If we can, for just a few minutes, let’s put aside how this discussion came to be so top of mind and focus on an underlying issue: observational research.
Observational research involves watching how people behave in their natural environment with no attempt to alter or guide it. It could include watching families interact with their children at the park, watching how people choose soap at the grocery store, watching how people choose a parking spot, or a whole host of other normal behaviours that take place in the public space where others would be able to see them.
Normally, in observational research, only a few people are observed. A few families, a few shoppers, a few drivers. The researcher takes notes, perhaps on their iPad, concerning things like how many people were there, did they speak loudly, did they pick up five different brands, did they back in and out several times.
Some people might feel uncomfortable knowing that they were a part of the research though chances are they would never know of it. Is this deceitful? Perhaps. Is it unethical. Perhaps. It’s a topic that many psychologists and sociologists have grappled with for over a hundred years. With exceptions, the agreed upon answer is that this type of research is ethical.
The greater issue comes down to scale. What if we watched millions of people at once? What if we had access to their names? This, of course, is social media research. People have decided to share intimate details of their lives in a public places (not password protected) where others can view the information and often their personal contact information as well. It’s observational research on a practically unimaginable scale.
Social media research isn’t going to go away. If market researchers don’t do it with ethics, validity, and reliability, other will do it without ethics, without respect, without honesty, without validity, without reliability.
Personally, I can’t tell you if it’s right or wrong. I can tell you that my heart doesn’t ache when I do the work. I bring respect for others to my work, an appreciation for ethics, a desire for solid research practices. I know I’m contributing to a process that brings better products to market without putting people through an arduous traditional research process.
You can’t control the behaviours of other people, but you can make sure that you sleep well at night. I do.