Weighing Anchor

“Anchor” flickr photo by MarcieLew https://flickr.com/photos/91724286@N04/15909947948 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

During a recent interview, Joe Dale mentioned a useful new app he’d found which offered some potential in the context of professional sharing – Anchor. It’s a free (as of Jan 2017) smartphone app (Android & Apple) through which you can create a two-minute audio posting (a ‘Wave’) which others can listen to, then respond, again in audio. Joe (with Rachel Smith) had experimented with it by posting a question posed by one of the #mfltwitterati, then crowdsourcing responses from Anchor users. The final combined thread is then presented as a single, stitched audio stream, where the question and responses form a coherent whole.

It struck me that Anchor appeared to offer an interesting alternative way of enabling participation in research, especially that which is focused on Twitter. Anchor seems to be to podcasting, what Twitter is to blogging – micropodcasting compared with microblogging. It perhaps therefore encourages concision … or equally some would say restricts detail to such an extent that respondents aren’t able to fully articulate their views. One could argue it offers an opportunity to become involved for those who wish to express a view but are unable to spare the time for an hour-long interview. Or indeed anyone who feels less comfortable discussing a broad topic, but has strongly held views on a particular strand within that topic.

In a conventional research interview, the participant is alone and is obliged to respond to questions there and then. When a question is posed on Anchor a participant is able to respond, should they choose, at a time and place of their choosing, and having had the time to reflect on what they want to say. There are also comparisons to be made with focus groups, since not only will participants be able to listen to the responses of others, they will also be able to reply to those responses, thereby extending the conversation. Hearing other’s thoughts may prompt them to reflect in different ways.

Ethics issues:

The first glaring issue might be that this research method is being conducted in a very public space. The questions are posed in public; people respond in public. This clearly has both positive and negative implications. There are few privacy options within Anchor, because the app, as with many other social platforms, is built assuming activity within a public space. However, it is important at this point to note that respondents who have installed the Anchor app are likely to be more media literate and aware of the consequences of posting online, especially given the context within which questions will be framed. Questions are unlikely to attract general members of the public, being targeted as they are at teachers, and more particularly, those with an interest in using social media. As such, they are invariably comfortable and experienced with sharing and contributing their ideas and opinions, which one might interpret as performative behaviour and therefore coherent with the principle of sharing widely that Anchor provides. I’ve discussed these issues at much greater length in earlier posts. Unusually for audio recorded research interviews, participants will remain in control of their contribution and will have the option to delete it at any time.

One aspect which struck me in thinking through the ethical issues with Anchor which I hadn’t considered before, was the ethics of using audio at all. Some of the data which is generated during my study is in the written form – tweets, blog posts, comments etc. Some is extant data and some solicited as I ask questions during my ethnographic explorations. This might of course limit participation and restrict those who may be less confident in the written form; less likely for teachers perhaps, but certainly possible for people in other walks of life. Using audio interviews then provides access to participants for whom writing may be a problem, for whatever reasons. Perhaps Anchor takes things a step further and provides an option for those who, like me, prefer time to deliberate and think through an answer and who get flustered when being required to produce an instant response. Their contributions, as previously discussed, can be bite-sized and they aren’t having to commit a lot of time. Would some people therefore afford these contributions less credence? Another downside of course is that a smartphone with the app installed is required, which then reintroduces other restrictions. There’s also in one sense a loss of control over the data, in that they remain hosted by a 3rd party, even if you download a copy of the audio. But another view would be that the data found during the participant observation carries with it similar burdens and you have no control over that either.

The area that’s taxed me most is in thinking about informed consent. In other interviews I’ve been able to provide the background information that allows potential participants make a choice about whether to be involved or not. From there, they are then directed to an online form through which they can provide their consent to participate, under the conditions outlined. If using Anchor, things would be slightly different since participants could potentially drop on the Wave without having been directed to it through the participant information. Furthermore, asking someone to complete a consent form, brief though it might be, prior to contributing a one-minute Wave would be onerous. But how to ensure people are informed that they are being invited to participate in a research project, as opposed to just an informal chat, and allow them to give their consent? My intention is to provide some of the details within my Anchor bio, linking through to my research blog (here!) and the participant information. Not surprisingly, your bio is an audio file on Anchor, so it should be possible to provide an outline of what will be expected of potential participants. I also intend to include a brief comment within each Wave, reminding potential respondents that if they choose to respond, it’s on the understanding that they’re participating in a research study. Although obtaining formal consent is more ethically sound, when conducting participant observation within an ethnography, it is rarely possible to do that. The mitigation is that you should always declare yourself as a researcher and not purport to be something else or deliberately deceive.

Resubmission

If a researcher makes substantial changes to their study, it may be necessary to make a supplementary submission for ethics approval. I’ve been thinking through the necessity of this based on generally accepted criteria e.g.

  1. are the participants different or recruited differently;
  2. is a different method used for gathering data;
  3. is the information provided prior to consent different, or a different method used to gather consent;
  4. will the data gathering take place in a different space.

Although using Anchor would introduce some differences in 2, 3 and 4, I’d argue they are not substantial. I am for example using a slightly different method, but I’m still gathering audio responses and (with permission) publishing them, for which I already have approval. Although it is through an app, the audio exchange is still taking place in an online space as it did before, just through Anchor, rather than Skype. I’ll be providing information in a similar way to before, and though I’m not formally obtaining consent for the audio interaction, that’s consistent with collecting data through informal ethnographic interviews, again which has already been approved. I did run these arguments past my supervisory team who agreed that these were minor changes and not substantial enough to warrant a fresh submission.

What hasn’t changed are some of the fundamental ethical considerations: that my participants are unlikely to be considered vulnerable members of society; that the topics we’re discussing are largely non-sensitive; that my study has taken steps to ensure non-malfeasance and participants will not come to harm; and that where possible, the study provides beneficence for participants.

So if you decide to give the Anchor app a whirl, you can find me as IaninSheffield and my introductory Wave is here.

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