Statistics—and experimental and quasi-experimental studies, in particular—represent the gold standard of educational research. 

    Before you either tune me in or out because of the above paragraph, let me make a few points: First, I am not a qualitative zealot. I don’t hate statistics. Research questions determine methodology. The questions in which I am interested just happen to be open-ended and relate to “how” and “why.” 

    Second, rigor and scope—not methodology—determine the value of a study. How do we know what we know? And, how does the study inform social issues? In terms of rigor, qualitative researchers have not always provided compelling arguments to policymakers about the utility of their work. While some have attempted to develop standards, others have critiqued the epistemological underpinnings of the whole endeavor. Who wants to invite wet blankets to the policy design party when all they’ll do is philosophize? Policy is about doing, not thinking: Politicians want to know if they should or should not fund a reading program. Yes or no. 

    In terms of scope, policymakers have failed. Methods are tools to understand complex social issues. Each tool serves a unique function. Just as no one expects a hammer to saw, no one should expect an ethnography to inform policy in the same way as an experimental study. Policy designs, based on a limited scope of understanding, fail to account for the full bloom of social life. Imagine how we could improve implementation if policymakers combined the insights from a variety of rigorous studies. 

    Frustratingly, smart people are discussing the issue. The ever-thoughtful Mike Rose talks about the importance of stories to portray nuance and complexity. Thomas Pikkety, in one of the most hyped books from an academic press in recent memory, and a NY Times bestseller, rallies against pedantic, overblown statistical methods

    There seems to be an emerging consensus that stats only tell part of a story. And yet, researchers and policymakers motor along.


    Social justice and policy design

    Originally posted at

    A few weeks ago, I read about Illinois’ new testing plan. It includes a number of points. The most notable is the state’s decision to use different standards to measure achievement among student groups. By 2019, Illinois expects 85% of white students—compared to 73% of Latino students and 70% of black students—to pass the state reading assessment. In other words, some students will be held to higher standards than others. State officials have presented the system as an improvement to No Child Left Behind. Remember, NCLB required 100% of students to be proficient at state assessments (even though, test scores became a bit of a moving target).

    I don’t know how you interpret the convoluted new plan. I tried to consider all perspectives, but had trouble remaining neutral. In fact, the words “idiotic” and “racist” came to mind. I then attempted to explain the policy as some sort of affirmative action. However, affirmation action tries to reverse discriminatory practices—not create them—in order to provide opportunity. 

    Of course, Illinois state officials provide perfectly acceptable rationale. They even mention all of the familiar buzzwords. Data. Data. Data. Growth. Growth. Growth. And also, a few nods to poverty and after-school programs. Everyone can rest comfortably, they argue. The state’s low expectations are all backed by science. This braintrust, I’m sure, had nothing to do with the last policy iteration—the one that used to be touted as the next best thing and is now evidence they use to justify the new best thing. 

    My primary objection with Illinois’ reform—like so many across the country—is the degree to which it is divorced from common sense and the day-to-day lives of students. How does a mom explain why the state has different expectations for her child? What happens at the lunchroom when a group of friends try to figure out their test scores? And, why did the state create a policy in which the major accountability measure affirms current inequities, rather than eliminates them?

    We ought to be able to design policies that provide opportunity for all students.

    In my next post, I’ll discuss how research contributes to the problem and also provides a potential solution.


    Mentoring graduate students, part 2

    Originally posted at

    Discovery is central to graduate education. Students explore new ideas and challenge old beliefs. They practice complex skills and interact with an array of scholars. But, from reading a professor’s trenchant feedback to narrowing your dissertation focus, the process is not always glamorous. Here are a few resources to ease the journey:

    Purdue Owl APA Formatting and Style Guide

    Let’s start with some basic facts: APA guidelines are weird, quirky, and illogical. Here’s another fact: Every paper you submit should conform to the conventions. They provide the template for social science papers. When students deviate, professors notice. If you submit a paper that looks like an e.e. cummings poem, it won’t end well. I promise.

    APA publishes a style guide. However, there are plenty of free resources. Purdue’s Online Writing Lab provides the best.

    Tips: First, use the search box to find topics. If you’re looking up the rules for three levels of headings, rather than navigating through menus, search for “headings.” Second, check out the sample paper. It provides examples of some of the more unique conventions, like running headers.

    Education Commission of the States (ECS) and Politico Morning Education

    ECS and Politico send daily emails. ECS aggregates news reports. Politico reviews policy news. Read both to stay informed and to think about possible dissertation topics.

    Tip: Many schools, along with research associations and divisions, distribute updates via email. For instance, USC provides several news related updates. AERA’s Division J (edited by Pullias’ very own Dan Maxey) sends news about jobs, fellowships, and publication opportunities. Subscribe.

    The Chronicle of Higher Education

    The Chronicle serves two critical functions. First, the site provides a great mix of news and opinion about higher education. Second, it publishes job listings. Check the news to stay up-to-date. Read the blogs to learn from experts. And, peruse the job listings to get a sense of the current market.

    Tip: The Chronicle uses paywalls. To obtain full access, login through your university’s library portal.


    Many, many years ago (like five), Bill and I incorporated Twitter into our qualitative methods class. Some students wondered about usefulness. Back then, the social networking site felt a little bit like a high school Dungeons and Dragons party. The cool kids were few and far between. Now, Twitter feels more like a college house party full of unique and diverse people. Twitter is an essential tool for graduate students. Participate in chats. Communicate with top scholars. Follow people and organizations. Receive news and updates. Conduct research. Share findings. Extend your reach.

    Tips: Choose a professional name. Tweet regularly.


    Mentoring graduate students, part 1

    Originally posted at

    I love Shakespeare. No. Wait. That’s not quite right. I really love Shakespeare.

    As an undergrad student, I read most of his plays and all of his sonnets. I visited the Folger Shakespeare Library. I studied literary criticisms. I enrolled in as many Brit Lit classes as possible. And, I constantly thought about his lines and ideas.

    As a first-year English teacher, I assumed everyone shared my enthusiasm. Who wouldn’t want to read the greatest play ever written? It’s Hamlet!

    Teenagers. That’s who. Iambic pentameter and arcane words aren’t always the best attention grabbers. Rookie mistake. I quickly learned my lesson. For Shakespeare—and most of the texts from my former district’s dusty curriculum—the keys to engagement and learning were relevance and connection. My students wanted to know why something was important and how it connected to their lives. Once we answered those questions, more often than not, my students excelled. They began teaching me new things about The Scottish Play.

    My experience as a grad student and now professor has not been that different. While I love reading Durkheim, de Certeau, or Lefebvre on a Saturday night, I understood that that’s not everyone’s idea of a weekend well spent. Students have different motivations for attending grad school, and context really matters. My academic experiences as a part-time master’s student at Hopkins and full-time teacher in P.G. County diverged significantly from my experiences as a full-time Ph.D. student and part-time research assistant at USC. Similarly, my involvement probably would have been very different if I had kids.

    As a professor, I always try to remember my experiences as a high school teacher. At every step, I wonder: How can I connect the content to the lives of my students, and why is it relevant? I often use backward mapping. In other words, what will students need to write an excellent dissertation or become an outstanding school leader?

    Of course, all students need a foundational knowledge, even if that includes dense, obscure texts by brilliant French theorists. But, relevance should always be clear.

    In my next blog, I’ll discuss some basic resources that all beginning graduate students should know and use.