Would you conduct this experiment on your mother?

ethics of internet research

I think the debate on the recent Facebook experiment on user emotions has been beaten into the ground but in a recent Harvard Business Review article titled Ethics for Technologists and Facebook, author Michael Schrage brings up an important and nuanced point worthy of discussion.

One of the reasons this episode is so important and concerning, he writes, is because the ethics of Internet research becomes a greater consideration as the cost of experimentation comes down:

What makes today—and tomorrow —so very, very different from even a decade or five years ago is how the cost and complexity of running serious ‘large scale’ human experiments have radically declined.

Marketing experiments that might have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1995 might cost a couple of hundred dollars in 2015; maybe less. Literally every individual and organization with a web presence has both the ability and opportunity to cost-effectively perform real-time experiments on people that would have been impossible in the 20th Century.

Every business can —and will—treat their digital media platforms as laboratories and R&D facilities.

More people—smart and dumb, honorable and sleazy, careful and sloppy—will be running more and more experiments for you, with you and on you; sometimes with your explicit knowledge and consent, more likely not. Most of the times people won’t mind or won’t care….but sometimes, they will. A lot.

I think this is a keen insight and I believe he’s correct. If you thought the Facebook trial was creepy, hold onto your hat.

The “mother test”

The writer goes on to say that this is not necessarily a complex ethical issue. If you want to know if your experiment is appropiate, simply ask yourself if this is something you would do to your mother or another beloved family member.

In other words, an organization should not run any experiments on customers or clients that it would not run on the families, friends and colleagues of its managers, leaders and employees.

Schrage concludes his article with sage advice: “The ethics of innovative experiments are better and healthier when they’re open and shared rather than concealed and departmentalized. Just as the war is too important to be left to the generals, human experimentation is too important to be left to the researchers and lawyers. If an experiment is good enough for your best customer, it’s good enough for your best friend.”

Good common sense for us all.

Illustration courtesy BigStock.com

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