It is time to come clean; if you are reading this, you are participating in a social research experiment.
Did I ask for your permission? No.
Do I have an ethical clearance from an Institutional Ethics Board? No.
Is this ethical? Well that´s the question really. Let me try to answer that by giving you some background what I´m trying to do with this (unofficial) experiment.
What interests me as a social scientist, among other things, is how information,especially about drugs, travel via various digital mediums. Why does some content go viral while others remain almost unseen by the vast majority? How does one separate real news from alternative facts? Does popularity equal quality or relevance of the content? What for instance made you decide to read this blog post or watch the video? Because you know me personally or it was shared by a friend? Because the title captured your attention? You didn´t have anything better to do?
To recap the experiment so far, I uploaded my first Drugventures video on September 8, 2016 but I did not share it via Facebook/Twitter/this blog until the 20th of January 2017. During that time it was hardly viewed as nobody really knew it existed. When I finally had the confidence to share it with my own social network on social media, I tried to come up with a capturing title that would stand out from the Facebook news feed (went for “Stop the Press! Everything you know about drugs is wrong!”). I also assumed that people would be looking at their social media feeds due to the inaguration of D.J. Trump so people might have a bigger chance of seeing the post on their newsfeed.
I have to admit that for the first video I tried to use a strategy known as clickbait (although not sure how well I managed to that). I also asked a few carefully chosen friends to share the posting on their timeline to see whether that would have an effect on the amount of views and their geo-location. If it did, it was not substantial as I was especially trying to target North America and Brazil which did now show significant increases after the original posting was shared by my friends (thank you for that btw). I was however pleasantly surprised about the overall view count of the blog on the first day (N=215), especially in my native country Finland (N=160), despite that fact that I´m writing in English. Most (youngish) people in Finland have a good comprehension of English of course, but it does probably make some difference whether somebody wants to go through the cognitive effort of reading in their non-native language and it might great a barrier for some. I was also surpised about the variety of countries that appeared on the view count, albeit in very low numbers (e.g. Guatemala, Thailand, Australia).
The first blog post was liked, commented and shared on Facebook which kept the view account on the blog relatively high on day 2 (N=181) and still day 3 (N=50) before declining into few dozen views during the week. It didn´t however seem to have much of an effect on the actual view count of the original video, that was hyperlinked in the blog post.
The second video was also uploaded on September 8, and I wrote, published and shared the second blog post on 27th of January, exactly one week after the first one. For the second Facebook post I only mentioned that the second video was out and I wished a happy weekend for everyone. Activity on both Facebook and the view account on the blog was supstantially lower than the week before.
Now there might be variety of reasons for this. The original novelty of the whole project had already worn off; the content was not interesting and/or poor-quality; the title of the Facebook posting was not capturing enough; due to small activity (5 likes, no shares) the posting was not seen by many people because the algorithms of Facebook did not make it appear on people´s FB walls and it just sinked on everybodies newsfeed under more active content. But what if we go outside the social media environment with this experiment?
Even before posting about the first video I asked people to actively like and share the content through their personal FB account. Of course as the topic is drugs, which is a socially sensitive issue, I said that if people feel uncomfortable with that they shouldn´t do it. And as I later found out, some did feel uncomfortable about it. Not going into details what were the reasons for that discomfort, the point I´m trying to make is that activity on social mediums like Facebook is very much similar as activity outside of it. Likes, shares, comments and their lack off, says something about social relations. This might seem obvious to some but I think social scientists in particular should pay more attention to the dynamics of these relatively new digital environments and what kind of interactions we humans as social creatures display in them, as well as what we might not. The possible effects of social media content in even influencing election outcomes make the matter even more crucial for (social) scientific investigation. While we do that, the issue of ethical research arises. How do questions of anonymity, informed concent and other ethical issues fit into these environments? I would happily discuss these in the comments below or you can send an email to email@example.com
P.S. There is another confession at the end of this weeks video which is titled “The truth is…” confession from the film-maker. It touches on a topic that is discussed in more detail in Psymposia magazine as well as at the end of this little conference ethnography piece I wrote for the Dutch OPEN Foundation.
In the video, starting around 0.45, you can also experience in 360 view the insides of a small jail cell where staggering amount of people have been forced to spent enourmous amount of time for non-violent crimes due to current drug policies. This topic is explored in depth throughout this project.