Alien under the microscope? Reddit to share data with researchers


A new coalition to study the way we interact online launched this week with a handful of social networks and several key social media researchers on board.

The new group is called the Digital Ecologies Research Partnership, or just DERP. (As in, you just got derped.) The group describes itself “as an alliance of platforms supporting the academic exploration of communities online for the betterment of the internet at large.”

The inaugural class of fellows includes Greater Boston locals J. Nathan Matias and Chris Peterson from MIT, Sara Watson from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and Devin Gaffney from Northeastern University. They’re among a group of researchers who will use a host of approaches—including numerical big data and social science tools—to examine the ticking of social networks.

So far, a majority of research by social and data scientists has focused on the more populous Twitter and Facebook.

“But they’re just [one] part of a vast mucked up ecology,” said Ryan Milner, DERP fellow and researcher at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. A chance to study sites like Fark and Twitch — a social news and gaming website who are DERP partners — will grant a fuller, understanding of an intricately linked social space. Ignoring other, less trafficked communities is like “studying an elephant’s trunk and tusks and ears and thinking you’ve got the whole elephant figured out,” Milner said.

“DERP will help researchers paint a larger picture with finer brushstrokes,” said Whitney Phillips, a lecturer at Humboldt College in California, who’s studied the behavior of online trolls on Facebook and 4Chan. Also a DERP fellow, Phillips is even more interested in places like Reddit and imgur “since there haven’t been as many eyes on these smaller spaces and communities.” She hopes to take a closer look at how platforms respond to aggressive behavior online — and what human decisions, public ones or those behind closed doors, as well as algorithmic actions, contribute to the interaction. Looking at public postings isn’t enough, and DERP offers a chance to look behind the scenes, “[providing] necessary context for specific events and websites as a whole,” Phillips said.

Another fellow, An Xiao Mina, is an artist and Internet scholar who has studied social movements and memes internationally. She hopes to take a closer look at how artwork that start out on social networks bleed into discussion and action in real life.

“We’d like to see what makes some social/political content online jump from one context/country to another, and on what platforms we see these kinds of conversations,” she said. “I see our ability to research broadening significantly thanks to DERP, to see how the subcultures on each platform affect the types of conversations being had.”

Earlier this summer, news that Facebook and Cornell scientists had altered algorithms controlling the newsfeeds of 700,000 people to observe their response, drew heady backlash from users. Also, it prompted researchers to examine the ethics behind experiments like this one. It seems like the founders of DERP have anticipated that, stating upfront that the group “will only support research that respects user privacy, responsibly uses data, and meets IRB approval.”

Image of reddit alien via Shutterstock.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at
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