Ethics and soft boundaries between Facebook groups  and other web services

doorway used as metaphor for boundary
Is this a space I can enter?

As part of a MOOC on rhizomatic learning that performs itself in many different spaces (Facebook, P2PU, G+, Twitter and others), I am a member of an ‘open’ Facebook group.  It is endlessly fascinating, and has given me a lot of scope for reflection about back channels and the exchange of information between open and closed spaces. Of course, I say that as if a space could be categorised as open or closed:  it’s often a lot more complicated than that, acted out by technical aspects of the space and by the agency of the people who interact there. Facebook groups can be open, closed or secret, the meanings of these being laid out in the Facebook help.

See what I did there, I linked to the ‘closed’ space of Facebook, only visible to one of the 1.3 billion members of Facebook.  Now of course, we don’t know if there are that exactly many Facebook members, but let’s settle for there being a very large number of them. Facebook is not completely open from the outside but doesn’t seem very closed. For example, if I log out of Facebook and Google for “Facebook pictures dog”, I will see lots of peeks into Facebook groups that might entice me to sign up or log in.

Now I am neglecting those of you who aren’t Facebook members, and can’t see the Facebook help page .  Facebook describe the visibility of posts as:

Open Closed Secret
Who can see what members post in the group? Anyone Only members Only members

 

Yes that means that anyone who has the link to an open Facebook group post or comment, can share it inside or outside Facebook, and it can be opened by any Facebook (not just group) member.  In the case of the rhizo14 MOOC, participants who are not Facebook members are excluded from sight of posts in the Facebook group, whilst a very large number of Facebook members who have never heard of rhizo14 could check it out if you sent them the link.

Ethical dilemmas

I will sketch out a few of the ethical dilemmas I have observed in the rhizo14 Facebook group.  These are early reflections, and I would welcome your comments on this post.

  1. How do we behave around here?

The rhizo14 MOOC offers no explicit written norms, behavioural or otherwise, and the strapline for the FB group is “An attempt to create a feed for Rhizomatic Learning posts from around the web.” The Facebook group has become not only a site for sharing blog posts, other rhizo14 creations and links to interesting and relevant stuff, it has also become a place for demonstrations of friendship and affection by some members.  It’s clear that a number of people (significantly less than the full 240 ish membership) regard the group as a semi-private backchannel where they can expect support and sympathy for their encounters elsewhere.  What the remainder of the membership think about this is less clear.  They may be just letting it all flow past or ‘lurking’ – a behaviour that has attracted discussion in the FB group.  The implicit norms on lurking in the FB group are to some extent discernible, but the norms on other behaviours sometimes seem to be taken as read by some active members of the group.  I posited a relational approach to power early on in the rhizo14 MOOC but that is not a common view in the Facebook group where a one-dimensional view of power is more common.  We can discern a flexible approach to ‘rule-breaking’ in rhizomatic learning in the discussion around rhizomatic learning and ethics in the comments on this post so it’s unlikely that a set of ‘rules’ to govern behaviour would work on rhizo14. Teachers and moderators can model ethical behaviour, and communities usually engage with norm-building online where misunderstanding is not uncommon. Overt moderation and norm-building activities have been generally absent from rhizo14 in general and the FB group in particular.

 

  1. What does sharing mean within and beyond the rhizo14 community?

A lot of sharing goes on at rhizo14, and there is a sense that openness is a value of rhizo14. The remix culture has been very evident in rhizo14, and creativity and remix have brought a lot of pleasure.  Communities of Practice literature and others have identified the importance of the boundary in the propagation of knowledge.  The facility for stuff and people to cross boundaries presents great opportunities, but with these come tricky questions of how we share and what we do with what is shared.  A great set of ‘rules’ that has helped sharing is Creative Commons Licenses, not always enforceable but signifying intent in a sharing and use context.
opendiscusspt1 opendiscusspt2opendiscusspt3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A dilemma presented by research data sharing is current at rhizo14 FB group, and raises, for me at any rate, some very interesting issues about how we do Open Research.  The twitter stream fragment gives an indication of the controversy, and the discussion of what is appropriate uses of open research data by ‘others’ (those ‘outside’ the community) is playing out on the rhizo14 Facebook group.  I raised the issue of ethics of use of open/closed data for research purposes in rhizo14 at the time it became clear that a group doing auto-ethnography, and a group of which I am a part were both doing research around rhizo14.

The data arrangements for the second group are at http://francesbell.wordpress.com/research/rhizo14-research/ whilst those for the first group are the subject of discussion at the FB group and publicly here and here.*

I became involved in this discussion because I had contributed to the auto-ethnography open Google document but had deferred on authorship of any subsequent outputs (as was possible within the invitation).  The complication that I presented was that I had asked not to be quoted (on reflection this created problems for the auto-ethnographers).
I resolved my personal dilemma by deleting my contribution, in consultation with members of the auto-ethnography group. However, the issue of who can use the information in the auto-ethnography is still the subject of discussion – on the FB group and publicly on Twitter.

 

Discussion of Agency

As humans we can have moral agency – this may be the different thoughts and feelings that guide the way we act.  I suggest that sharing our ethical stance with others can help our moral agency within a network of human and technical agents.  I am not thinking of a set of rules but rather our expectations and ethical stance that we could share with other moral agents.  What I have observed in the discussion on the ethics of use of information from the auto-ethnography document is that some participants seem to assume there is a ‘common decency’ approach to the use of ‘open’ information. This is a little dangerous I think and may be explained by an unwarranted assumption of community.

We can also think of technology as ‘moral agent’ where permissions and constraints on agency can be coded into a system, as I described in who can access a FB group.  This can be useful, especially if helps clarify expectations-  hard rules, hard boundaries can be explained in help pages and observed in action when we fail to access the FB group link because we are not logged into Facebook.   Even these hard rules can be overcome by human agency.  I cut and paste one part of FB help page – this was within my personal ethics where doing the same with a rhizo14 FB group post would not be. When I did accidentally violate that in a blog post, I tried to resolve the situation, by consulting the person affected.

Some Tentative Conclusions

An important element of the digital moral agent’s backpack to complement their ethical literacy is the digital literacy of having an active understanding of the ethical and other implications of using a digital space/service for communication.  This is especially important when one’s practice in spaces is research.

As well as the overhead of ‘cluttering ‘ the communication, there are benefits in clarifying use of information, utterances, multimedia in practice.  This may be done informally within a close group of friends, rarely discussed, but the more open the use and sharing of information, the more important it is to clarify how we expect that information to be used, if we wish to minimise problems.  This applies just as much to Facebook (with their unclear use in the above extract from Help of the words member – Facebook or group?- and anyone – anyone on the Internet or anyone on Facebook) as to those of us participating and researching in rhizo14.  I hope that rhizo14 research subjects benefit from our statement of how we use the research data.  I know I would have benefited from a clearer statement of expectations and behaviours in rhizo14.  I am not suggesting a set of hard and fast rules but rather a starting point for discussion on how we behave around rhizo14.

 

Because digital literacies are a moving target (digital literacy is ongoing) and communication in open spaces is tricky, we need flexible repair strategies for when things go wrong.  If we state our expectations and promote discussion of expectations within a group  as starting point, then we may be able to minimise but not eliminate problems.  That’s when it’s useful to promote friendly interpretation of the words and actions of others, and to have some strategies for conflict resolution.

 

Who said it was easy to practice learning and research in online spaces?

* edited because links to Maha’s blog had mysteriously repositioned themselves