Yan Chen was in Toronto again for Social Media & Society, this time presenting collaborative work that was initiated by French intern Camille Caesemaecker, from Agrocampus Ouest. This has led Yan to thinking about a new kind of landscape change using Instagram, after her hydroelectricity work: understanding perceptions of the Bay of Fundy dykelands versus the wetlands they replaced. Those dykelands are becoming ever more difficult to sustain under sea level and storm conditions associated with climate change, and some will have to be realigned and/or restored to salt marsh. This work based on four months of Instagram support the strong female pro-dykeland factor–concerned about culture and recreation–also found through Q-method a few years ago. Nice when triangulation happens.
I’m not on Facebook. Never have been. Or Twitter. Or Instagram. Certainly not SnapChat or any of those newfangled things. But as a social scientist I’ve increasingly found useful the data that other people make public in such settings. Some reasons are pragmatic. The public has become exhausted by surveys, and are too busy to participate in interviews and workshops, at the same time that environmentally minded graduate students have become increasingly less likely to have drivers’ licenses and thus less able to head out on field work to run them. Human ethics research boards are generally unconcerned with data that people voluntarily place in the public domain, allowing quick pilot work using social media across a range of topics and publics. If you take user agreements and settings literally and assume that those data have been volunteered, it is quite easy to be ethical by aggregation and citation, like you would any source. Finally, I believe there is very real understanding to be gained by using such data as proxies to understand human values, preferences, behaviours, and yearnings. My qualitative methods course finished up this week with presentations, and it took my breath away what insight the students gained over a month on topics as diverse as sexually transmitted disease infection, sustainable food conceptualizations, and human disturbance of migratory shorebirds thanks to posts on Reddit and Instagram.
So then comes the recent horrifying news over Facebook and its business model: unscrupulously selling access to large volumes of personal data to even less scrupulous companies like Cambridge Analytica. So what do I do now, besides a quick (and perhaps smug) wipe of the brow with relief that I did not aid in either Trump or Brexit? The furor suggests that many people, maybe even some of the same ones who so clearly cherish unknown followers, are not aware their data is available to people like me. They may not see my intentions differently than the infamous personality test that fed Cambridge Analytica, for instance if I advertise a scholarly survey via Facebook to target a very specific group not otherwise easy to capture. Moreover, how implicated might I feel if I paid them for that access, knowing now what kind of algorithms are driving that cleverness? Perhaps the lesson for researchers is the same as the lessons for social media users more generally; a somewhat Methodist moral that if something is effortless, there may be something wrong with it. Yet I will mourn the loss of access to social riches that will inevitably follow this news.
This week, Yan Chen, an MES candidate with our Energy project is presenting her work at the Social Media and Society Conference in Toronto. She is using Instagram to understand how young citizens feel about areas affected by hydroelectric proposals. In general, young people can be difficult to engage in conventional means by proponents or researchers of landscape change. Over the past year, Yan has collected geotagged Instagram photographs from the geographic areas around the Mactaquac Dam headpond on the Saint John River, in NB, and the Site C dam on the Peace River, BC. These are interesting parallel cases. The first is a dam that may have to be removed, the second a dam that has been approved for construction; both the third on their river reaches, of a similar size, inundated area, etc. She is coding the images to understand the lifestyle of young people in each region (leveraging the bias in this social media site towards the under-35), and how they might be affected by potential landscape scenarios.
Being a social media conference, the online abstracts allow individuals attending the conference to tag the presentations they plan to attend. Already, seven people have expressed interest in Yan’s ‘work in progress’ talk on this work tomorrow, including our own Carlisle Kent, summer intern on the HM project who is based at the Social Media Lab at Ryerson organizing the event, and that is behind the Netlytic software Yan is using in her work.