Tweeting Nuit Blanche

Where social media and ‘real life’ intersect, crucial questions emerge

Ontario researcher Siobhan O’Flynn started out with a seemingly straightforward question: how do people use Twitter to navigate large‑scale cultural events like Toronto’s Nuit Blanche? Digging in, however, the University of Toronto lecturer and her team unearthed issues of copyright, ethics and privacy that could have a profound impact on how journalists, academics and governments handle social media data.

“The information individuals make available without questioning the consequences is astonishing,” she observes. “It is available for data mining to marketers for a fee—and now, as we are well aware, to intelligence agencies as well. There are vital questions we need to answer here going forward.”

O’Flynn was originally curious to learn if insights into social media use during live events in specific locations might contribute to better urban planning—specifically, the creation of spaces that foster positive social outcomes.

“We wanted to know whether social media exchanges affect people’s real‑world actions and experiences,” she says, “and how that might inform urban planning and event design.”

With the help of an Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, O’Flynn and her team, co‑led by digital media artist and interactive producer Faisal Anwar, are analyzing more than 32,000 tweets and retweets from the 2011 and 2012 editions of Nuit Blanche, focusing on how people’s expectations of the events may have been shaped—the majority of tweets, for example, expressed a desire to experience ‘something extraordinary.’

While considering how best to present the project’s findings, O’Flynn became aware of some stark differences surrounding copyright practices and source anonymity when social media come into play.

“In academic research, it is a longstanding convention to present data anonymously,” says O’Flynn. “But online journals and media outlets—even broadcast media—re‑post names, user photos and actual exchanges. There are no inhibitions.”

Going forward, O’Flynn is making this conflict between regulations and conventions of use, copyright and ethics an additional focus of her research. The fundamental questions, she argues, increasingly revolve around privacy rights and online intellectual property copyright.

Research funded by SSHRC: Nuit Blanche and Transformational Publics