I was delighted to be asked to give a keynote at Science Online at the British Library on Saturday 4 September 2010. Despite nursing a lurgy, I managed to talk with the attendees about about the implications of online social science research questions, and about the British Library’s forthcoming Growing Knowledge exhibition (for which I’m Researcher-in-Residence – for some coverage of that, see JISC’s Digital Content Quarterly (interactive .pdf version) and Times Higher).

My main argument was that we are currently in a golden age of research online, but that we must be aware of the potential dangers to the people behind the screens and not get carried away.

McBlawg 3.0 videoed the presentation in 4 parts. They are at the bottom of this post. But if you don’t want to watch, here’s the text:

Who are you? The little details to remember when gathering information about the people behind the screens

The Web and digital technologies offer huge possibilities for current and future generations of researchers. Here at the British Library, we are exploring these issues in a new exhibition, Growing Knowledge, opening next month. It intends to pose questions about the evolution of research, from idea generation to information dissemination. In amongst the hands-on pods that will showcase some of the future technologies that researchers will be integrating into their work process in the future – from the UK Web Archive to the Microsoft Surface to the technology behind the Codex Sinaiticus – is a deeper question: what can digital technologies really offer – in addition to our existing tools and practices – to the advancement of human knowledge?

As way of introduction to Growing Knowledge, here’s a video that showcases which issues we will be tackling.

Growing Knowledge: the evolution of research showreel from Matthew Shaw on Vimeo.

Now. That’s really rather nuts and bolts, very researcher-centric. But when we take away our motivations for using digital technologies for research, it becomes apparent that the web is ultimately a communication technology that connects people and, crucially, with each other. So now that we have a general understanding of what the tools can offer us, let’s focus on the people on the other side of the screens.

The web’s multitude opportunities for data collection can, as we know be used for an almost unlimited treasure chest of research questions. The ones I’m interested in are the social psychological ones: how can we understand more about who we are, by understanding what we do online? My interests stem from the realisation that we as humans project our own social and psychological baggage onto this agnostic medium. Why do we fall back on systems of governance that inevitably result in hierarchy – even in the environments that demand the most level playing fields (Wikipedia)? Why must we seek out rarity and ascribe value to artifacts that exist in an ecosystem that at its very nature is infinitely replicable (RMT)? Why do we seek confirmation of our own attitudes when an unlimited universe of new ideas is at our fingertips (cyberbalkanization)? What is it about us that inspires us to use the Web to recreate our offline selves when we can be free from age, sex, location, race, creed, politic and physicality (avatars)? Are these the essential building blocks of humanity?

The Web forces social scientists like me to face the person behind the screen. When I do my research, I don’t look at the connections between information, unless the connections are meaningful to the people who make them. I’m not interested in the technology behind the connections, unless they uncover something different about human behaviour than we knew before. How has the Web transformed our social interactions, and what does that mean for how we perceive who we are? What does it mean to experience identity online? What does it mean to have communities online? How do online friends and acquaintances influence us? And what does our increased reliance on technology mean for people who opt-out? These are inherently human questions that have less to do with the scaffolding and the structure of the Internet and the Web, and more to do with the political, economic, social and psychological features of us and our society in the 21st century. In short, I’m interested in the people, not in the technology. And, to coin a phrase, with that comes great responsibility.

We are currently in a golden age of research online. We have absolute freedom to explore, define, collect, analyse and distribute knowledge. Our only limits are our technological expertise and the size of our processors. But if we begin to factor in the human on the other side of the screen, we do begin to limit our opportunities. There are, as yet, very few human subjects guidelines for this medium. US institutions’ understandings of the issues are fractured and conflicted, European ethics boards are non-existent or irrelevant, and rest of world regulations – pertinent because this is an international medium – conflict with the ontologies of one another. And into this void, are people who are, frankly, taking advantage.

Now, they’re not necessarily doing this intentionally. Stanley Millgram didn’t realise just how effective his experiments would be on the conformity outcomes when he asked his participants to give increasingly intense-to- (so-called) fatal electric shocks to “people” in the next room. This resulted in harm to his participants. Philip Zimbardo didn’t anticipate his famous Prison experiment would be called off after three days because of the abuses his participants who were randomly assigned “Prison Guards” were meting out to the randomly assigned “Prisoners” – with similar psychological harm caused to participants. But because no-one was looking, social psychological research experienced a golden age of knowledge and discovery.

Scientists who conduct research online have a similar freedom – and therefore a similar responsibility – to the people behind the screens. We must be aware of the effects of the phenomenally fascinating questions we are asking. Virtual shocks can have exactly the same effect as so-called physical ones; just because they’re conducted over the Internet doesn’t make them any less effective. Here’s an example in context:

“Mostly voodoo dolls are amusing,” wrote exu on the evening after Bungle’s rampage, posting a public statement to the widely read in-MOO mailing list called *social-issues, a forum for debate on matters of import to the entire populace. “And mostly I tend to think that restrictive measures around here cause more trouble than they prevent. But I also think that Mr. Bungle was being a vicious, vile fuckhead, and I…want his sorry ass scattered from #17 to the Cinder Pile. I’m not calling for policies, trials, or better jails. I’m not sure what I’m calling for. Virtual castration, if I could manage it. Mostly, [this type of thing] doesn’t happen here. Mostly, perhaps I thought it wouldn’t happen to me. Mostly, I trust people to conduct themselves with some veneer of civility. Mostly, I want his ass.”

Months later, the woman in Seattle would confide to me that as she wrote those words posttraumatic tears were streaming down her face — a real-life fact that should suffice to prove that the words’ emotional content was no mere fiction. The precise tenor of that content, however, its mingling of murderous rage and eyeball-rolling annoyance, was a curious amalgam that neither the RL nor the VR facts alone can quite account for. Where virtual reality and its conventions would have us believe that exu and Moondreamer were brutally raped in their own living room, here was the victim exu scolding Mr. Bungle for a breach of “civility.” Where real life, on the other hand, insists the incident was only an episode in a free-form version of Dungeons and Dragons, confined to the realm of the symbolic and at no point threatening any player’s life, limb, or material well-being, here now was the player exu issuing aggrieved and heartfelt calls for Mr. Bungle’s dismemberment. Ludicrously excessive by RL’s lights, woefully understated by VR’s, the tone of exu’s response made sense only in the buzzing, dissonant gap between them.

from A Rape In Cyberspace, by Julian Dibbell

To ignore the offline emotional effects of online activity is to potentially cause harm to them, to their online relationships and to destroy the communities they have developed. It’s not enough to disguise the identity of a research participant by using an online handle, either; a community member’s reputation is wrapped up in his or her virtual persona and can be as exposing as devastating as using his or her real name. Beyond the research that actively engages the people behind the screens, data can be collected about them without their knowledge: search terms, social network connections, transcripts of chats, of forum posts, of @replies, link trails and surfing patterns create a well-rounded picture of an individual online. This is, frankly, the most exciting resource for someone like me to have access to: any activity online is the result of actual human behaviour in a naturalistic setting, not experimentally induced action. For online participants, the barrier between public and private performance is often forgotten, evidenced by the embarrassing indiscretions that occasionally make their ways through social networks or emails. But in addition – and uniquely to this medium – there is also an archive of the assets generated about individuals by other people of the person behind the screen: fan sites, photos and videos, blog posts, comments and tags create a 360 degree picture. In addition, the tendency for online participants to be more “open and honest” (Bargh, McKenna & Fitzsimmons, 2002) online, to activate more weak ties, and to treat search engines like Google like oracles or confessionals means that the data is profoundly rich for understanding human behaviours and intentions. This is now even more important to consider because of the mainstreaming of digital environments, thanks in many ways to social networks like Facebook.

Here again, the apparent wealth offered by digital research tools obfuscates the potential harm that may come from, for example, the false positives based on data-driven analyses.

Ultimately, my greatest concern with the Web technologies that researchers will use in the future is that they will create an abundance of profoundly rich binary code that will effectively depersonalise the human beings behind the screens. But if researchers like yourselves work with developers like yourselves to proactively consider the human experience that is facilitated by the machines, then we will not be guilty of creating the ethical breaches that – like Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s work – will seem unimaginable in twenty years’ time. The technology was built to connect people with information. What has happened is that it has connected people with people. As the greatest social experiment of our time, we must not ruin it for the future.

Thank you very much.