The past few months…even the past week, has been a LOT in the world of social media. The acquisition of Twitter resulted in a digital mass migration to Mastodon and other online places, disrupting online communities that were years in the making. Projects using Twitter for outreach (like us!) or data collection are having to rethink strategies and question the validity of data coming out of Twitter going forward.
Here at the Alexandria Archive Institute/Open Context, we’ve been thinking about our relationship to digital platforms too. One conversation that we feel it’s important to have, and to have publicly, is about the ethics of what we do and where we do it.
At AAI/OC, we believe that data should be freely available and easily accessible to everyone. We believe that data should be collected in ways that do no harm to communities, stakeholders, researchers, or users. We believe that digital data privacy is paramount, and that the use of personal data should be easily and transparently opt-in, and not rely on the user to opt-out. We believe in an open ecosystem of software and open source code in our projects. We believe in creating and sharing ethical data and explaining clearly what that means.
Not surprisingly, this puts us at odds with the majority of the modern internet, and with the majority of social media platforms. We’re now looking at the protocols we had in place to be ethical participants and researchers on social media platforms, and finding that those protocols…simply aren’t enough anymore, if we want to stay on the big commercial social media venues. Better protections do exist, in places like the Humanities Commons, and certain Mastodon instances, but these places don’t have the adoption rates that generate community. They haven’t hit the user mass that makes data collection within them feasible, either.
As an example, we recently ran a 30 day online initiative that relied on Twitter as a platform, and relied on Twitter users as opt-in participants. The precise level of disruption to our data collection can’t yet be measured, but we can already see how engagement has suffered. In November, at the height of Twitter abandonment, we saw our Open Context referrals from Twitter drop from 75 percent to 30 percent. What would have worked seamlessly in September simply didn’t work anymore in November.
We can’t trust 1) that we have a sufficient number of participants to draw meaningful conclusions, 2) that the methods we used to try to reach outside of the archaeological disciplinary bubble on Twitter are still functioning, and 3) that asking folks to participate in a project that requires a fair amount of personal sharing is still safe on the platform. Even in opt-in projects, there’s a duty of care on the part of researchers, and Twitter no longer offers tools or a framework for us to feel that our participants can make choices that are functionally ‘safe’.
So how we work going forward must change, and how we communicate, digitally, with other archaeologists and with those who care about archaeology and heritage must change as well. We welcome input and thoughts on the best way for all of us to move forward. Community and sharing is vital in archaeology, and together we’re all going to have to figure out what we want the new best practices to be, and how we can uphold them.
Internally, we’ve been having discussions about where to best position ourselves in the social media landscape going forward. As an organization dedicated to best digital practices, we question remaining on corporatized platforms every time a new scandal breaks, or another set of user protections is stripped. We’ve also had discussions about what our role should be in social media, are we content creators, or are we facilitators for others? As yet, we don’t have an answer.
It’s a scary time, but it’s also a time to recenter our practice on the ethical values that we consider so important. We’d love to hear how others are facing this new challenge!