14th October, 2014
…Or the Digital Ecologies Research Partnership, is a newly formed coalition between several large social image and news aggregation sites:
The coalition of these global social sites is designed to stimulate conversation towards the development of an international set of standards for research conducted throughout the growing number of online, social communities. Combined usage across these five sites sits at an estimated 500 million users. The nature of the sites involved in the partnership (social, gaming, alternative media sources, crowd-sourced news/current affairs) means there is likely a substantial number of cross-platform users, though potentially these users operate under a different pseudonym, portraying a different persona across each site – fun for the individual, not so much for the researcher.
DERP will move toward establishing an international standard for researchers throughout community communication platforms, where support for academic research projects has traditionally been hard to come by outside the major data-community players: Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram all come to mind. Many of the communities DERP represents through its alliance would be considered smaller, especially when compared to those behemoths, but consider Reddit’s 115 million unique users, or Imgur’s 140 million, and the scale of potential throughout these communities becomes apparent.
One key aspect of accessing the exabytes of data the massive social communities produce are in-house development teams working to sift through the massive datasets, usually alongside enthusiastic researchers, business people, or individuals with an interest in data. The DERP coalition will offer a different approach to accessing data produced throughout the numerous smaller online communities. Tim Hwang, Head of Special Initiatives at Imgur, noted a steady increase in the number of academic data requests to study site behaviour and patterns, but Imgur had no internal infrastructure to enable researchers access to the platform. Reaching out to communities of similar sizes – Reddit, Fark, Stack Exchange and Twitch – and realising that their academic research protocols were also non-existent proved the genesis of DERP.
As with nearly all mobile, digital and online research platforms, there are a number of important features researchers require to protect end users as well as themselves. One of the main goals of DERP is establishing an international standard for research conducted within large online communities, focusing on ensuring user data is protected and anonymised, developing methodologies for collecting and collating data, along with providing researchers a single platform for contacting the many online sub-communities that currently exist within these databases. The time for establishing an international standard for online, community research has certainly been coming. The wealth of data that sites such as Reddit and Imgur are host present an outstanding source for any researcher, whilst one only has to consider the malpractice exercised by Facebook earlier this year to understand that standards are required for the protection of all parties utilising the platform.
DERP realise that there will be continuing efforts throughout the research landscape to base academic studies in the myriad formats of social media and their associated communities. However, learning from mistakes committed in previous research projects, the group is also entirely committed to promoting the outcome of an academic study to the users who participated, providing a level of public access into the behavioural information discovered and ensuring an ongoing layer of transparency for the entire community. The provision of a single point of contact for researchers to begin site investigations should make it easier to access vital information that could yield a range of interesting findings throughout the social online community spectrum, with DERP noting that Stanford, Columbia and MIT, amongst others, have already begun interacting with and exploring the current range of accessible data.
Consider the current GamerGate controversy that has involved large swathes of Reddit, or the Twitch phenomenon of Fish Plays Pokémon and we begin to understand the scope of studies that can be accessed through DERP, through provision of an integrated community research facilitator and the potential for connectivity, diversification and most of all, research.