Interaction in Social Networks: Some Tips for Collecting and Processing Information in Digital Spaces
Luis Alberto Peniche Moreno
February 2021 | Mexico
As sociologists, it is inevitable to think about how digital spaces and technologies affect social interaction. How we can collect and process the information that users produce on a daily basis through devices and interfaces in the digital plane.
Social networks have been established as information nodes that concentrate data on the daily activities of social actors. If a user is active in one or more interfaces, we can infer data about the person as cultural preferences or political positions.
This has led to the discussion on the protection of personal data and people's privacy in recent years gaining relevance inside and outside of digital spaces: to what extent is what a user uploads on a social network a private matter? Who has the rights to the information that circulates in an interface? What is the limit of access to information that a user grants to other users?
We definitely have a sea of information that tells us a lot about contemporary interaction through social media. But we have to be careful about copyright issues and respect for user privacy when collecting and processing information through digital interfaces.
This piece seeks to raise awareness about some of the problems that emerge when using networks such as Twitter, Instagram or Facebook to understand social phenomena. Some simple steps are also proposed to protect the information we acquire from digital spaces.
Personal data on the internet and the protection of sensitive information
When we create a profile on the Internet it is like a mask that we add to our self (Goffman, 1986). We condense information that allows us to interact with other people. What is relevant in one scenario may be irrelevant or disruptive in another, so in our social interaction, we use different masks as we move between situations.
Social networks have been placed as spaces for socialization in which people share information with other people through texts, sounds, images or videos. In performative terms, they are scenarios in which plots are developed that allow interaction between people through avatars and information flows.
To improve the interaction between users in social networks, computational algorithms intervene that compare people's information and group them by preferences (Bucher, 2016; Schroeder, 2018; Vaidhyanathan, 2018). Thus, users are encouraged to provide more information, to increase the effectiveness of the algorithms.
Events such as what happened by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica (Vaidhyanathan, 2018) have contributed to our concern as societies about the information we upload to cyberspace and the access that both public and private entities have to this information (Schroeder, 2018).
How to collect information safely on social networks
The rules of the game in a space define the situations and encounters between social actors. The interaction changes when they are modified, which creates uncertainty for both participants and those who observe it. People constantly upload information through their different profiles, the information with which we build one mask can harm another.
What a few months or weeks ago was allowed in a certain social network, may change when the terms of service are modified, especially regarding the use of images, sounds, videos and texts extracted from user accounts and websites. The sources that we use to support our inferences in digital spaces can offend or harm users in a certain space, or have a protection that we ignore by not being updated in the constant modifications to the rules of the game.
In sociology there is no perfect recipe. To reduce the risk of misusing sensitive or protected data, we can incorporate into our habitus a constant epistemological vigilance (Bourdieu et. al., 2007) that allows us to protect both our informants and our work.
The first step is simple. Stay updated on the terms and conditions of those spaces where it is intended to extract information for some investigation. Contact administrators or users with experience within the site that is intended to extract information to acquire permissions.
The second is more complex. It requires acquiring the consent of participants to publish the information. Adopting some of the criteria established by ethnography is relevant to this task. This methodology is closely linked to anthropology and stands out for the degree of participation of the observer in the cultural practices observed.
The social sciences, starting from theoretical frameworks prior to field work and periods of immersion shorter than those considered by anthropology, can consider the ethnographic approach as disruptive to collect and process information (Boellstorff et. al., 2012). However, its procedures include ethical elements that protect the information collected by the researcher during his field work.
Within the studies of digital phenomena, ethnography has developed a particular branch called digital ethnography, in which some sociologists have dabbled with interesting analyzes (Hine, 2015; Cora et. al., 2009; Gómez, 2012).
For an ethnographic immersion in a field such as social media to be successful, the researcher is required to create a transparent profile (mask). The researcher must provide references on his/her research, take advantage of hyperlinks to direct people to the institutes and research groups that support our research, thus disseminating the knowledge we accumulate and providing confidence to potential informants within cyberspace.
The use of legal documents that guarantee the informants the confidentiality of their data is key. It is required that the type of information that will be compiled is explained as much as possible (Cook, 2012). It is also important that the researcher maintains a communication channel with the informants after the field work, so that doubts and concerns can be clarified regarding the handling of the information that will be published.
It also requires constant mobility between digital spaces. The field in ethnography is not limited to a particular physical space. The observer must move with the flow of action of the participants. Social networks are the starting point that connect various sites and profiles through hyperlinks. You have to follow these information flows and keep an open mind; it is not known where an ethnographic immersion will end.
As Christine Hine points out: ethnography is an adventure. Sociology too. It is to be fascinated by discovering new environments and new forms of socialization. It requires to be flexible and to have the openness and diligence to track social interaction across various sites. Curiosity and a constant dialogue with people are required to identify the various forms that a social practice takes.
Boellstorff, Tom, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce & T.L. Taylor (2012). Ethnography and virtual worlds. A Handbook of method, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, USA.
Bourdieu, Pierre; Jean-Claude Chamboredon y Jean-Claude Passeron (2007). El oficio del sociólogo, Siglo XXI Editores, Argentina.
Bucher, Taina (2016). “Neither Black Nor Box: Ways of Knowing Algorithms”, in: Sebastian Kubitschko and Anne Marie (eds.), Innovative Methods in Media and Communication Research, Palgrave Macmillan, Springer Nature, Switzerland.
Cook, Catherine. (2012), “Email interviewing: generating data with a vulnerable population”. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 68: 1330–1339.
Cora García, Ángela, Alecea I. Standlee, Jennifer Bechkoff, Yan Cui (2009). “Ethnographic Approaches to the Internet and Computer-Mediated Communication”, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 38 (1), 52-84.
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Schroeder, Ralph (2018). Social Theory after the Internet. Media, Technology and Globalization, University College London, UCL Press, UK.
Vaidhyanathan, Siva (2018). Antisocial media. How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, Oxford University Press, USA.