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The “publicness” of social media activity is also used to explain why we should not be overly concerned that the Library of Congress intends to archive and make available all public Twitter activity.In each of these cases, researchers hoped to advance our understanding of a phenomenon by making publicly available large datasets of user information they considered already in the public domain.
When asked whether the researchers attempted to anonymize the dataset, Aarhus University graduate student Emil O. Kirkegaard, who was lead on the work, replied bluntly: “No.Not to fan the flames on the social justice warriors.”I suppose I am one of those “social justice warriors” he's talking about. Rather, we should highlight this episode as one among the growing list of big data research projects that rely on some notion of “public” social media data, yet ultimately fail to stand up to ethical scrutiny.The Harvard “Tastes, Ties, and Time” dataset is no longer publicly accessible. And it appears Kirkegaard, at least for the time being, has removed the Ok Cupid data from his open repository.The final methodology used to access the data is not fully explained in the article, and the question of whether the researchers respected the privacy intentions of 70,000 people who used Ok Cupid remains unanswered.I contacted Kirkegaard with a set of questions to clarify the methods used to gather this dataset, since internet research ethics is my area of study.
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The “already public” excuse was used in 2008, when Harvard researchers released the first wave of their “Tastes, Ties and Time” dataset comprising four years’ worth of complete Facebook profile data harvested from the accounts of cohort of 1,700 college students.