ethics social media technology

Is researching a Twitter feed ethical?

I just finished reading an article looking at the feasibility of Twitter as a form of academic conference discourse for non-participants (Ebner et al, 2010). Results of the article aside, which are useful in themselves, it got me thinking about the ethics of conducting research on a public conversation.

I know that Twitter is a public platform and as such, I believe that anything posted there is in the public domain (although I’m not sure what license the content of the stream defaults to). I wonder how many people tweet with the conscious knowledge that they are participating in a public conversation that anyone can appropriate for whatever purpose. Or can they? Does the concept of intellectual property even apply here? If I say something original in public, which gets overheard by someone who passes off that idea as their own, what recourse do I have? I first came across this a while ago when I heard of a publication of a book of tweets, which didn’t go down well with the original authors(?).

I also wonder what effect it would have if the researchers had informed the conference participants that their tweets would be aggregated and analysed? Would the posts have been more “academic” in nature as a result? Since we usually inform research participants of the fact that they (or rather their behaviour, actions, thoughts, etc.) are going to be studied, and unless the study is well designed, this knowledge will change their behaviour, it seems that this “unconscious” participation may provide a more authentic version of the conversation.

But is it ethical?

By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.