During the last couple of weeks, I’ve been involved in quite a number of exchanges on Twitter, as part of my participant observation. There have been a number of occasions when I was moved to consider the ethics of a particular situation, as indeed a researcher should always do. Developing your ethical sensibility doesn’t end the moment a Research Ethics Committee has signed off your submission. Instead it should be an ongoing critical process of reflection and renegotiation (Fileborn, 2015), a fluid dialogue interwoven with the fabric of your research endeavours (Madge, 2007). Whilst that sounds rather grand, for me it means being continually alert to the ways that you conduct exchanges and being sensitive to situations which unfold which you may have originally never have anticipated. Let’s take a look at some of the issues which arose.
Recently I became aware of a #chat discussing social media use in an educational context. My researcher role as a participant observer grants license for me to participate in events like this; in fact it would be remiss not to. I enjoyed being there in the moment, asking questions and hopefully contributing to the debate. I became just another member of the group discussing the prompt questions … but of course I wasn’t just that. I was also a researcher who might be subsequently analysing the contributions to the #chat. All of that is OK in the sense that I’ve reflected at length what the ethical issues are, I’ve made a submission for ethics approval for my research and been granted permission to proceed.
It struck me as I participated in the chat, asking questions as any of the other participants might, but also some which might inform my research, that I could be considered to be intruding in a group’s space for my own purposes. Did any of the people who interacted with me have the time to check my profile and note that I was a researcher interested in social media? Probably not. Should I have declared my position as a researcher at the beginning? Before each contribution I made? Maybe, but anyone having taken part in a chat knows how messy and somewhat incoherent things can get. And we always have to negotiate the need to declare our status as a researcher with the impact that might have on the situation.
A couple of weeks later, another #chat hove into view, this time discussing Twitter in the context of teacher learning; clearly closely linked with my research. This time I elected not to participate ‘live’ and to allow the chat to unfold naturally without my … interference. This proved smart, if only from the pragmatic point that it was a much bigger #chat and much more difficult to follow. Had I participated, I undoubtedly would have missed much. Afterwards I drew down the tweets using TAGS, so I could later conduct a detailed analysis, but also so I could review the participants’ contributions. Having done so, I then tweeted replies to some of the contributions that caught my eye. This achieved two things: firstly, away from the heat of the chat, I was able to devote more care to the composition of my tweets and hopefully reduce the likelihood of creating a misunderstanding; and secondly the people to whom I was directing my queries and observations would be able to choose to respond or not based on better information (see next section) and take their time to do so, without worrying about missing out on responding to the #chat questions with their own responses.
Being clear about my status
With a little more breathing space, I had no trouble declaring my status as a researcher to anyone whose tweets I replied to. In each tweet I sent, I included the hashtag #4MyResearch which I hoped would make clear the reasons why I was asking the question(s) I was. This would hopefully provide the people I was inviting to participate with enough information to decide whether they wanted to reply or not. If they didn’t reply, I left it at that and took it as an indication that they didn’t wish to proceed. The vast majority of people did respond which consequently allowed me to open a longer exchange, however, this presented the next conundrum…
How far to press home a question
People were generous enough to participate in my exchanges, but I didn’t feel that gave me license to ask question after question. When people responded initially, it often opened other potential lines of enquiry worth pursuing. However, although they could choose to withdraw at any point by not replying, one of the norms is that this is a discursive space and there is almost an expectation that people respond to questions. I didn’t want to put anyone in that position, so rarely pressed on with my questions beyond three or four iterations of question-response. My strategy was to offer closure by expressing my gratitude for their co-operation and insights, but also offering back a summary of their contributions for confirmation (as we often do in interviews). I tried where possible to do this by phrasing it as a question which allowed them the option to correct my summary or extend the topic further should they wish. Something like this:
So they could either cash in the ‘get out of jail card’ of closure, or continue further if they were so inclined.
Asking for participation in public
One more small nod towards how generous people often are in this Twitter space, is that a handful of people intimated they might be open to a longer chat on the topic. Perhaps they were just being polite in responding to my thanking them or maybe they were actually interested in the topic themselves. Whatever the case, as a researcher, having potential interviewees offer their services is a rare and welcome development. In one instance, the person already followed me so I was able to pursue the offer behind closed doors using the direct messaging (DM) option. This allowed me to provide full participant information, my contact details for any queries and also make it clear that they of course could choose to decline to participate once they knew what was involved … and do all of that in private, so to speak.
A couple of people who offered to be involved in a longer chat did not follow me (nor did they have “Receive Direct Messages from anyone” turned on), which then left me with a dilemma. Should I suggest they follow me so we could exchange details through DM? I felt that might be construed as coercion, so discarded that option and chose instead to thank them for their offer in my reply to their tweet. In addition I pointed them to the participant information and suggested that if they were still interested to get back in touch. That way they could choose not to be involved simply by dropping the thread with no need to deny my request in public. I think the key criterion for me deciding to follow up offers in the public stream, was that people made the offer in the open space themselves; I felt that gave me leave to respond in the same place.
Something that became apparent during all those interactions were the times at which some of them took place. Although I sent out the initial approaches in batches, some during the daytime and some in the evening (local time), the responses came through at all times of the day and night. This could sometimes be 9 or 10 o’clock in the evening (for the respondent), which gave me pause to consider whether I should respond immediately. Would the respondent feel obliged to respond immediately too? Although I see Twitter as both a nominally synchronous and an asynchronous medium and respond to questions at times convenient for me, other people may have completely different views. In some instances I responded promptly, reasoning that if the person chose to send a tweet at this time, then this set what was acceptable for them, however, at other times I waited until the following morning. It’s easy to forget we also have an ethical duty to ourselves and ensuring our own well-being. Even an ethnographer has to eat and sleep sometime.
Here then are my current ethical reflections, ones which will undoubtedly be updated and appended as the research progresses further. If there’s anything in there that you think is contentious or ought to be reconsidered, do please add a comment.
Fileborn, B. (2015). Participant recruitment in an online era: A reflection on ethics and identity. Research Ethics, , 1747016115604150.
Madge, C. (2007). Developing a geographers’ agenda for online research ethics. Progress in Human Geography, 31(5), 654-674