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ethics

expectations of the venue

#ELTchat takes place in Twitter, an information network that connects the user to the latest information and other users by means of 140-character messages, the so-called tweets. More about Twitter and their mission can be found on their About page.

The Terms and Privacy pages of Twitter clearly indicate that the site and its content are public and so is most of the information a user provides (this refers to profile info, if submitted, tweets, favourited tweets, retweets, others the user follows). The user is informed about it when signing up for an account and the links to the terms and conditions are easily accessible from the Twitter home page. According to the site blurb,  the information is archived and easily searchable.

However, in reality the tweets have an expiry date on them. They might be still visible in an individual’s Twitter stream but their searchability decreases with time.  As ReadWriteWeb (August 2009) website explains, they are subject to dynamic selective processes when featuring in the hashtag stream and so the tweets are searchable for about 1.5 weeks, possibly less as the number of tweets in the stream grows. This could be a potential problem as it renders the #eltchat ephemeral. From an ethical point of view the situation is salvaged by the fact that the participants, at least those who attend the chat regularly, are aware of the tweets being backed up right after the chat.

The other related venues such as the blog, the facebook page and the wiki are also publicly accessible.

Content is provided by the chat moderators and sometimes authored by participants – in that case upon clearing the copyright, the moderator copies and pastes it onto the blog/wiki and links it to the original site (the participant’s blog). Content be viewed and read by anybody. Comments left by readers might be subject to moderation (made clear on the blog).

Since Twitter works on the premise of full openness and publicity, there is less obligation to protect individual privacy and seek consent from individual participants of #ELTchat, particularly that the participation varies from session to session, there is no registration or membership as such. However, I have asked one of the moderators for consent and he was to take the request further to the rest of #ELTchat team who unanimously agreed. The only tweets that have been harvested for the display are the ones that feature in the transcript. Some of the information has been taken from participants’ blogs. Although good ethical practice would require the researcher to ask for consent, a less strict approach has been assumed considering the fact that the blogs also belong to a public sphere.

subjects of the study

The moderators and participants are ELT professionals and since the chat covers professional issues, they perform in their professional capacity. Hence, their vulnerability is much lower than if they were participating as private persons. Twitter does not require the users to display their real names, they are allowed to use nicks and these are fully public. The moderators, although they might be using handles on Twitter, are known by their names as these are revealed on the public wiki or blog. The transcripts of the weekly sessions, including participants Twitter usernames are made public on the wiki.

subjects’ expectations

The participants are (should be) fully aware that the nature of the chat is fully public, accessible to everyone, including people not interested in the topic. They should also know that the conversation is not ephemeral but archived and to an extent searchable. They should also know that the information they provided is linked to their name and profile and can be easily found, re-broadcast and used by third parties. In fact, at least experienced participants know that the discussion is being ‘recorded’ – one of the chat features is to collect the transcript after the session and store it on the wiki for a future reference. Also, the script is analysed for the sake of producing a summary in which particular participants are referred to by name.

risks

The content of the communication is already being made available on other sites such as aforementioned blog and wiki in form of the transcript of the discussion (including names/nicknames of the participants) and summaries of the discussion (where names/nicknames are also often referred to).

Since the medium is volatile and restrictive in terms of the length of the message, abbreviations and textspeak are commonly used and spelling/grammar mistakes are possible (potentially harmful, considering the nature of the profession of the participants). Although the researcher plans to refer to individual tweets, she will avoid highlighting tweets that might be problematic in regard to their accuracy.

Some information has been gathered by means of a short, fully anonymous and voluntary survey, a link to which was posted on Twitter with the ELTchat hashtag. 17 responses were considered as additional information for the ethnography.

 

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