Today I have the great privilege of presenting the preliminary results of a research project exploring the ethics of Twitter-based research, co-authored with Nick Proferes, at the second annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics, hosted by the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

The abstract and slides are available below. Look for the full paper soon.

The Ethics of Twitter Research: A Topology of Disciplines, Methods and Ethics Review Boards

In the five years since its launch, the social networking and microblogging service Twitter has quickly grown to over 300 million users, generating over 300 millions tweets each day. By providing a simple platform for users to explain “what’s happening” in 140 characters or less, Twitter has become the Internet’s de facto public forum to sharing “pretty much anything [users] wanted, be it information, relationships, entertainment, citizen journalism, and beyond” (Dybwad, 2009). This sharing of information, relationships, entertainment, journalism, and beyond has made Twitter a cultural phenomenon.

Beyond the utility Twitter provides its millions of users, it also has emerged as a valuable resource for tapping into the zeitgeist of the Internet and its users. There is cultural and historical value in the information that flows across Twitter’s servers, notes Dylan Casey, a Google product manager: “Tweets and other short-form updates create a history of commentary that can provide valuable insights into what’s happened and how people have reacted” (Singel, 2010). Researchers have been quick to recognize the value in studying Twitter users and activities to gain a better understand of its users, uses, and impacts on society and culture from a variety of perspectives (see, for example, The Library of Congress recognized this importance of Twitter when it announced in 2010 that, “Every public tweet, ever, since Twitter’s inception in March 2006, will be archived digitally at the Library of Congress” (Raymond, 2010, ¶2).

The Library of Congress’s announcement clearly validates the research importance of Twitter, but it also prompted concerns about creating a permanent archive of tweets, and whether such a proposal was properly aligned with users’ understanding of how the platform worked and their privacy expectations. Even in broadcasting the news, the language Wired Magazine chose underscored the apparent transition from a fleeting existence for tweets to a newly instilled sense of permanence when it stated, “While the short form musings of a generation chronicled by Twitter might seem ephemeral, the Library of Congress wants to save them for posterity” (Singel, 2010).

In the wake of the Library of Congress announcement, increased debates over the appropriateness of archiving public Tweets for research purposes have arisen (see, for example, Vieweg, 2010; Zimmer, 2010). Particularly relevant are numerous questions regarding how academic research on Twitter has proceeded thus far, such as: What disciplines are engaging in Twitter research and what amount of scrutiny of research ethics is typical within these fields? What research questions are being investigated, what data is being gathered, and how? Are subjects notified or given the opportunity to opt-out of being studied? How are research ethics boards evaluating such projects?

The goal of this paper is to seek initial answers to these questions by surveying academic research that relies on the collection and use of Twitter data. The body of research articles to be surveyed includes over 200 scholarly articles, dissertations and theses from disciplines ranging from communications, political science, health sciences, economics and computer science, among others. In building this corpus, this project will create a topology of disciplinary approaches to research around Twitter, methods used to collect and analyze Twitter data, and accounts of research ethics boards’ oversight of these projects. Through this analysis, we will gain an insight into the current state of research on Twitter, providing a better understanding of the methodological and ethical challenges before us.

Works Cited

  • Dybwad, B. (2009). Twitter Drops “What are You Doing?” Now Asks “What’s Happening?”. Retrieved February 25, 2012, from
  • Raymond, M. (2010). How Tweet It Is!: Library Acquires Entire Twitter Archive. Library of Congress Blog. Retrieved February 25, 2012, from
  • Singel, R. (2010). Library of Congress Archives Twitter History, While Google Searches It. Retrieved February 25, 2012, from
  • Vieweg, S. (2010). The Ethics of Twitter Research. Paper presented at the CSCW 2010 Workshop on Revisiting Ethics in the Facebook Era.
  • Zimmer, M. (2010). Is it Ethical to Harvest Public Twitter Accounts without Consent? Retrieved February 25, 2012, from

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