Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ethics, Social Networks, and Web 2.0

Earlier this week the Human Resource Planning Society hosted a convention on Social Networks and Web 2.0. Nat Welch (CFAR) and I co-led a session on "Organizational Barriers and Web 2.0: Don't just sit there; find something." Afterward we were part of a panel discussion on ethics, social networks, and Web 2.0.

Somewhere there is a joke to be written about the time when a lawyer, a computational sociologist, and a human resource director all answer questions from St. Peter about ethics. Playing the straight man in the joke, my conversation with St. Peter will be a discussion about informed consent. Do people in my life know what they are getting into, and can they exercise choice based on that knowledge?

In many ways, the "informed" part is far slipperier than the "consensual" part of this combination (e.g., dating). And so it is with social network surveys. Years ago I read Borgatti and Molina's framework for ethics and SNA, and their paper has been a trusted compass of mine ever since. Mostly, it reminds me to respect the privacy of my clients and their employees (i.e., to offer them informed consent). Based my experiences since then, I have made the following chart that summarizes how privacy and informed consent are so problematic in a network context:

Lack of Privacy in Network Surveys

Traditional survey

Network survey


1st-person vs.

Each individual reports information about himself.

Each individual reports information about others by name.



Responses are aggregated so that individual respondents and non-respondents cannot be distinguished.

The presentation of results reveals specific responses attributed to specific individuals.


informed consent
leap of faith

Survey results allow each individual to compare himself silently with the group average. Each individual can then decide what to share about himself with whom.

Survey results expose how each individual is seen by others. Each individual has no ability to preview what others have said about him before it is published.

For me the insight of the above chart is the separation of all three rows. Each of the them can be considered as an independent risk factor with its own unique set of mitigation strategies.

All the LinkedIns and Facebooks of the world are tackling these three issues head-on (and surely more that I have not thought of).

As for social network surveys, I am not aware of one that allows truly informed consent: the ability to preview what others say about you before consenting to publication of that information. Perhaps my readers can enlighten me.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2009 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.

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