Cat videos, GIFs of Neil deGrasse Tyson, pictures of that thing that you don’t want to talk about…It’s hard to imagine anything useful about social science or human nature shaking out of the Internet. But now, some of the largest purveyors of the web’s distractions, news, information, and Benedict Cumberbatch GIFs are teaming up to help scientists figure out how we use the Internet. It’s called DERP.
Launched this year, the Digital Ecologies Research Partnership, or DERP, is a partnership between Imgur, Reddit, Fark, Twitch, and Stack Exchange to provide ethical, open access information for social scientists. We’ve had the web for years now, but academic research into our social dynamics on it lag behind, if for no other reason than social networks can spring up faster than it takes to publish just one study. But the wealth of information is there. DERP hopes to make it easier for researchers to access it by bringing together huge site like Imgur and Reddit, so that cross-platform information can also be studied. Let’s face it, a study looking at internet habits can’t realistically test a user on just one website. That’s just not how we use it.
And though the name is delightfully aware of the web’s oddities, DERP seems wholly legitimate. The partnership will only give data to researchers who request it, and then that data will be private, be used only within the confines of a study, and will meet all the standards for experiments with human subjects. DERP already has fellows — affiliate researchers from the likes of MIT, Harvard, and McGill — who are using the data provided by these massive internet traffickers and will lend support to the partnership and advise it further.
DERP is also currently accepting collaborators who want to use the rich social data.
The DERP partnerships sounds incredibly useful. Not only will it host billions of data points that are just waiting to be correlated, all research that uses the data will be made open to the public. Think of what we could learn from the social currency game that is “upvoting” and “downvoting” on Reddit, for example. The research community hasn’t really had access like this before, and I’m excited to see just how deep researchers will dig.
Contrast this seemingly ethical, responsible, and transparent approach to something like Facebook’s now infamous study of emotion. By surreptitiously tweaking users’ timelines — seeing more or less positive and negative posts from friends — Facebook wanted to see if the emotions bound within subsequent posts from the users would change. Of course, Facebook made clear that the use of users’ data in research was covered in the terms and conditions of the website, but many felt less than informed about this supposedly informed consent.
If the research coming from the DERP partnership turns out to be as ethical and deep as it seems poised to be, I could imagine the partnership growing to the point where real, timely Internet research gets on par with biology or medicine. It might be about cats, though.
HT The Verge