Imgur, Reddit, Twitch, Fark, and the Stack Exchange are teaming up to set standards for how research should be conducted on social sites across multiple platforms, the group announced today. The name of their new coalition will be fittingly called DERP, Digital Ecologies Research Partnership.
“So the idea of DERP came about because we were all interested in knowing what’s going on our platforms,” says Tim Hwang, head of special initiatives at Imgur. He says Imgur was seeing an uptick in requests from academics to study behavior on its site, but there was no protocol for how to handle these types of inquiries.
Imgur reached out to Reddit and Fark to see how they handled similar queries and ultimately came to the conclusion that none of them had the infrastructure to support research requests. The five companies resolved to each appoint a person to handling these requests, who would also be able to facilitate cross platform research.
One of the main goals in setting up this collective is to figure out best practices, such as how to determine which researchers to work with and how to anonymize user data. To help determine the way research will be conducted an affiliate fellowship program is launching in tandem with DERP. Fellows from notable research institutions like Harvard University, UC-Berkeley, MIT, and McGill University will not only help members of the consortium but will also assist researchers.
Developing standards for research on the Web is a worthy cause, especially considering it can sometimes go awry.
“We can do research without falling into the unsavory pitfalls,” says Hwang. For reference on what unsavory pitfalls look like, please see Facebook’s unethical emotion manipulation study from earlier this year. Social sites like Reddit have an incredible wealth of information on human behavior, so it’s no wonder that researchers would want to tap into it. However, as with any study, consent and transparency are paramount.
Hwang says DERP is already differentiating itself from failed social media studies of the past. “DERP facilitates connections rather than opening up our data in a way that our users didn’t consent to. We give [researchers] access to whats available in the public API,” he says. He also notes that Reddit gives users the option to not participate in research studies.
The group is also committed to making the research results free and open rather than having that data hidden in expensive academic journals.
Public access to behavioral information is a very important aspect of this project and one that jives with the ethos of all of these companies. After all, shouldn’t study participants know the outcome of the study they participate in?
This is especially true when the studies are of a curious nature. One of the first projects the group will be exploring is why people are so interested in watching a fish play Pokemon on Twitch — an outcome I’m sure we’ll all want to see.