Ethics 7 – “When first we practise to deceive”

With one of the fundamental principles of research being to minimise harm, perhaps we should be aiming to tread as lightly as possible in the field? Minimise disturbance to participants? Could it be argued therefore that we should aim to be unobtrusive as possible?


If it is important to gather data based on naturalistic behaviour, as untainted as possible by researcher presence, then being unobtrusive becomes a primary goal. The intention is to avoid observer effects by acting as an ‘overhearer’ (D’Arcy, 2012), rather than a participant who may influence outcomes. However it is a fine line between being unobtrusive and covert; between minimising influence and hiding from view. As Hine (2011) observed:

although we might be able to easily access data using unobtrusive methods, this does not make this ‘ethically available’

The ethical issues do not prevent us from using unobtrusive methods, so much as to remind us of our obligations to participants …and authors.
Unobtrusive research methods predate the Internet, but they have certainly become easier through online channels. Some techniques like content or sentiment analysis of large data sets which provide summaries, rather than specific, identifiable details come with less ethical baggage. Entering a chatroom or monitoring the twitterstream without announcing your presence is also unobtrusive and some might say, crosses an ethical line. This is now covert behaviour, albeit in a ‘public’ place. Lurking, as it is known, is a legitimate online activity however and is common when people enter a new environment for the first time; it allows them to become familiar with norms and conventions.

flickr photo by fudj shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

An ethical case can be made for unobtrusive, even covert research on the grounds of the reduced impact it has on participants. They’re not required to give up any time, to fit appointments into their schedule or to worry whether what they’ve said is helpful/useful to the researcher. Once more we’re confronted with shades of grey rather than definitive answers, however Whitty (2004) draws a line in the sand for us:

“While it might be unclear as to how ethical it is for lurkers to collect data on the Internet, there is less doubt as to whether it is acceptable to deceive others online in order to conduct social research,…”


Being unobtrusive tips over into deception if researchers deliberately conceal their purpose, do not fully disclose relevant information to participants, or provide false information. (Madge, 2007; Frankel and Siang, 1999). Whether lurking constitutes deception is open for debate. Perhaps we need to return to some of the issues discussed in earlier posts, like privacy.

There are circumstances however where deception might pass scrutiny from an ethical review panel. Those situations where the research could not otherwise be undertaken for example, but only if participants (and researcher) are protected from harm and they are debriefed after the research.
In some online arenas, deception (withholding information, pretending to be someone other) might be the norm; MMORPGs and virtual worlds for example, where a player might take on the role of a character or choose an alternate identity. Without good reason, a researcher should avoid such behaviour, instead opting to find the means to disclose to fellow participants that you are conducting research as (Eynon, 2009; Krotowski, 2010).


How you disclose your status as a researcher to the group with whom you are participating online will depend on the conventions in that space. Providing details in your profile together with a link to an institutional website ‘can increase the credibility of the researcher’s claimed identity and shows respect and courtesy to members of the newsgroup.’ (Madge, 2007). Although some groups are openly hostile to the presence of researchers (Hudson and Bruckman, 2004), a respectful approach and involvement might not only grant access, but also pay dividends:

“Such efforts to establish cultural membership and disclose research aims were foundational to creating relations of caring and trust with group participants.” (Walstrom, 2004)

Porr & Ployhart (2004) consider this rendered even more powerfully through the disclosure-reciprocity effect – “we reveal more to those who have been open to us.” By being completely open and transparent with our participants, it is likely that they will reciprocate.

Since they were conducting observation-only research in a public space and did not need to interact with the participants (using interviews, surveys or experiment), Coughlan and Perryman (2015) felt justified in not disclosing their status. However they also took great care in anonymising the data they gathered, even going so far as to break Facebook’s terms of service by altering the screenshots they captured; a practice regularly undertaken by many reputable institutions and other academics.

Perhaps it is our ethical sensitivity that makes us feel uneasy with unobtrusive, covert or even deceptive research. That is right and proper, but we should also take care that we do not sacrifice a potential contribution to knowledge by playing it too safe. Under the right circumstances, we are granted ethical latitude:

“If research requires any kind of deception, then only by the clear demonstration of the benefits of the research can it be justified.” SRA, 2003

“Education researchers do not use deceptive techniques unless they have determined that their use poses no more than minimal risk to research participants; that their use is justified by the study’s prospective scientific, scholarly, educational, or applied value; and that equally effective alternative procedures that do not use deception are not feasible.” AERA, 2011

“Researchers must therefore avoid deception or subterfuge unless their research design specifically requires it to ensure that the appropriate data is collected or that the welfare of the researchers is not put in jeopardy.” BERA, 2011


AERA Code of Ethics: American Educational Research Association Approved by the AERA Council (2011). [online]. Educational researcher, 40 (3), 145-156.
BERA Ethical guidelines for educational research. (2011). London, BERA.
COUGHLAN, Tony and PERRYMAN, Leigh-Anne (2015). A Murky Business: Navigating the Ethics of Educational Research in Facebook Groups. [online]. European journal of open, distance and e-learning, , 146-169.
D’ARCY, Alexandra and YOUNG, Taylor Marie (2012). Ethics and social media: Implications for sociolinguistics in the networked public1. [online]. Journal of sociolinguistics, 16 (4), 532-546.
EYNON, Rebecca, SCHROEDER, Ralph and FRY, Jenny (2009). New techniques in online research: Challenges for research ethics. [online]. Twenty-first century society, 4 (2), 187-199.
FRANKEL, Mark S. and SIANG, Sanyin (1999). Ethical and legal aspects of human subjects research on the Internet. Published by AAAS online, .
HINE, Christine (2011). Internet research and unobtrusive methods. [online]. Social research update, (61), 1.
HUDSON, James M. and BRUCKMAN, Amy (2004). “Go away”: participant objections to being studied and the ethics of chatroom research. [online]. The information society, 20 (2), 127-139.
Social Research Association (2003). Ethical guidelines. [online]
KROTOSKI, Aleks (2010). Introduction to the special issue: Research ethics in online communities. [online]. International journal of internet research ethics, 3 (1), 1-5.
MADGE, Clare (2007). Developing a geographers’ agenda for online research ethics. Progress in human geography, 31 (5), 654-674.
Social Research Association (2003). Ethical guidelines. [online].
PORR, W. Benjamin and PLOYHART, Robert E. (2004). Organizational Research Over the Internet: Ethical Challenges and Opportunities. In: BUCHANAN, Elizabeth A. (ed.). Readings in Virtual Research Ethics: Issues and Controversies. Hershey, USA: Idea Group Inc, 130-155.
WALSTROM, Mary K. (2004). Ethics and Engagement in Communication Scholarship: Analyzing Public, Online Support Groups as Researcher/Participant-Experiencer. In: BUCHANAN, Elizabeth (ed.). Readings in Virtual Research Ethics: Issues and Controversies. Hershey, USA: Idea Group Inc, 174-202.
WHITTY, Monica (2004). Peering into Online Bedroom Windows: Considering the Ethical Implications of Investigating Internet Relationships and Sexuality. In: BUCHANAN, Elizabeth (ed.). Readings in Virtual Research Ethics: Issues and Controversies. Hershey, USA: Idea Group Inc, 203-218.

Ethics 6 – Human subject/authored text?

flickr photo by Scott Smith (SRisonS) shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Research participants have a right to anonymity, confidentiality and being able to provide informed consent. This would appear to be ethically unproblematic, setting aside the issues discussed in the previous post for a moment. To incorporate data drawn from a blog into a report or article would therefore require anonymising any details which might identify the author. But here’s the thing; what if they don’t want to be anonymous? What if their livelihood or reputation is based on the success of their posts, as distinguished by how widely they’re shared and reposted? To unpick this tension, we need consider two different perspectives: the online world can be viewed as a cultural realm wherein people perform and interact, or that what we see online consists instead or authored texts.

A social world

The default (and safe) option is to assume that the activity we view online is intrinsically linked with the people who produced it and consequently we should adopt a ‘human subject’ ethical stance. Originating in medical research, the foundations can be traced back to the Belmont Report and further. Walther (2002) provides the specifics:

Human subjects research is that in which there is any intervention or interaction with another person for the purpose of gathering information, or in which information is recorded by the researcher in such a way that a person can be identified directly or indirectly with it.

The question then is whether is a human subject approach is still valid where the research process neither involves biomedical procedures, nor interacting with people? Markham and Buchanan (2012) in the guidance from the Association of Internet Researchers caution that:

Because all digital information at some point involves individual persons, consideration of principles related to research on human subjects may be necessary even if it is not immediately apparent how and where persons are involved in the research data.

but acknowledge that the Internet may call into question the notion of personhood, asking whether the digital traces we produce online can be considered an ‘extension of self.’ Although the data a researcher might be linked with a person, if we interact with that text, are we still interacting with a human subject?

A textual domain

Some argue for a different sensibility where the data we access on the Internet ought to be considered as ‘authored texts’ (Basset and O’Riordan, 2002; Walther, 2002). Whether a web page, blog post, forum thread or tweet, these textual artefacts have been inscribed onto the world wide web and persist over time. More akin to books, newspaper articles and company reports, they are divorced from the originator and require us to draw from a different set of ethical principles. We think instead of issues around ownership, copyright and attribution, where the text may have been authored by someone, but does not constitute a part of them; the two need not be conflated.

This perspective does not mean we are at liberty to drop the fundamental ethical principles of autonomy and beneficence; they simply shift to ensure them in a different way. Rather than provide anonymity and confidentiality, we acknowledge authorship and attribute it in the same way we would when quoting more traditional works. This assumes of course that we remain sensitive to issues of privacy and sensitivity of subject, though Wilkinson & Thelwall (2011) point out we need not feel obliged to be drawn too far back towards the human subject stance:

Although web texts can be treated as documentary research sources or cultural artefacts, they deserve special consideration because they are less obviously public than a published book and often contain personal information. This is an issue of privacy rather than consent, however.

I’m not sure I’d agree that online texts are less ‘public’ than a published book, when (assuming the text was not written to a private online space) visibility of that text may be no more than a click or two away. A book has to be first bought or borrowed through a conscious act; online texts can be encountered by chance, at any time, by anyone.

We must remember that if someone is publishing in a performative space, where the notion of public audience (and possibly recognition) is the norm, then by anonymising rather than attributing their contribution, we may be doing them a disservice. A harm, rather than a benefit, or as Basset and O’Riordan (2002) put it, a diminution of ‘the cultural capital of those engaging in cultural production through Internet technologies.’

Shades of grey

Simple, accessible tools have become available which enable researchers to hoover up large corpora of data from social media. Big data research brings with it a set of ethical concerns of its own, but within the context of this post, we should ask to what extent the people who generated the texts within these corpora are still present. This becomes even more pertinent if the findings of the research are published in aggregate form, rather than being attributed to (anonymised) individuals. This introduces the ‘distance principle’ (Lomborg, 2013); the degree of conceptual and experiential separation between the researcher and the participant/author, or between the research object and the person who produced it. The closer the distance, the more vividly the ‘human’ comes into view and therefore the more likely it ought to be classified as human subject research. Greater distance can be achieved when the participant identity is less distinct, or when the interaction between researcher and participant is lower.

In the following graphic, on a continuum between human subject and authored text, I’ve added a distance dimension. The examples are notional online research situations, but their precise position will depend on context.

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

The examples coloured red involved close interaction between researcher and participant and high proximity between the object being analysed (interview ‘transcript’) and the producer of the object. The green examples show much greater separation or distance. Red examples will undoubtedly require informed consent; green perhaps not. Would you argue for any of the examples being moved? Can you think of other examples which could be included?


BASSETT, Elizabeth H. and O’RIORDAN, Kate (2002). Ethics of Internet research: Contesting the human subjects research model. Ethics and information technology, 4 (3), 233-247.
LOMBORG, Stine (2013). Personal internet archives and ethics. Research ethics, 9 (1), 20-31.
MARKHAM, Annette and BUCHANAN, Elizabeth (2012). Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research: Version 2.0. [online]. Association of Internet Researchers.
WALTHER, Joseph B. (2002). Research ethics in Internet-enabled research: Human subjects issues and methodological myopia. [online]. Ethics and information technology, 4 (3), 205-216.
WILKINSON, David and THELWALL, Mike (2011). Researching personal information on the public web methods and ethics. Social science computer review, 29 (4), 387-401.

Ethics 5 – Informed consent

flickr photo by quinn.anya shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

When conducting research which involves people, it is important that they are able participate of their own free will. To be able to decide whether to participate, they will need to know in advance what the study involves, what will be expected of them and what any potential risks or benefits might be. They should be able to make their decision freely and without coercion and be able to change their mind should they feel the need. These are the foundations upon which the principle of informed consent is based:

  • autonomy – participants should have sufficient time and (appropriate) information to make a choice.
  • beneficence – participants should be able to experience any benefits and be kept free from harm.
  • justice – ensuring any opportunities, benefits and risks are distributed fairly and equitably.

As researchers, we are guided by the principles produced by our institutions and professional associations mentioned in an earlier post. We also have certain legal obligations enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Data Protection Act 1998.

Gaining consent should not be considered a single, one-off event conducted at the start of (or possibly later in) a study. Rather it should be an ongoing process of mutual exchange, where the researcher regularly reminds the participant that they are involved in a study and the participant is free to ask the researcher questions and indeed is free to withdraw at any point. Practically, this often involves the researcher producing a Participant Information Sheet (PIS) which provides the details of the research in clear, unambiguous language. (An exemplar from my institution can be found here) The prospective participant is given this and provided with adequate time to make a choice about whether to proceed. They are then asked to sign a consent form, which asks them to confirm they understood the information they’ve read, reminds them of what they are providing their consent for and reminds them they can withdraw at any point. Would that it were only that simple!

There are numerous circumstances in which obtaining consent in the way described above are problematic. In some cases, participants may be poorly placed to provide their consent because they have reduced faculties (those with Alzheimer’s for example), lack maturity (the young) or may be indisposed (in a coma). Some studies may not be on specific individuals, but be on communities or organisations; would this require consent from all members, or just a ‘gatekeeper’ or advocate? Research might be conducted at particular events or in locations where people are involved en masse and seeking consent from all would be impractical. Some situations involve a participant who has provided consent, but their usual activities continually bring them into contact with other people on a transient basis; a market stall holder, a librarian or police officer for example. How can the consent of those additional people be obtained without having an impact on the natural activity of the participant, or perhaps compromising the research data? Which all raises the question whether informed consent is always required, or are there circumstances under which obtaining it might not be necessary and if so, what are the factors which need to be taken into account?

It is not always possible or practical to obtain consent, especially in observational studies in unbounded areas like a shopping mall. Using posters or notices, it may be possible to forewarn people that research is taking place, but obtaining consent would be challenging. There is also the issue that by providing notice that research is being undertaken, naturalistic observation becomes impossible because people change their behaviour. Research conducted in this way is said to be ‘covert;’ the participants are unaware that they are being observed. In some circumstances, it may actually be harmful to obtain the consent of individuals, such as in obtaining a signature from someone involved in illicit or illegal activities. This is when ethical issues and the needs of scientific discovery need to be very carefully considered and balanced. Hudson and Bruckman (2004) looked to the U.S.6 regulations governing academic research, which advise that research can only be conducted without informed consent if:

  1. the research is not human subjects research
  2. the research is exempt from IRB (insitutional review board) oversight, or
  3. when an IRB issues a formal waiver of consent.

Like Hudson and Bruckman, I too have concerns about the first two. I’ll discuss human subject research in a future post, but side-stepping ethical review is neither an option, nor something I’d even consider. Here in the UK, we don’t, to my knowledge, have the notion of a ‘formal waiver of consent,’ but our ethics panels are at liberty to approve research where consent will not be sought, provided an adequate case can be made. What indicators can we use then to suggest when informed consent may not need to be sought. The American Sociological Association Code of Ethics (1999) provides guidance on when consent should be sought:

when behavior of research participants occurs in a private context where an individual can reasonably expect that no observation or reporting is taking place.

but qualifies this by suggesting that consent may not be needed where ‘naturalistic observation in public places’ is conducted, provided participants are likely to suffer minimal risk and where the research could not otherwise be conducted practicably. This of course means we need to refer back to the previous discussion on how we differentiate between public and private. McKee and Porter (2009, 11) proposed that for a given set of circumstances, the degree of privacy and level of sensitivity should be established, then a point representing that located on the Sveningsson diagram. By adding a diagonal, it is proposed that anything above and to the right would need informed consent.

Adapted from: MCKEE, Heidi A. and PORTER, James E. (2009). Playing a good game: Ethical issues in researching MMOGs and virtual worlds. [online]. International journal of internet research ethics, 2 (1), , 11.
Adapted from:
MCKEE, Heidi A. and PORTER, James E. (2009). Playing a good game: Ethical issues in researching MMOGs and virtual worlds. [online]. International journal of internet research ethics, 2 (1), , 11.
Of course different researchers or participants might locate the same situation at different points on the chart, but the intention is not for the chart to provide definitive answers, but act as a heuristic to facilitate discussions and negotiations. Ethical issues often manifest themselves as gray, rather than black or white. By also considering the degree to which the researcher would need to interact with participants, McKee and Porter offer a more sophisticated graphic which can further assist decision making:

Adapted from: MCKEE, Heidi A. and PORTER, James E. (2009). Playing a good game: Ethical issues in researching MMOGs and virtual worlds. [online]. International journal of internet research ethics, 2 (1), 30.
Adapted from:
MCKEE, Heidi A. and PORTER, James E. (2009). Playing a good game: Ethical issues in researching MMOGs and virtual worlds. [online]. International journal of internet research ethics, 2 (1), 30.
Of course these determinations make the assumption that it is the researcher(s) making the decision, but perhaps there is space too for including members of the group under study in discussions, thereby shifting the power relationship back towards participants somewhat?

Having considered at length whether consent is necessary, the actual act of obtaining it is not without its challenges. In an online setting, researcher and participant are likely to be geographically separate. Rather than require a physical signature on a printed document, the Internet offers a more direct, immediate option. On many websites, it is standard practice to require new subscribers to ‘sign’ their acknowledgement of terms and conditions by ticking a box; the same technique could be applied for giving consent. Of course it is also true that the majority of people don’t read terms and conditions before ticking the box; this is not something which would be acceptable in a research context, since participants could hardly be considered ‘informed’ if they are not aware of what they are agreeing to. This can be ameliorated to some extent by ensuring the PIS is concise and doesn’t require too much reading, or by breaking down the terms on the consent form into separate steps, each requiring a tick to acknowledge acceptance. Even then, as Flick (2015) observed, it is difficult for a ‘remote’ researcher to be able to tell whether a participant gave considered consent in the same way that a researcher in a face-to-face setting might be able to. The option to quickly seek clarification about an issue they’re unsure about, is somewhat more difficult for an online participant. Nor does the online researcher receive any visual clues that a participant might be hesitant about something, in the same way that a face-to-face researcher might. Flick also argues that authenticity is compromised online; how can a researcher know that the person giving consent is who they say they are; though of course the same could be equally true in face-to-face setting, or indeed in traditional posted survey research. Once more we are faced with balancing the need to undertake the research, against the shortcomings of the medium, as far as informed consent is concerned.

Having negotiated these troubled waters and finally obtained consent from participants, the matter is not yet closed. Particularly in online settings, the composition of those ‘present’ in a social space tends to fluctuate; people tend to come and go as time passes. If consent had been sought and obtained at the outset, that might no longer apply to all present. Once more we find ourselves balancing the need to obtain consent against becoming intrusive with constant reminders and perhaps damaging the nature of the group, or the interactions therein. There is another element we must consider when the research approaches conclusion; whether someone who gave consent to participate also meant consent for their contributions to be shared when the research is published or reported. This need not be too troublesome provided this was included in the PIS at the outset and that participants understood that information they provided might be shared, and in what way it would be shared. Providing anonymity tends to be the default means to smooth this path, but that too can be problematic, as I’ll discuss in a future post. It is also becoming increasingly the norm for research data to be shared more openly, together with the report, thesis or article. What guarantees might a participant have that the terms under which they gave their consent will be adhered to by some future researcher, conducting a different study and using the data in a completely different way?

Wherever possible, involving participants in discussions about what they feel constitutes appropriate and acceptable behaviour for a researcher, is a desirable aspiration. Whether consent is required can form part of that discussion. Rosenberg (2010) identified three distinct sets of views amongst participants. Some would not wish to participate in any form of research without having first provided their consent. Others feel that consent is not required, provided the researcher does not become involved or participate within the activities. The final group would be comfortable with the researcher interacting and gathering data without consent, provided they don’t deceive participants to gain information. That there are different views will come as no surprise. If all those views were to be accommodated, there would be some research or some methods which could not be undertaken. The debate then becomes one of the worth and value of the research for the greater good. Do the benefits outweigh the harms?


BUCHANAN, Elizabeth A. and ZIMMER, Michael (2015). Internet Research Ethics. [online]. In: Edward N. Zalta (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Spring 2015 ed., .

FLICK, Catherine (2016). Informed consent and the Facebook emotional manipulation study. [online]. Research ethics, 12 (1), 14-28.

HUDSON, James M. and BRUCKMAN, Amy (2004). “Go away”: participant objections to being studied and the ethics of chatroom research. [online]. The information society, 20 (2), 127-139.

MCKEE, Heidi A. and PORTER, James E. (2009). Playing a good game: Ethical issues in researching MMOGs and virtual worlds. [online]. International journal of internet research ethics, 2 (1), , 5-37.

ROSENBERG, A. (2010). Virtual world research ethics and the private/public distinction. [online]. International journal of internet research ethics, 3 (1), 23-37.

Ethics 4 – Privates on parade?

flickr photo by aotaro shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

When thinking about the ethics of a situation, it won’t be not long before the online researcher will be troubled by a ‘private versus public’ debate. The reason why this becomes such a pressing issue is that it will serve as a guide to the way the researcher should behave in particular circumstances. This is particularly significant when determining whether consent should be sought and/or whether it is necessary to maintain anonymity for the participants.

What do we mean by ‘private’ … or ‘public?’

Privacy may be defined in law, but for most of us, it is determined by social norms. Different people have very different conceptions of what it means to them and those conceptions may vary depending on circumstances. For many years private and public have been viewed as a dichotomy, with domestic life and the home representing the former. Although personal too can sometimes mean private, this is not always the case, as I shall discuss later.

Let us first consider to what we’re referring when we wish to distinguish between private and public. There are two main perspectives here: firstly a spatial one in which some regions or locations are viewed as more or less, private or public. A town square might be considered a public space and one’s car a private one. Secondly, information can be viewed in the same way; some is public, like a train timetable, and some private – a message to a lover. But in this last example, we begin to see a further possibility – conversation, or the exchange of information. Here then we see that the intended audience for the information we wish to share matters too. As Rosenberg (2010, 34) suggests

It is not enough to consider whether a space is public, who the intended audience is or whether some information is personal. All three must be considered.

What we’ve seen in recent years however, is a shift in emphasis from the times when privacy could be taken for granted, because sharing information was more difficult. Social media has changed that to ‘public by default; private through effort’ boyd & Marwick (2011, 12).

Polar opposites?

The suggestion so far is of a public – private dichotomy, but social norms and the way we view these two poles are shifting. Perhaps with the advent of technologies like email, the mobile phone and text messaging, work-life (public) is beginning to intrude in home-life (private) and similarly, more people access their home or personal lives whilst at work. The private – public boundary is increasingly blurring. Many authors caution against viewing public-private as a dichotomy. A particular space can be public and private at different times, in different contexts and at different scales. The public-private status of a school for example can be quite fluid in a way that, say a library is not. A maintained (state-funded) school is considered a public resource1 available for the benefit of its local population. However the entrance gate, often secured during the school day, suggests a more private place. Access is only allowed to specific people: those who work there, the student population, parents and other legitimate visitors. That of course changes on ‘open’ days, for sports events or theatrical productions; or at different times of the day, week or school year. Context and temporality become important. At a smaller scale, the school can be broken down into smaller spaces, some of which are more or less public. The school hall may be accessible to all, but more or less so at different times of the day. Senior staff may have offices which are mainly private, at least for certain sectors of the school population. Perhaps there are some parallels here with social media where some areas are more public and open than others, but individuals can choose precisely how public their space or the information they wish to share is by using privacy settings? As Ford (2011) observed:

Between the purely private and the purely public there exist an infinite and an infinitely variable number of configurations that fall somewhere between the traditional categories of ‘private’, things that happen or are said behind physical or virtual closed doors, and ‘public’, those interactions and events that take place within full view of an unknown audience.

Sveningsson Elm (2009, 136) offers a system in which the private – public continuum can be subdivided into four categories:

  • public – open and accessible to everyone
  • semi-public – open and accessible, but only to those who have obtained membership
  • semi-private – only available to those who have secured membership, the criteria for which are conditional
  • private – hidden or unavailable to anyone but the owner and invited guests

What categorisations help researchers do is to establish when and where it might not be necessary to obtain informed consent. Sveningsson Elm for example, suggests that public and semi-public spaces might not require consent to be obtained. Perhaps, but there are still further factors we should take into account before making that decision. What might be considered private to someone in the UK, might be perceived as more public to someone in Trinidad. A teen’s view of their bedroom as a private space may be viewed differently by their younger sister or father.


The ways in which individuals perceive privacy is rather fluid, varying from person to person, across different contexts and changing at different times. As a citizenry, many people trade-off increasing ubiquity of surveillance cameras for better protection and detection of crime; they accept cookies which track our web browsing for a more personalised experience; and allow in-app monitoring to benefit from location-based services like Tinder. Yet if a fellow passenger on the bus was to overtly read our activity on our smartphone, we would most likely object, seeing that as an invasion of personal space or privacy. However, strangely, as Ford (2011, 556) noted:

protecting all tidbits of personal information is simply not as important to some as it used to be. In fact, some individuals turned the idea of surveillance on its head, broadcasting their daily lives to the entire World Wide Web.

Personal is private?

Although our initial reaction is to conflate private with personal, this is not always valid. People often publicly share very personal, sometimes intimate things through social media, in a way they wouldn’t do offline. This is often completely intentional and with an awareness of potential outcomes, but as boyd and Marwick (2011) noted of people’s behaviour:

practices in networked publics are shaped by their interpretation of the social situation, their attitudes towards privacy and publicity, and their ability to navigate the technological and social environment.

However, the alternate argument can also be posed, where people, either through lack of experience or maturity, may not conceive of the full extent of their audience. They may be writing for a specific subset, or be writing in a more personal way, not for public consumption. Young (2013, 168) found some researchers and some participants who expressed the view that people performed in particular ways with intent and understanding, but Young also found others who held the opposite view. There is often a far greater degree of nuance than might at first appear. Lange (2007) describes two different behaviours – people can be ‘publicly private,’ where they share personal identity information, but restrict access using a range of mechanisms. Alternately, they might be ‘privately public,’ by sharing and connecting widely, but restricting the amount of personal information they share. Tied up in this are three factors: identity information (identifying personal details), content relevance (how closely the shared information matches the interests of the intended audience) and technical access (privacy and password settings). So if someone is openly sharing their identity, not limiting access in any way and making the content relevant to the audience, then perhaps the researcher might feel less inclined to seek informed consent? Some would say that a researcher is clearly not a member of the intended audience; yet as an ethnographer and participant observer, haven’t they gained the status of being considered a member of the ‘community?’


In a further extension of the public-private continuum, Sveniningsson (2004, 56) advises adding the extra dimension of sensitivity of the information. On these axes she has medium on the horizontal, and information on the vertical. I’ve added indicative examples.

Adapted from: SVENINGSSON, Malin (2004). Ethics in Internet ethnography. In: BUCHANAN, Elizabeth A. (ed.). Readings in Virtual Research Ethics: Issues and Controversies. 45-61.

If the medium is considered private, or the information sensitive, then the researcher should handle the situation with discretion. If the medium is public and the information non-sensitive, the researcher might feel less obliged to seek consent.


So we need to think about the nature of the information shared and the space involved. The context, scale and temporality of the circumstances should inform any decisions. We need to remember also that different people will have different perceptions of public and private and display fluid behaviour that shifts along a continuum between the two. My feeling is that this brief observation from boyd & Crawford (2012) might prove particularly helpful in guiding researchers’ actions:

there is a psychological difference between being in public (sitting in a park) and being public (actively courting attention)”


In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at the issue of ‘consent.’


BOYD, danah and CRAWFORD, Kate (2012). Critical questions for big data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon. Information, communication & society, 15 (5), 662-679.

BOYD, danah and MARWICK, Alice (2011). Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies. [online].

FORD, Sarah Michele (2011). Reconceptualizing the public/private distinction in the age of information technology. [online]. Information, communication & society, 14 (4), 550-567.

ROSENBERG, A. (2010). Virtual world research ethics and the private/public distinction. [online]. International journal of internet research ethics, 3 (1), 23-37.

SVENINGSSON ELM, Malin (2009). How Do Various Notions of Privacy Influence Decisions in Qualitative Internet Research?. Internet Inquiry: Conversations About Method. SAGE Publications, Inc. In: MARKHAM, Annette M. and BAYM, Nancy K. (eds.). Internet inquiry: Conversations about method. Thousand Oaks, CA, SAGE Publications, Inc, 69-88.

SVENINGSSON, Malin (2004). Ethics in Internet ethnography. In: BUCHANAN, Elizabeth A. (ed.). Readings in Virtual Research Ethics: Issues and Controversies. 45-61.

YOUNG, Kirsty (2013). Researching Young People’s Online Spaces. [online]. Negotiating ethical challenges in youth research, , 163-176.

1In the UK, we have an unfortunate legacy naming convention where public schools are actually private(!) and independent of the state.

Ethics 3 – ‘Field’ … of dreams?

flickr photo by J. Stephen Conn shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

The ‘place’ or setting in which an ethnography is conducted is known as the field. Traditionally, this might be a specific place or geographical location; a village, hospital or school for example. Alternately the field might involve a particular community or group of people, so the field becomes the social world(s) those people inhabit. Now the field may no longer be geographically bounded and is more likely to traverse multiple sites. Whilst hopefully enriching the study, the increased complexity presents new challenges for the ethnographer, though in the context of this post, it is the ethical issues to which I turn.

The research questions I mentioned in the previous post initially suggest that Twitter might form the field site within which this study is located. I see it more as point of entry; the one to which I have been directed by those tweets where people claim how it provides a powerful mechanism through which they learn professionally. What I’m keen to explore is how it does that and in what ways, but not losing sight of how Twitter is interconnected with the rest of the world wide web. Not only that, but since this has become an integrated part of people’s lives, including their professional learning, where else does it extend? If someone claims they are learning professionally while accessing Twitter (and using the interconnections to move into other spaces) on their smartphone whilst travelling on the bus to work, then what is the field site one would choose to approach? Postill and Pink (2012) argue for ethnography which moves “away from community and towards sociality and movement.” In so doing, how do our ethical concerns shift?

The pilot study I mentioned in the previous post employs a number of methods. One of the reasons for this is to begin to reveal some of the pathways professional learning might follow, but also to explore where the boundaries of the study might be. When the limits within which the study will be conducted are unknown, predicting the ethical issues is more difficult … but not impossible.  Our aim then should be for ethical sensitivity and flexibility, but grounded in the fundamental ethical principles.

Each of the eight methods I’ll undertake can be treated individually and the ethical considerations highlighted in advance. These are informed by the experiences and knowledge the digital ethnographic pioneers can provide. (Baym, 1999; Hine, 2000; Markham, 1998; Miller & Slater, 2000) One of the first issues which arose involved the distinction between the offline and online worlds. Could the ethics applied in fully offline studies be applied equally well in online ones? A simple example; consider an ethnographer conducting observations in a shopping centre (mall) making notes. Passers by may not know exactly what they are doing, but they are conducting their business in plain sight. A digital ethnographer undertaking a similar study in an equivalent open, online public space (like Twitter) might be completely invisible to those under observation. We’re obliged to think about the similarities and differences between the two, then either apply the same ethical principles to both situations, or develop different ones for each.

This may be fine whilst the two spaces are distinct, but as intimated earlier, the boundary between the online and offline is becoming increasingly blurred, so where does that leave the ethics?

The apparent duality of online-offline, blurred by changing behaviour and experiences, is not the only one we face when pondering ethical implications. Others to which I shall turn during the next few posts will include public versus private; one of the main factors many address when attempting to identify the ethical issues surrounding a set of circumstances. Resolving this are is important when considering whether it necessary to seek the informed consent of those with whom you wish to participate. As Coughlan and Perryman (2015) identified, some argue that informed consent is always necessary, whereas as others feel that the context is everything, especially in terms of public-private places. The brief example I gave earlier also raises another issue; that of disclosure. To what extent do you reveal your presence as a researcher as you undertake your observations? Some online spaces make hiding your identity or intent particularly easy, but is this ever ethically defensible? Assuming researchers always reveal themselves, how might that affect the data they gather and what are the implications for accessing the space and approaching those within it? One duality I’ll explore in more detail is one I’d never considered before, other than as a result of thinking about other things. This begins from the view that some hold in that Internet research might require a completely different ethical perspective. Everything I’ve discussed so far assumes this is human-subject research; after all, it is centred on professional learning of teachers (humans!) in a social environment (Twitter). Some however, contend that it’s not so simple and that the place we start from is the texts that these humans have produced. This shifts the perspective since analysis of texts, even if it was humans that produced them, is not human-centred and requires a different ethical sensibility. Instead of confidentiality and anonymity, our focus shifts to issues around authorship and intellectual property.

These then are some of the areas I’ll pick up in the next few posts. When you’re on Twitter, have you ever thought that a researcher might be observing your tweets? Does that bother you?


BAYM, Nancy K. (1999). Tune in, log on: Soaps, fandom, and online community. Sage Publications. , 3.

COUGHLAN, Tony and PERRYMAN, Leigh-Anne (2015). A Murky Business: Navigating the Ethics of Educational Research in Facebook Groups. [online]. European journal of open, distance and e-learning, , 146-169.

HINE, Christine (2000). Virtual ethnography. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif., SAGE.

MARKHAM, Annette N. (1998). Life online : researching real experience in virtual space. Lanham, Md. ; Plymouth, Lanham, Md. ; Plymouth : AltaMira.

MILLER, Daniel and SLATER, Don (2000). The Internet : An Ethnographic Approach. Oxford, Oxford : Berg.

POSTILL, John and PINK, Sarah (2012). Social media ethnography: the digital researcher in a messy web. [online].


Ethics 2 – Context

flickr photo by soldierant shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

In this post I intend to present the factors which need weighing when thinking about the ethical considerations involved in my study. This begins with the research question(s) I want to answer and the strategy I intend to follow. It would be ethically unsound for example, to attempt to answer particular research questions using inappropriate methods. The details are in the About section, but I’ll summarise them here:

I’m aiming to answer the following research questions:

  1. How does the Twitter social media platform support the professional learning of teachers?
  2. What forms of professional learning do teachers undertake using Twitter?
  3. How does professional learning extend beyond Twitter into the wider social media ecosystem and the ‘real’ world?
  4. What attitudes and dispositions do teachers need, to use Twitter for their professional learning?

I intend to undertake a digital ethnographic study and employ an actor-network theory approach. Since this research is being undertaken within a relatively new context, I’ll begin with a pilot phase which will include small-scale tests of potential methods to be employed. These largely come under the umbrella term of participant observation. They will include:

  • Immersion in my Twitter stream for 24 hours (possibly over three shifts) – ‘deep hanging out’. This will provide a snapshot of activity from a self-selecting sample of the two thousand plus educators I follow.
  • Closely following the twitterstream of a teacher for a limited period, chosen from those who have made claims regarding the efficacy of Twitter. This is to investigate whether focusing on an individual might yield more informative data.
  • Attempting informal interviews using the commenting feature on blogs. This will be across a small number of blog posts in which the authors make claims of how useful they found Twitter for professional learning.
  • Conducting a single semi-structured interview with one of the more evangelical of those educators making claims for Twitter. This should tease out areas and themes to explore in more depth.
  • Seeking permission, then attempting a focus group interview within a Twitter #edchat. This may push the boundaries of what constitutes a focus group, or the depth of discussion possible in a #chat.
  • Using an automated routine to collect tweets over one month which reference a particular term e.g. “professional learning.” This will access the general Twitter stream and therefore a wider sample, offering the potential for unanticipated outcomes to emerge.
  • Attempting to open dialogue within Twitter (or elsewhere) with anyone who makes claims about Twitter in relation to their professional learning. A ‘naive’ stance will be taken whilst attempting to draw out further information.
  • Small-scale social network analysis of a topic or hashtag to explore the interconnections which are forming. The focus here is not on the content of the tweets, nor the people which are connected, but the ways they are connected with each other and the information flows between them.

It is likely that some those brief descriptions of methods may have caused a sharp intake of air between pursed lips! At least, if you’re adopting ethical sensitivity, then they should. I’ll explore my more detailed thinking in subsequent posts, but first let’s start with an overview. In order to answer questions about the activities people undertake in particular locations, an ethnographic method is appropriate. The methods traditionally associated with ethnography begin with fieldwork, in which the researcher will observe activity, record field notes, participate in activities and ask questions of others. At the core then, this is participant observation, interviewing, notemaking and interpretation. The process is iterative, in that an observation might prompt a particular set of questions, which when answered may lead to more specific observations. The methods I’m proposing are built on these foundations; the field is (mainly) online, methods 1, 2 and 6 are largely observational; methods 3, 4, 5 & 7 are different forms of interviews. Method 8 is not traditionally associated with ethnography, but serves as a useful adjunct to explore how people are interlinked and the pathways through which information is exchanged (Edwards, 2010).

Having considered the methods to be used, and having discussed in the previous post that this research involves human participants, it’s to them I now turn. It is not unusual to be studying groups of people with something in common; they may be geographically co-located, share a common interest or be biologically linked. In my case the group is people embedded within, predominantly as providers. The majority will be teachers in the compulsory phases (working with children aged between five and eighteen), but may also include those in pre-school or tertiary sectors. Some may work in independent education, others in the maintained or state system. Some may be former teachers (retired or in new posts outside school) and others providing services to schools and teachers. Approximately half are in the UK, the remainder spread around the world, but almost universally tweet in English. This is not a comparative study, so a precise breakdown would serve little purpose. They will not be representative of the population as a whole, nor even necessarily of the teaching profession. They are a subset – people linked to education who use Twitter. The crucial ethical point though is that these people are adults and can be considered educated to a high standard. This is an important factor when thinking about providing information about this study and seeking their informed consent. They are better placed than an average member of the population to be able to understand any information with which they are presented. Another significant factor is that as a group, they would not be considered ‘vulnerable’ members of the population as a whole.

After the methods and the participants, the final part of the contextual make up is the ‘field’ and it is to that I shall turn in the next post.


EDWARDS, Gemma (2010). Mixed-method approaches to social network analysis. [online], ESRC National Centre for Research Methods.


Ethics 1 – Introduction

flickr photo by Louisa-Chan shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

During a break time at the last doctoral students awayday, a small group of us were discussing the preceding session on ethics. One, conducting research into a mid-eighteenth century history, didn’t foresee any issues. Nor indeed did another whose focus was 19th century literature. Until then, and based on my own prelimary thoughts, I’d thought that the ethical issues would be a big deal for all of us. The naivety flannel once more slapped me across the face.

No matter what the research topic, we’re all obliged to undertake an ethical review of our study. The formal part of this begins with a sequence of questions we have to ask of our research; though if you are conducting research into an area within which ethical issues are significant, it’s likely you’ll have come across some of them during your reading. At Sheffield Hallam University, as doubtless at many others, the process begins as we submit our formal request for approval of our research programme. We work through a series of questions on a form called SHUREC1 in order to establish whether our research project and plans need to be submitted for ethical review . There’s no secret here; in fact quite the contrary. It’s published for the world to see as part of the ethical approval process through which all university research is required to pass, prior to commencing. It’s important for us, as researchers and members of the university, to conduct our research with integrity, ethical sensitivity and by adopting principles of good practice. The statements, policies and procedures on the website make what we do open to public scrutiny. They are available for anyone who might read about the research we do, or perhaps more importantly, become participants in our research, to explain the framework within which that research has been conducted.

The ethical considerations of research projects can be viewed across a spectrum. The research of my fellow students mentioned earlier will perhaps be towards one end of the scale, whereas mine tends to the other. The crucial aspects understandably, are whether your research involves ‘human subjects,’ will be conducted in co-operation with the National Health Service, with Social Care/Community Care or the Criminal Justice Systems. If it does, then the ethical issues inevitably become more complex and a more detailed examination of your research is required. Once you have conducted this assessment, you submit your proposal to be considered by an ethical approval panel who will examine your proposed procedures, the ethical issues you have acknowledged and how you intend to accommodate those issues. They may approve your research, or more commonly, highlight unforeseen areas of concern and suggest possible amendments. Until your research has been approved by the panel, it cannot proceed.

When your research involves human participants, as mine does, there are a number of factors to consider. Are you working with people who are sick or on medication? With people who have learning disabilities or would be unable to provide their consent for the research. With people who are vulnerable in some way – young, elderly, bereaved, marginalised. Whether your procedures might be demanding, invasive or intrusive. Whatever the situation, as researchers, we are guided by a body of knowledge, experience, guidance and legislation which began to be built around the mid-twentieth century. There’s a helpful overview here, but the ethical framework within which we work began with the Nuremburg Code (1947), was further refined through the Declaration of Helsinki (1964, aimed primarily at medical research) and more recently in the Belmont Report (1979). The latter enshrines the ethics which now guide us via the principles of respect, beneficence and justice. These fundamentals have been interpreted and extended by professional, academic and governmental bodies, to address the issues specific to certain circumstances or within particular disciplines.

My research is within the social sciences, will involve human participants and will largely be conducted through the Internet using a digital ethnographic methodology. In addition to my university’s institutional policies, I will be guided by the ethical principles of associations and organisations like the British Sociological Association, the British Educational Research Association, the American Educational Research Association, the Sociological Research Association, the British Psychological Society, the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth and the Association of Internet Researchers. There is no shortage of guidance, but that which refers specifically to research conducted on and through the Internet (where there is any) can be somewhat generic and sometimes, the guidance from one body conflicts with that from another. This is hardly surprising given the pace at which the Internet has developed. This is where the integrity of the researcher, supported by ethical review procedures, is so important; in helping the emerging ethics associated with Internet research to evolve. It is also worth noting when these guidelines were published; some as far back as 2002. Some researchers have suggested a centrally managed, regularly updated set of guidelines specific to Internet research would be helpful. Others feel that the general principles can and should be applied to any situation; it is the responsibility of the researcher to adopt a continually reflexive approach which interprets the general principles in each new set of circumstances.

That then is what I intend to do over the next few posts. To consider the context of, and specifics within my study and how I should apply fundamental ethical principles and specific ethical advice from the aforementioned guides.

#SocMedHE15 #3 – 1st Half

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Workshop 1

During the first workshop session, I participated in Copyright education in the age of social media led by Jane Secker. Despite the importance, copyright is not an area people seek out for pleasure and enjoyment, but that’s just what Jane was seeking to provide through the game-based scenario we had the chance to sample.

Many staff (and students?) are fearful or ignorant of their obligations as far as copyright is concerned. In the sessions Jane provides, she aims to flip the perspective from one with the negative associations of restrictive, complicated procedures and practice, to one celebrating the freedoms and opportunities that are available. This is done through the game, the core of which is centred on discussion between the participants, prompted by different scenarios … the typical kinds of situations we might face in our practice. Having library-based staff amongst the participants meant we had quite a range of people with different knowledge bases on which to draw. This made for interesting and lively discussions, especially since many of the cases with which we were presented were far from clear cut.

Jane also provided us with a couple of hard-copy booklets for future reference, together with pointers to online resources like and the UCISA Social Media Toolkit. Oh, and let’s not forget the copyright fortune cookies!

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license


Short Paper 1

In Morality, social media and the educational researcher, Leigh-Anne Perryman and Tony Coughlan, presented details of two research projects they’d undertaken using FaceBook as the source. In one case this had been through a ‘closed’ group and in a second one which was ‘open.’ The challenges arising from each were very different and highlighted the somewhat blurred private-public space distinction, how access was negotiated to each and and how (if!) informed consent could/should be obtained. This is discussed at greater length in their paper.

Although I was already aware of some of the issues, such as how to declare your nature as a researcher when joining a group/community, I was grateful for the prompt that we may need also to consider how we negotiate changes in status during our membership. I’d also never thought of the ethical issues that might arise if we encounter information which might suggest that someone might be at risk; how do we balance our duty to maintain privacy with the potential harm that our choice of action might result in. Though the likelihood of that occurring during my study is slim, it is however possible that people may ‘over’-share personal information. As a researcher, I need to be sensitive to that and watchful of how I process that.

When the time comes to share our findings, we are of course obliged to ensure we take steps to:

  • protect the individual, and
  • protect the online community of which those individuals are part.

The guidelines from BERA and AERA can help with this, but the former tend to be more conservative, especially in requiring confidentiality and anonymity as the norm. AERA guidelines however, don’t demand confidentiality where the research is conducted in a public space. The researcher has to tread very carefully then, negotiating this complex arena and perhaps erring on the side of caution.

This was an incredibly meaningful session for me. Although I’m unlikely to be using Facebook as a site of research, it was helpful to see the considerations made and the guidance upon which researchers can draw. Whilst the generic approach might be consistently one involving public-private distinctions, informed consent and confidentiality/anonymity, it’s clear that each case has to be analysed on its own merits. I particularly appreciated being introduced to several new terms, some of which may be significant in the context of my own study: dissociative anonymity, the minimization of authority and solipsistic introjection.


Short Paper 2

Lee Dunn presented his paper on Social Media as a Professional Medium: achieving an equilibrium of enthusiasm and protection for new teachers in which he outlined how ITE students at the University of Glasgow are encouraged to collaborate and communicate through social media. Although some students refuse to participate through social media, on ideological grounds, the majority do become involved, sharing and discussing their experiences largely through Twitter. Lee also mentioned how the channels many of us tend to use professionally (emails, Twitter, LinkedIn) do not form part of the networks with which the majority of new students would identify. Corralling them onto a single platform, like Twitter, can therefore prove challenging.

The difficulties encountered when devising a curriculum and assessments were outlined, then a sample of the activities on which students were engaged was provided. One of these involved a discussion around the Professional Guidelines the GTC for Scotland produces for its teachers (PDF) and the implications for practice and professional learning.

I was struck by the resistance students have to learning using social media. Yes, I get that might be another platform to learn and presence to manage. I also appreciate that people will have different views on privacy; some being highly tuned to what personal data they’re offering up to the online platform providers. I know too that many prefer to keep their personal and professional lives apart and young people especially can sometimes resent ‘the man’ intruding on what they perceive to be their personal space … like your mum friending you on Facebook. However I think that teachers in the making have an additional responsibility to the students they’ll ultimately be responsible for supporting. Being able to guide students in their online activities, their digital literacy if you will, is the responsibility of every single teacher I’d argue, in the same way the textual literacy and numeracy is the responsibility of all. Now if, through choice, a teacher has no experience of social media whatsoever, how they ever be expected to provide the guidance needed? I would have thought that an opportunity like that Lee was providing, in a controlled, structured and supportive space, would be one not to pass up.



The morning and afternoon session were linked by a rather excellent buffet lunch; the quality of the food was outstanding. Having filled my plate, I moved to the side and opened a chat with someone. As we exchanged how we had come to the conference and what our backgrounds were, it suddenly became clear that we had had several exchanges on Twitter and were hoping to bump into one another. Given the numbers at the conference, how surprising then that the first person I chat with at lunch was Wasim Ahmed, also conducting research into Twitter, though from a rather different perspective to me.

I don’t believe in coincidences, but …

I’ve never made field notes before, let alone when participating in an online activity. I’ll say no more about what the online activity was since I’m already sufficiently troubled by ethical issues without giving myself another headache. In reality this was just an attempt to expose myself to a technique, not to capture any real data which might later find their way into an analysis. I’m nowhere near being in a position to begin capturing data yet; this was much more about trying out a method so I can see what the issues are and what I still have to learn.

This was prompted mainly by the video I watched last night by Graham Gibbs whose YouTube Channel is such a wonderful resource for those of us learning about research methods. Although I’ve read a little about participant observation, I’m far from being in a position to undertake a serious project. Nor have I yet read anything about making field notes, other than brief sections in books on ethnography.

So I thought I’d jump in at the deep end, enter a field and reflect on the experience. This post isn’t that reflection. I got distracted!

After the activity I looked back at my notes and wondered where to go next. What is the appropriate behaviour for an ethnographer making field notes? How does one make them? What should they look like? What post-processing should be undertaken? (I still have to watch the second part of Graham’s video, so I may yet find out) However, what I did of course was perform an online search. The second returned result immediately attracted my attention: ‘Writing live fieldnotes: towards a more open system’. Written by Tricia Wang, whose work I’ve come across before (but can’t find the post at the moment!), there was much here to think about in terms of how to go about making field notes, together with illustrations taken from a live situation. As I read through the post and viewed photo after photo that Tricia took as part of the field notes, I began to ponder the ethical issues. (Another area that’s been at the forefront of my mind recently. A blog post, or two, will follow). I wondered whether Tricia had made a submission to an ethical review board, as I’m about to do. Maybe she had some advice to offer, so I thought to perhaps ask a question through the comments. I scrolled down to the foot of the post only to find Sam Ladner had already beaten me to it. Tricia only briefly referred to consent in her post, so we perhaps didn’t have the full picture, but like Sam I too wondered about longevity and persistence and what happens if those captured in the images subsequently withdraw consent, as they’re entitled to do. Who is to say that the images won’t migrate elsewhere, beyond the confines of the research project; I’m pretty sure that a standard consent form wouldn’t legislate for that. However, I ought really to get to the point made in the title. In reply to Sam’s comment on ethics was no other than Tom Boellstorff, author of a book I’m reading right at this moment – ‘Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method.’ AND replying to Tom was Annette Markham, an incredibly important author in the field of online ethnography and someone who has a more than passing interest in the ethical issues of online research.

I still never cease to be amazed at the ways in which we are interconnected by and through the Internet.

“Online Social Research”

This book draws together a collection of essays on online social research brought under three main themes: Methods, Issues and Ethics.

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Published in 2004, the areas researched are very contemporary to the era and include MUDs, MOOs Usenet, Forums. Whilst these still exist, it would be fair to say that things have moved on in the intervening decade. Social networking sites, mobile technologies and the ‘app’ infrastructure offer up an additional and rather different set of ecosystems to explore. These new spaces are environments to which people migrated, but perhaps more importantly have offered easier and more mainstream entry points for an increasing proportion of the population. Which all leaves me wondering about the majority of the literature I’ve encountered so far and how it can inform current research.

There are some universals the book covers which still apply; the differences and similarities between online and face-to-face ethnography; the extent to which the offline and online are blurring (a topic becoming increasingly significant); the importance of the approach the researcher uses when entering an online ‘field.’ The methods the authors employed during their studies at the turn of the century are still applicable now: online surveys/questionnaires, interviews, network analysis, discourse, text and language analysis. What we now have is a greater diversity of spaces where they might be applied, and arguably, a richer toolset to deploy.

Another area quite rightly discussed at length and still of importance, is that of ethics. I must confess to failing to appreciate how diverse and complex an area this is. Whilst the usual considerations of ethical behaviour have to be borne in mind, undertaking research online brings a multitude of additional concerns. It is possible to ‘lurk’ online in a way an offline ethnographer could never manage. How should a researcher disclose their intent? How can a researcher gain informed consent of the subjects under study if the study is in an environment with hundreds or thousands of participants? How much more difficult it is to anonymise data drawn from the online world … or even whether it is fair to do so. The legal issues of copyright and ownership of text (and multimedia) created online, which you might then wish to reproduce in your report. I have much work to do in this area.

As I move on from this book, I feel I need to seek out more recent research involving current online spaces. Are the methods currently being used the same as the ones we used ten years ago, or are newer, more effective options available?