Essay Question: Write an essay on the use of images in social media for research. Using examples, discuss what value this form of research has and what potential problems there may be. (max 2000 words; notes and references included).

The following essay will discuss the use of images on social media platforms, and outline the benefits and challenges this research might bring, using specific example of both scenarios.

In an age when social media occupies every aspect of our lives, most people are oblivious to the fact that their whole lives are being aired in public.  What I mean by this statement is that, all one has to do is look at Facebook or Twitter and one can find out so much about a person without even being a friend of theirs.  For example, you can see their personal photographs, which are geo-tagged, address, education, and in some cases their political and religious affiliations.  What most people do not realise, is that companies such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media behemoths such as Flickr share statistical information with research companies to gather data.  The major concern here is the ethics of information gathering in relation to images on social media platforms.  As of yet there does not seem to be a standardised ethical framework in place, simply a guideline (Townsend & Wallace, pp4).  There is also the fact that these guidelines are static because of the constantly changing face of technology.  Technology, by its very nature is extremely difficult to standarise, so basically, the researcher has to exercise their own evaluation of ethical issues “and his or her corresponding ethics committee to ensure an ethical approach is taken to the collection, analysis and re-use of data collected from social media platforms” (Townsend & Wallace, pp15).  But it is also really important to emphasise the fact that some research analysis does not hold true, such as the study that was carried out by Yahoo, the research group Berkeley, who discovered that only 2% of the users on Flickr had their location information suppressed, this might appear shocking, but on closer inspection it turned out that the on setting was the default setting at that particular time (Ahern et al, 361).  The reason I included this example is because it is a perfect example of how skewed and ambiguous this research information can be.

The value of using images on social media platforms does have some benefits for the researcher, but maybe not for the innocuous naive user.  For example, they can provide low-cost information about public opinion on political policies or other sensitive media events.  On sites such as Pinterest, researchers could collect data about people’s interests and hobbies.  This might seem harmless enough, but the main issue is privacy!  Who would knowingly allow a research company to delve into one’s photographic archive and collect information and statistical analysis based on their findings?  One would feel that this is an invasion of privacy regardless of their intentions, whether the researcher’s intentions are good or bad.  I feel permission should be sought for image related research through API sharing.  The current non-standardised framework does not protect minors from heinous acts of immoral, unethical behaviour.  In addition to this, it is important to emphasise the fact that location tags and embedded information in photographs could possibly alert criminal elements in these research quests.  Image analysis could reveal that a family is on vacation and that the family property is empty.  When one looks closely enough at the pros and cons of using images in social media for research purposes, one can see that there are flaws that have the real possibility of being manipulated by unscrupulous criminals.  There seems to be more cons than pros, and the fact that this research information could and has been hacked in the past.

The most important factor in this discussion is defending one’s privacy.  The question whether researching images on social media has any value is easy to answer, and that answer is no.  Something that has the power to be abused cannot be treated as a valuable asset!  If these research companies want statistical information they should have to ask for permission as it is our right as human beings to be given that fundamental choice.  The sad conclusion is, that if one uses social media and uploads images, then in fact, you are wavering any rights to your privacy.  Until proper legislation is brought in and a ridged ethical framework is in place, it will not matter what anybody thinks about the rights and wrongs of using these images.


Ahern, Shane et al.  “Over-Exposed?  Privacy Patterns and Considerations in Online and Mobile Photosharing”, in Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, 2007, available from

Townsend, Dr. Leanne and Wallace, Prof. Claire.  Social Media Research: A Guide to Ethics, Economic, Social and Research Council in association with The University of Aberdeen, . Accessed 13 Dec. 2016.