change social processes, are held by private companies. Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and more are all sites privately owned, often with strict terms of service preventing certain types of data capture. Facebook, for example, prevents the use of automated scripts to harvest data from the site, a method that has proved effective in studying other large, online social spaces. Closing off access to social processes in these large sites prevents understanding the social processes that take place in them, and prevent the comparison of social processes across sites.
An exception to the practice of denying data access has been the public release of data from Wikipedia, which is run by a non-profit organization, and Sourceforge, which is privately held. In both cases, the availability of the datasets has led to an explosion of research. Multiple papers, written by people in a variety of disciplines with a variety of research perspectives, have used these datasets to address interesting scientific problems. Usenet has been a valuable resource for almost two decades, enabling research through the public nature of its datasets.
Companies that own social software sites have an incentive not to share user information for research purposes. First, high profile incidents of privacy violations caused poor data management have made corporations wary of the bad press associated with privacy incidents. Secondly, companies are increasingly aware that there is a large value in the data users are submitting to their sites, and the potential to monetize that information speaks against sharing it openly with possible competitors.
Increasingly, there are questions about the relationship between peer production sites like Flickr and YouTube, and the users who populate them. Should users be allowed to share in the value they are generating more directly? Should users have the right to opt in or out of social research agendas? How is conflict between site owners and users to be managed, when there is value to be sorted out should a user decide to exit the site?
As more people come online, the indications seem to point to several “super social computing” sites like Facebook and Wikipedia grabbing the lion’s share of users in their particular areas. While niche sites continue to be developed, many of the social interactions that could truly advance research in this area are occurring inside of sites where researchers are kept at arm’s length, with little opportunity to use these same IT facilitation tools that make the site possible to conduct valuable scientific work.