Jonathan Zong: Hi. My name is Jonathan Zong, and I’m cur­rent­ly a stu­dent at Princeton University in the com­put­er sci­ence and visu­al arts departments. 

I care about the Internet. After all, I’m…kinda on it a lot? And we’re all here because we want to make the Internet a bet­ter place to be. And as many of the talks today have shown, exper­i­men­ta­tion is a great tool for find­ing effec­tive ways to improve the online experience. 

And actu­al­ly, exper­i­men­ta­tion is so com­mon­place on the Internet now that if you use a plat­form like Facebook you’re prob­a­bly part of many exper­i­ments all the time. 

So, what hap­pens if there’s an exper­i­ment that is mak­ing an inter­ven­tion that’s too risky com­pared to the pos­si­ble ben­e­fits? This hap­pened, for exam­ple, in the Facebook mood study, where Facebook altered users’ news feeds to show them more hap­py or more sad con­tent on aver­age, and mea­sured that users were more like­ly to post hap­pi­er or sad­der things them­selves depend­ing on what they were shown. And a lot of peo­ple were pret­ty upset about this. 

Consent & Accountability

So I bring up the Facebook exam­ple not to wag a fin­ger at them but to high­light what we can learn from the pub­lic reac­tion to this. Experimentation that does­n’t have pub­lic account­abil­i­ty is risky, because there’s no shared con­sen­sus about what val­ues are impor­tant for the research to uphold. So, in the case of Facebook’s study, the users weren’t informed before­hand that they were part of the exper­i­ment and there was no oth­er kind of exter­nal account­abil­i­ty to com­pen­sate for that.

So if you were try­ing to do some research like the kind that CivilServant does to improve online com­mu­ni­ties, how can you hold your­self account­able to the pub­lic? Because in online research, it’s not always pos­si­ble to get the con­sent of every­one involved in an exper­i­ment before­hand. There might just be too many users in your com­mu­ni­ty, or a vari­ety of oth­er rea­sons that make it impractical. 

Well, I’m a researcher at a uni­ver­si­ty, and what I would do is I would go and talk to an insti­tu­tion­al review board, or an IRB. Unlike Facebook, researchers at uni­ver­si­ties are required to have their research plans approved by an IRB before they can do the research, for eth­i­cal reasons. 

And what the IRB would tell you is that if you’re going to for­go con­sent for an exper­i­ment, three con­di­tions have to be true: The study must have min­i­mal risk. It must actu­al­ly be imprac­ti­cal to obtain the con­sent. And there must be a post-experiment debrief­ing. And debrief­ing is this process where after the exper­i­ment is over, users that were part of the exper­i­ment are informed about the exper­i­ment and they’re giv­en infor­ma­tion about what the exper­i­ment was for, what data was col­lect­ed… And debrief­ing serves this impor­tant eth­i­cal pur­pose by allow­ing peo­ple to ask ques­tions or even opt out of the research. And suc­cess­ful debrief­ing can real­ly empow­er peo­ple to make informed deci­sions about their involve­ment in research.

User inter­faces for debriefing

So, what if we could design user inter­faces that help us auto­mate debrief­ing and reach a large num­ber of peo­ple involved in these huge online exper­i­ments, and give them detailed infor­ma­tion about their involve­ment in research? 

This is a project that I’m tak­ing on at Princeton, under the men­tor­ship of Nathan Matias. And some of the ideas that we’re test­ing out are for exam­ple gen­er­at­ing tables that explic­it­ly show what data we’re col­lect­ing and show­ing this to par­tic­i­pants; explain­ing our results visu­al­ly, so that peo­ple can under­stand how the results impact them; and of course, pro­vid­ing con­trols for peo­ple to opt out of data col­lec­tion and remove them­selves from the research. 

Testing a debrief interface

So we’re cur­rent­ly doing a study to test these ideas about auto­mat­ed debrief­ing. And with the intent of sup­port­ing Merry and Jon’s work on copy­right enforce­ment, we’re ask­ing users on Twitter who received copy­right notices to imag­ine a hypo­thet­i­cal sce­nario where they were involved in exper­i­ments and pre­sent­ed with this debrief­ing inter­face. And we’re ask­ing them to give feed­back on whether or not they would find the inter­face help­ful to them.

And what we learn from this will not only tell us more about debrief­ing but also allow us to do things like fore­cast opt-out rates for sim­i­lar groups of peo­ple in the future. And just gen­er­al­ly get a bet­ter sense of peo­ple’s atti­tudes about research. And this presents an alter­na­tive to Facebook’s pro­ce­dure in the mood study by set­ting up this pub­lic account­abil­i­ty struc­ture that is based around this con­ver­sa­tion about accept­able risks. 

So I want to end on the thought that research ethics isn’t just a mat­ter of com­pli­ance but it’s actu­al­ly essen­tial to why we’re doing the research in the first place. Because we want to make the Internet a more pos­i­tive pres­ence in peo­ple’s lives. And togeth­er we can set com­mon pro­ce­dures and shared norms that can help us do just that. Thank you.