Researchers get access to behavioral data from Reddit, Imgur and Twitch via the DERP consortium

Whatever outsiders may think of online communities like Reddit, Imgur or Twitch — the video-game streaming site Google is said to be acquiring for $1 billion — there’s no question they provide a fascinating window into the ways people behave online, like a massive human Petri dish. Now, the three sites have formed a partnership to provide internal data to researchers who want to understand those communities better. The consortium is known as the Digital Ecologies Research Partnership, and will offer its data to universities and other institutions free of charge.

It’s a serious effort, but it wouldn’t be faithful to the Reddit ethos if it didn’t involve some sort of nerdy in-joke — hence the fact that the group’s name is abbreviated as DERP, a term commonly used on Reddit and other online communities to refer to a mistake or screw-up. In addition to Reddit, Imgur and Twitch the consortium includes Fark and Stack Exchange.

Despite the humorous name, the intention behind the partnership is very real, according to Tom Hwang, the founder of the ROFLcon online-humor conference, who joined Imgur as head of special initiatives earlier this year. Hwang told the Guardian that the DERP consortium is designed to promote “open, publicly accessible, and ethical academic inquiry into the vibrant social dynamics of the web,” and came about as a result of discussions with other community platforms about how they work with academic researchers and ways to improve that process.

“Our belief is that there are ways of doing research better, and in a way that strongly respects user privacy and responsible use of data. Derp is an alliance of platforms that all believe strongly in this. In working with academic researchers, we support projects that meet institutional review at their home institution, and all research supported by Derp will be released openly and made publicly available.”

Open and ethical research data

Facebook and OK Cupid have been criticized recently for using questionable research methods to investigate their users’ behavior: Facebook did a study with researchers from Cornell University that manipulated the newsfeeds of thousands of users — without telling them in advance — in order to see whether the amount of positive or negative emotional content in their feed influenced their own behavior. OK Cupid altered the amount of data that users could see about a potential date in order to see whether that changed the likelihood of having a positive experience with that match.

Although the Facebook study was approved by an institutional review board at Cornell, some researchers argued that this was done improperly, and that sociological research shouldn’t be done without the consent of those involved, except in controlled conditions. Others argued that the size of the Facebook sample was so small that it likely affected a minuscule number of users, and Facebook itself said that such changes were permitted by the terms of use that users of the network agree to when they sign up.

Part of the idea behind the DERP consortium, Hwang said, was to give researchers access to data across a number of large communities, and to make that data as open as possible — since Facebook and Twitter don’t typically share much of their data with the outside world. Molly Souter, a researcher at McGill University in Montreal, told the Guardian she is looking forward to being able to see inside Reddit and use the data for her work looking at how social movements form in online communities:

“I feel like not only is it going to make it easier for researchers to gain access to important and interesting data sets, but it will also help diversify the online populations and communities being studied… most of my work in is online social movements and hacker culture, so there‚Äôs a lot of data here to be excited about.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Shironosov