Research on social networks raises formidable ethical issues that often fall outside existing regulations and guidelines. State-of-the-art tools to collect, handle, and store personal data expose both researchers and participants to new risks. Political, military and corporate interests interfere with scientific priorities and practices, while legal and social ramifications of studies of personal ties and human networks come to the surface.
The proposed special section aims to critically engage with ethics in research related to social networks, specifically addressing the challenges that recent technological, scientific, legal and political transformations trigger.
Following a successful workshop on this topic that was held in December 2017 in Paris, we welcome submissions that critically engage with ethics in research related to social networks, possibly based on reflective accounts of first-hand experiences or case studies, taken as concrete illustrations of the general principles at stake, the attitudes and behaviors of stakeholders, or the legal and institutional constraints. We are particularly interested in novel, original answers to some unprecedented ethical challenges, or the need to reinterpret norms in ambiguous situations.
As part of the upcoming NetSci2018 conference in Paris, I co-organize a satellite event that aims to foster interdisciplinary reflection on how methods from social science can be upscaled to large network structures and on how methods from complex systems can be downscaled to deal with small heterogeneous structures.
The idea is to reconcile two traditions of research that have remained separate so far. Sociology typically handles small but rich networks where a wealth of network attributes results from the complexity of the data collection design. Differences across nodes and edges enable to capture the social processes underlying network structures and their dynamics. Instead, the complex systems tradition handles large but poorly-specified networks. Assuming statistical equivalence of graph entities, a mean field treatment suffices to describe the aggregate properties of the network. Today’s network data-sets contain an unprecedented quantity of relational information within and between all possible levels: individuals, social groups, organizations, and macro entities. Such large and rich network structures expose the implicit limitations of the two above-mentioned approaches: classical sociological methods cannot be upscaled because of their heavy algorithms, and those from complex systems lose track of the multi-faceted nature of social actors, their relationships and their processes.
Our satellite event aims to move forwards, inviting an inter-disciplinary reflection and exploring ways in which these limitations can be overcome.
I co-organize this Satellite to the NETSCI2018 Conference in Paris, 12 June 2018. We are now accepting submissions of proposals for presentations.
Information on the Satellite
In traditional research paradigms, sociology handles small but rich networks where the richness of network attributes is derived from the specific buildup of the data collection process. In the sociological approach, differences among nodes and edges are key to describe network properties and the ensuing dynamical social processes. Instead, the complex systems tradition deals with large but poor networks. Assuming statistical equivalence of graph entities, a mean field treatment serves to describe the aggregate properties of the network. Today’s network datasets contain an unprecedented quantity of relational information at all, and between all, the possible levels: individuals, social groups, political structures, economical actors, etc. We finally deal with large and rich network structures that expose the implicit limitations of the two abovementioned approaches: the traditional methods from social science cannot be upscaled because of their algorithmic complexity and those from complex systems lose track of the complex nature of the actors, their relationships and their processes. This workshop has the aim of developing an interdisciplinary reflection on how methods from social science could be upscaled to large network structures and on how methods from complex systems could be downscaled to deal with small heterogeneous structures.
We invite abstracts of published or unpublished work for contributed talks to take place at the satellite symposium. We expect a broad range of topics to be covered, across theory, methodology, and application to empirical data, relating to an interdisciplinary reflection on how methods from social science could be upscaled to large network structures and on how methods from complex systems could be downscaled to deal with small heterogeneous structures.
Submissions are required to be at most 650 words long and should include the following information: title of the talk, author(s), affiliation(s), email address(es), name of the presenter, abstract. Papers or submissions longer than 1 page will not be accepted.
Abstract submission deadline is March 25, 2018. Notification of acceptance will be no later than April 23, 2018.
Fueled by increasingly powerful computing and visualization tools, research on social networks is flourishing. However, it raises ethical issues that largely escape existing codes of conduct and regulatory frameworks. The economic power of large data platforms, the active participation of network members, the spectrum of mass surveillance, the effects of networking on health, the place of artificial intelligence: so many questions in search of solutions.
Social networks, what are we talking about?
The expression “social network” has become common, but those who use it to refer to social media as Facebook or Instagram often ignore its origin and its true meaning. The study of social networks precedes the advent of digital technologies. Since the 1930s, sociologists have been conducting surveys to describe the structures of relationships that unite individuals and groups: their “networks”. These include, for example, advice relationships between employees of a company, or friendship ties between students in a school. These networks can be represented as points (students) united by lines (links).
Before any questioning on the social aspects of Facebook and Twitter, this research shed light on, for example, marital role segregation, importance of “weak ties” in job search, informal organization of firms, diffusion of innovations, formation of business elites, social support for the sick or elderly. Designers of digital platforms such as Facebook have picked up some of the analytical principles on which these works were based, developing them with the mathematical theory of graphs (though often with less attention to the social issues involved).
Early on, researchers in this field realized that the traditional principles of research ethics (focusing on informed consent of study participants and anonymization of data) were difficult to ensure. By definition, social networks research is never about a single individual, but about relationships between this individual and others – their friends, relatives, collaborators or professional advisors. If the latter are reported by the respondent but are not themselves included in the study, it is difficult to see how their consent could be obtained. What’s more, results can be difficult to anonymize, in that visuals are sometimes disclosive even in the absence of personal identifiers.
Ethics in the digital society: a minefield
Academics have long been thinking about these ethical difficulties, to which a special issue of the prestigious Social Networks journal was dedicated as far back as 2005. Today, researchers’ dilemmas are exacerbated by the increased availability of relational data collected and exploited by digital giants like Facebook or Google. New problems arise as the boundaries between “public” and “private” spheres become confused. To what extent do we need consent to access messages that digital service users send to their contacts, their “retweets”, or their “likes” on their friends’ walls?
These sources of information are often the property of commercial enterprises, and the algorithms they use likely bias observations. For example, can we interpret in the same way a contact created spontaneously by a user, and a contact created as a result of an automated recommendation system? In short, the data do not speak for themselves, and before thinking about their analysis, we must question the conditions of their use and the methods of their production. They largely depend on the software architectures imposed by platforms as well as their economic and technical choices. There is a real power asymmetry between platforms – often the property of large multinational companies – and researchers – especially those working in the public sector, and whose objectives are misaligned with investors’ priorities. Negotiations (if possible at all) are often difficult, resulting in restrictions to proprietary data access – particularly penalizing for public research.
Other problems arise as a researcher may even use paid crowdsourcing to produce data, using platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk to ask large numbers of users to complete a questionnaire, or even to download their online contact lists. But these services raise numerous questions in terms of workers’ rights, working conditions and appropriation of the product of work. The resulting uncertainty hinders research that could otherwise have a positive impact on knowledge and on society at large.
Availability of online communication and publication tools, which many researchers are now seizing, increases the likelihood that research results may be diverted for political or business purposes. If the interest of military and police circles for the analysis of social networks is well known (Osama Bin Laden was allegedly located and neutralised following the application of social network analysis principles), these appropriations are more frequent today, and less easily controllable by researchers. A significant risk is the use of these principles to suppress civic and democratic movements.
The role of the researcher
Restrictions and prohibitions would likely aggravate the constraints that already weigh on researchers, without helping them overcome these obstacles. Rather, it is important to create conditions for trust and enable researchers to explore the full extent and importance of online and offline social networks – allowing them to capture salient economic and social phenomena while remaining respectful of people’s rights. Researchers should take an active role, participating in the co-construction of an adequate ethical framework, grounded in their experience and self-reflective attitude. A bottom-up process involving academics as well as citizens, civil society associations, and representatives of public and private research organizations could then feed these ideas and thoughts back to regulators (such as ethics committees).
To understand how people form and reinforce face-to-face network ties at such an event, I fielded a questionnaire with the help of a committed and effective team of co-researchers. It is a “name generator” asking respondents to name those they knew before the OuiShare Fest, and met again there (“old frields”); and those they met during the event for the first time (“new contacts”). Participants then have to choose those among their “old” and “new” contacts, that they would like to contact again in future for joint projects or collaborations.
Interestingly, my good old pen-and-paper questionnaire still gives a lot of insight that digital data from social media cannot provide – just like a highly computer literate community such as this feels the need to meet physically in one place every year for a few days. Like trade fairs that flourish even more in the internet era, the OuiShare Fest gathers more participants at each edition. They meet in person there, which is why they are to be invited to respond in person too.
The OuiShare Fest brings together representatives of the international collaborative economy community. One of its goals is to expose participants to inspiring new ideas, while also offering them an opportunity for networking and building collaborative ties.
At the 2016 OuiShare Fest, we ran a study of people’s networking. Attendees, speakers and team members were asked to complete a brief questionnaire, on paper or online.Through this questionnaire, we gained information on the relationships of 445 persons – about one-third of participants.
Ties that separate: the inheritance of past relationships
For many participants, the Fest was an opportunity to catch up with others they knew before. Of these relations, half are 12 months old at most. About 40% of them were formed at work; 15% at previous OuiShare Fests or other collaborative economy experiences; 9% can be ascribed to living in the same town or neighborhood; and 7% date back to school time.
Figure 1 is a synthesis of these “catching-up-with-old-friends” relationships, in the shape of a network where small black dots represent people and blue lines represent social ties between them. At the center of the graph are “isolates”, participants who had no pre-existing relationship among OuiShare Fest attendees. The remaining 60% have prior connections, but form part of separate clusters. Some of them (27%) form a rather large component, visible at the top of the figure, where each member is directly or indirectly connected to anyone else in that component. There are also two medium-sized clusters of connected people at the bottom. The rest consists of many tiny sub-groups, mostly of 2-3 individuals each.
Ties that bind: new acquaintances made at the event
Participants told us that they also met new persons at the Fest. Figure 2 enriches Figure 1 by adding – in red – the new connections that people made during the event. The ties formed during the Fest connect the clusters that were separate before: now, 86% of participants are in the largest network component, meaning that any one of them can reach, directly or indirectly, 86% of the others.
Each speaker briefly presented a case study that involved visualization, and all were great in conveying exciting albeit complex ideas in a short time span. What follows is a short summary of the main insight (as I saw it).
The book tells the story of our discovery of these communities, their members, their daily lives and their social networks. Ours was the first study to go beyond just contents, and discover the social environments in which they are embedded. We explored the social networks (not only online relationships, but day-to-day interactions at school or work, in the family, and among friends) of internet users with eating disorders, and related them to their health. The results defy received wisdom – and explain why banning these websites is not the right solution.
Internet deviance or public health budget cuts?
It turns out that “pro-ana” is less a form of internet deviance than a sign of more general problems with health systems. Joining these online communities is a way to address, albeit partially and imperfectly, the perceived shortcomings of healthcare services. Internet presence is all the more remarkable for those who live in “medical deserts” with more than an hour drive to the nearest surgery or hospital. At the time of the survey in France, a number of areas lacked specialist services for eating disorder sufferers.
These people do not always aim to refute medical norms. Rather, they seek support for everyday life, after and beyond hospitalisation. These websites offer them an additional space for socialisation, where they form bonds of solidarity and mutual aid. Ultimately, the paradoxical behaviours observed online are the result of underfunded health systems and cuts in public budgets, that impose pressure on patients. The new model of the ‘active patient’, informed and proactive, may have unexpected consequences.
A niche phenomenon with wider repercussions
In this sense, “pro-ana” websites are not just a niche phenomenon, but a prism through which we can read broader societal issues: our present obsession with body image, our changing relationships with medical authorities, the crisis and deficit of our publich health systems, as well as the growing restrictions to our freedom of expression online.
The five papers in this peer-reviewed special issue explore the potential of visual tools to accompany qualitative and mixed-methods research. Visualization can support data collection, analysis and presentation of results; it can be used for personal or complete networks; it can be paper-and-pencil or computer-based. Overall, visualization helps to jointly understand network contents and network structures.
The special issue is freely accessible from all commercial (non-academic) internet providers.
I am lucky enough to be part of the organizing committee of the second European Social Networks Conference, which will take place at Sciences Po Paris on 14-17 June 2016. The EUSN conferences have been created to offer a single place for the European community of social networks researchers to gather, in place of previous national annual conferences; and has been endorsed as a regional conference by INSNA, the international association of network researchers. A first, successful EUSN conference was held in Barcelona in 2014.
Somehow, the European social networks crowd seems more diverse than the US-based core of scholars who gave life to INSNA and drove its development over time. While remaining affectionate to the INSNA format and philosophy (for example, by selecting proposals only on the basis of an abstract, to be maximally inclusive), the European conferences can afford exploring new ideas, and variants on classical schemes. In particular, this year, we are trying to enlarge patricipation and attract delegates from a wider variety of disciplines, beyond those traditionally most represented – the social sciences, mathematics, and more recently statistics. Hence for example, the keynote speakers will give a sense of continuity – we will have social anthropologists Miranda Lubbers and José Luis Molina, the organisers of the first EUSN in Barcelona, on “Ethnography and multilevel networks in the study of migration and transnationalism”. But the plenary speech is an opening to recent, relevant developments in computer science: Jean-Daniel Fekete of INRIA will talk about “Challenges in social network visualization: bigger, dynamic, multivariate”.
Submissions are now invited for paper and poster proposals (abstract only – deadline 16 February 2016). There are special thematic sessions and general sessions, and all fields are welcome. A prize will be awarded for the best poster – where all participants will be able to vote.
The day before the conference, 15 training workshops are offered into the theory, data collection, methods of analysis and visualization of social networks.
16 February: Deadline for abstract/poster proposals, and pre-registration opening
1 March: Registration opening
16 March: Notification to authors
18 April: Early registration closure
14 June: Workshops
15-17 June: Conference