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Internet Research Ethics for the Social Age

New Challenges, Cases, and Contexts


Edited By Michael Zimmer and Katharina Kinder-Kurlanda

The continuous evolution of internet and related social media technologies and platforms have opened up vast new means for communication, socialization, expression, and collaboration. They also have provided new resources for researchers seeking to explore, observe, and measure human opinions, activities, and interactions. However, those using the internet and social media for research – and those tasked with facilitating and monitoring ethical research such as ethical review boards – are confronted with a continuously expanding set of ethical dilemmas. Internet Research Ethics for the Social Age: New Challenges, Cases, and Contexts directly engages with these discussions and debates, and stimulates new ways to think about – and work towards resolving – the novel ethical dilemmas we face as internet and social media-based research continues to evolve. The chapters in this book – from an esteemed collection of global scholars and researchers – offer extensive reflection about current internet research ethics and suggest some important reframings of well-known concepts such as justice, privacy, consent, and research validity, as well as providing concrete case studies and emerging research contexts to learn from.

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Chapter Ten: Living Labs – An Ethical Challenge for Researchers and Platform Operators (Philipp Schaer)


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Living Labs – An Ethical Challenge FOR Researchers AND Platform Operators



The infamous Facebook emotion contagion experiment (Kramer, Guillory, & Hancock, 2014) is one of the most prominent and best-known online experiments based on the concept of what we here call “living labs”. In these kinds of experiments, real-world applications such as social web platforms trigger experimental switches inside their system to present experimental changes to their users – most of the time without the users being aware of their role as virtual guinea pigs. In the Facebook example the researches changed the way users’ personal timeline was compiled to test the influence on the users’ moods and feelings. The reactions to these experiments showed the inherent ethical issues such living labs settings bring up, mainly the study’s lack of informed consent procedures, as well as a more general critique of the flaws in the experimental design (Panger, 2016).

While, to the general public, these kinds of experiments were a reason for outrage over the research practices at Facebook, the fact that nearly every commercial digital platform operator is implementing online experiments of many different flavors was not in the center of the still ongoing discussion. Next to social web platform operators like Facebook, search engine operators like Google or Microsoft are also known to massively invest into online experiments and living labs within their platforms and products (Buscher, 2013).

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