Facebook’s Terms of Use and implications for network researchers

I just posted this on the “Complexity and Social Networks Blog“, Harvard’s Program on Networked Governance:

The changes of Facebook’s Terms of Use were quickly followed by massive protests of thousands of users requesting to abandon those changes. The Consumerist Blog was one of the first to ask their readers to boycott Facebook and look for alternative ways to connect with friends.

About a week after the change, Facebook made the decision to revert back to their original TOS (from Sepember 2008) and now works with their lawyers and legal specialists to come up with an improved version.

For researchers the TOS are critical: not just for understanding how Facebook will use our own data, but we also need to understand how we can use network data to analyze emergent social structures and the way users create, maintain, or abandon their online ties. The current TOS leave us in limbo – not knowing what is allowed and to what extent.

To understand this better and to collect the wisdom of the social network analyst crowd, I recently started a discussion on this topic on the SocNet listserver. I am trying to find arguments that will help to explain my research interests to an Institutional Review Board. The discussion is still going on. A few highlights are:

  • Facebook does not allow research (or anyone) to store data more than 24 hours, which makes it difficult to clean, analyze and of course at the end publish the data.
  • Data needs to be anonymous (especially in SNA network data cannot be anonymous – we need to know what kind of actors are nominating other actors and longitudinal data analysis seems to be impossible).
  • So far I have identified three different ways to collect/use Facebook data, although at this point it is unclear how people can comply to the first two bullet points.
  1. Bernie Hogan at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, UK, has created a Facebook application available on iTunesU to analyze Facebook data (open iTunes -> iTunes -> Oxford University).
  2. Dataverse project at Harvard’s Berkman Center has made available Facebook data.
  3. Create an application or a group on Facebook where you can find a way to have people give their consent to collect data on their online behavior and contacts.

We have set up an informal meeting at the annual INSNA (International Network of Social Network Analysis) conference in San Diego to exchange some of the ideas and information available. In case you are interested in joining us – please email me at ines_mergel(at)yahoo.com. I will post an update after the conference in March.

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About Ines Mergel

I am Full Professor of Public Administration at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at University of Konstanz, Germany. Previously, I served as Assistant and then Associate Professor (with tenure) at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, NY. In my research, I focus on informal social networks in the public sector and the adoption and diffusion of digital service innovations in government organizations. I teach classes on social media management, digital government, public management, and social network analysis.

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