THE GIFT OF SPIT

Anna Harris, Sally Wyatt & Susan E. Kelly

THE GIFT OF SPIT (AND THE OBLIGATION TO RETURN IT)

How consumers of online genetic testing services participate in research.
People can now send a sample of their saliva to an internet-based company in order to discover genetic information about themselves. Entering this ‘direct-to-consumer’ genetic testing (DTC GT) marketplace can result in enticement to engage in various forms of ‘participatory’ practices, such as taking part in genetic research. In this article, we analyse the research activities of one of the largest and best-known DTC GT companies, 23andMe. 23andMe research is based on what they term ‘participant-led’ research methodologies, which utilize a combination of consumers’ genetic information and self-reported data in the form of completed online surveys.
Our analysis shows that 23andMe presents research participation as a form of gift exchange, implying some kind of social bond. Social ties between the consumerparticipant and 23andMe are integral to the company’s ‘novel’ research agenda which relies on the ongoing aggregation of data from a loyal re-contactable cohort. We argue that the notion of gift exchange is used to draw attention away from the free, clinical labour which drives the profitability of 23andMe. We offer an account of a particular form of online research participation which differs from other kinds of participatory medical research. As medical research becomes increasingly driven by large data sets and internet-based research
methods, we offer a timely analysis of emerging participatory practices.

Keywords participation; internet; Web 2.0; gift exchange; genetic testing; biomedical research
(Received 9 December 2011; final version received 24 April 2012)
Information, Communication & Society 2012, pp. 1–22, iFirst ArticleISSN 1369-118X print/ISSN 1468-4462 online # 2012 Taylor & Francis
http://www.tandfonline.com http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2012.701656

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