Social Media Research - Ethics, Empathy and Voyeurism

I was sitting at home reading the bios on my twitter followers when one of them caught my eye and made me want to learn more about her and the story she is trying to tell via twitter and blogging. Her story isn’t all that novel … she has an altercation with a neighbor, is assaulted, asks for justice, and finds that the justice system doesn’t want to take her case – something similar has probably happened to you or someone you know. What is interesting is that instead of throwing up her hands at the situation and waiting until her broken jaw and torn ear heals; she is going online and telling her story to anyone that will listen. Why? I can only take an existentialist guess at this point, but I imagine that she is using these social media tools as a way to deal with her anger and frustration, and in the slim hopes that someone will come across her story and help her find the justice she desires.

NOTE: As I am writing this blog, I have reached out to her to discuss her blog, but have not heard back from her yet.  Everything that I am writing today is based solely on what I have read from her blog, and found out about her through her social media postings before and after the incident. Until I hear directly from her, I'm keeping everything as vague as I can.

From reading the blog posts about the assault, I can see from the writings that this is someone who is very passionate about life. She writes her posts in a very, very personal manner, and give almost a frame-by-frame account of what she experienced (both physically and mentally). I immediately assumed that she is an artist of some type, so as I do a simple Google search to see if there is more, I’m not surprised to find out that she’s a chef, trained in New York City, but originally from the Southwest United States. However, as I peel more of the layers away on her “online biography” of social media information, I find more than just a person that is telling a single story about her life. I suddenly find myself getting to know the person behind this story through all of the bits of information that has been left online.

No longer is she merely an assault victim trying to get me to read her story through connecting with me via Twitter. Now she is someone that studied abroad; graduated with honors from a top US business school; worked as an Investment Banking Analyst before the financial meltdown pushed her out of one profession and into another, and; has somehow made it through life without ever owning a television. Although I have only just learned this person even exists, within a few minutes I feel as though I already know more about her than I do some of the people I work with in my office. I find myself wanting her to succeed in either getting the District Attorney to take up her case, or at least find some comfort in knowing that people are reading her story and understand her frustration.

At this point, I am feeling as though I may be crossing a line. Am I being emphatic or am I being a voyeur? I'm so interested in learning more about the person behind the story and the researcher in me takes over. There is so much information out there on that is not related to initial story that caught my eye, but it is all the background information that I am finding that makes me want her to find the justice she desires. No longer is she just a blog… now I see her as a real person... but, I'm wondering if I ethically crossed a line in my desire to learn more about her, and scared by the fact that the information was so easy to find. I sat down with my wife, tell her this story, and ask her if I am being a too much of a voyeur. Without hesitation, she tells me that I am, but that she loves me anyway. Then she quickly pulled up her Facebook account and un-friended me.

There is just so much personal information that we leave out on the Internet. A little bit here (twitter), a little bit here (blogs), some more here (LinkedIn), and a pinch more here (Facebook or Google yourself). Put it all together and without ever meeting someone you can piece together enough information that you feel as if you have already met. So I sit here on Memorial Day, coming to grips with the ethical issues of researching social media information while at the same time hoping that someone I have never met finds the justice she desires or at least some type of solace through the telling of her story.

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Lisa Salazar said...

I think you are just a "fan". Nice post, Greg!

Laura Suttell said...

I think you're being an empathetic journalist - or just plain curious.


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