A Code of Ethics for Social Data: We Need Your Help!

Update: Nov 14, 2014. Revised Draft Code of Ethics

One of the most important functions that the Big Boulder Initiative can provide is to help establish and clarify a code of ethics for the proper use of social data for industry, academia and other organizations who use it. To this end, the Big Boulder Initiative Board of Directors has drafted the following document, which we hope will serve as a starting-point for a final code of ethics to be posted on this blog and shared widely elsewhere.

Thank you to all the board members who have contributed, and also to the many others whose work provided a foundation for our thinking, in particular, the work of Jon Lovett and Eric Peterson of the Web Analytics Association (now Digital Analytics Association). We need your help and hope you’ll add your thoughts and comments so we can finalize it knowing that it was a collaborative effort by the social data community. If you don’t want to comment publicly, please feel free to email feedback to info@bigboulderinitiative.org


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DRAFT Code of Ethics for Social Data


The Big Boulder Initiative was founded to establish the foundation for the long-term success of the social data industry. To accomplish that, we must address the many and complex issues that social data poses: to interpretation, to analysis, to custodianship, to business value, and, of course, to individual protection and privacy.

The following Code of Ethics represents an effort to begin to define a set of ethical values and practices for the treatment of social data. It represents a commitment of the Big Boulder Initiative to proper data stewardship and an effort to educate the industry about ethical social data collection, processing and utilization practices.

Consider: what’s the worst that can happen?

About Social Data

Social media offers an unprecedented set of opportunities and risks for individuals and organizations. For individuals, social media offers new routes to self-expression mixed with a complex and ever-shifting set of contexts and expectations regarding ownership and privacy of that data. For organizations, social data offers new ways to glean insight into customer and consumer attitudes, but also raises ethical dilemmas with regard to proper use of that data in areas such as privacy, stewardship and storage.

The Code of Ethics

This document represents a starting point for articulating and honoring the most ethical business practices surrounding social data and its use for organizations.

1. Privacy

First, do no harm. Because of the many platforms, privacy settings and contexts for social data, privacy is much more complex than a simple “on or off” setting. It is highly contextual. For example, while tweets are generally public, broadcasting a specific tweet on television, with attribution, may represent more public scrutiny than an individual intends. The BBI board of directors believes that, in addition to honoring explicit privacy settings, organizations should do their best to honor implicit privacy preferences where possible. This may mean broadcasting a tweet without attribution, or with a blurring of the name. Specifically, the best practice is to preserve content within its original context so as not to surprise the user.

2. Transparency and Methodology

Social data can be used to make business or personal decisions, so it is critical that data sources are as clearly articulated as possible. A best practice is to include methodology, including sources and sample percentages, where possible, to enable readers to draw their own conclusions about the scientific validity of a particular set of recommendations. Be honest, especially when you don’t have all the answers.

3. Education

Because much of social data is unstructured, and its applications still relatively new, you must consider the implications when working with it. Be curious: what’s the worst that can happen? Your job is to facilitate effectively positive conversations and education within the industry versus fear and hype, and provide actionable and practical advice to users of social data, whether in the public sector or industry.

4. Accountability

Finally, prepare an action/crisis plan in case something goes wrong. As we’ve seen with many, many social media crises, social data can give rise to a host of unintended consequences. Do scenario planning: what options will you offer your consumers, providers, partners, customers if something—an outage, data corruption, hacking, privacy breach, or just poor judgment—goes wrong?


By agreeing to the four sections outlined in this Social Data Code of Ethics, I pledge to uphold these standards across the Internet. I will support the Big Boulder Initiative’s efforts to safeguard consumer data and privacy by providing feedback, referencing this Code and other related publications, and by advocating for adherence to these standards. If I observe a violation of these standards, I will make a reasonable effort to notify the site owner and provide feedback directly and privately, referencing this Code of Ethics as warranted.

[Note: the following will have live links when we finalize the COE:]

I agree to the above Social Data Code of Ethics and am ready to pledge.

View the current list of supporters.

Many thanks to the BBI Board for their input, and many thanks in advance to all of you who contribute!

About the Author

Susan Etlinger is a founding board member of the Big Boulder Initiative. She is an industry analyst at Altimeter Group, where she works with global organizations to develop social data and analytics strategies that support their business objectives. Susan has a diverse background in marketing and strategic planning within both corporations and agencies. She’s a frequent speaker on big data, social data and analytics and has been extensively quoted in outlets including Fast Company, BBC, New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Find her on Twitter at @setlinger and at her blog, Thought Experiments, at susanetlinger.com.

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