Can I borrow your online conversation? | Ethics online

Is it ok to walk into someone’s garden and take a photo? How about take a plant? What about walking up to their front door, standing in their porch and listen to the conversation through the keyhole? Would it be ok if you were listening to a conversation standing on the pavement?

Where does the ‘privacy’ begin and the ‘public’ end?

I’ve been exploring the ethical implications of researching in a community space online – and the waters are pretty murky. My thesis will be exploring a social network, one in which I am already a member, an active participant. So already, I have more than one role, access to a range of other people’s information and have different relationships with people who are there for learning (not for the pleasure of my research;-).

But there is no denying that social sciences research in online spaces presents some interesting issues, simply due to

  • the greater accessibility to data,
  • looser management of privacy and confidentiality,
  • difficulties with identity and informed consent,
  • multiple cultures across global settings, and
  • the range of ‘venues‘ that present different challenges (Ess, 2004).

I like the idea that online research is essentially participatory – focused on doing good for a community, a collaborative act (Denzin, 2004), and I strongly believe that a community (online or otherwise) has a set of values and culture that existed long before the research begins, and therefore must be acknowledged and assimilated into the research.

There are clear overlaps with feminist research and critical theory (Cohen et al, 2007). In other words, if I am going to research in an online space, I should be all about goodwill, democratic rights with a clear sense of producing something that will somehow point towards a way to improve or enhance what is already there, working alongside participants.

The ethical issues, then, are beginning to emerge clearly for me:

  • tension between the power relationships inherent in my roles of researcher, paid facilitator and community member
  • notions of public vs private? – Posts made by others in a public forum for a specific purpose are not ‘fair game’, nor were they intended for a research purposes.
  • The way that others’ posts might be analysed and interpreted – the importance of the context.
  • Copyright and fair use issues
  • Informed consent
I’ve now submitted my ethics application, so fingers crossed.
[Image source: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by DCRC-UWE]

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