You need to think carefully about the ethical issues surrounding your piece of ethnographic work over the coming weeks. The Association of Internet Researchers guidelines are a good starting point for thinking through ethical issues in relation to the use of virtual ethnography, though they are getting a little bit old now. The questions they raise do help in terms of establishing whether there are ethical issues that have serious implications for your own micro-studies.
1) What ethical expectations are established by the venue?
The greater the acknowledged publicity of the venue, the less obligation there may be to protect individual privacy, confidentiality, right to informed consent, etc.
2) Who are the subjects posters / authors / creators of the material and/or inter/actions under study?
The greater the vulnerability of the author/subject – the greater the obligation of the researcher to protect the author/subject.
3) What are the initial ethical expectations/assumptions of the authors/subjects being studied?
Do participants in this environment assume/believe that their communication is private? The assumption of privacy may be there regardless of whether exchanges actually are private or not.
4) What ethically significant risks does the research entail for the subject(s)?
If the content of a subject’s communication were to become known beyond the confines of the venue being studied – would harm likely result?
Perhaps the best way forward would be to ask these questions of your own proposed domain of study, and if you have serious doubts on any of these points just choose something else. This is a small-scale, essentially 2-week activity, in which only something very contained can be achieved. So in addressing the questions above, we suggest you would want to bear the following in mind:
1) the community exchanges should be as public domain as possible, bearing in mind that just because a series of exchanges are publicly available it does not necessarily follow that it’s OK to research them without consent, particularly since the results of your research are going to be publicly available. If you have doubts, speak to your tutor.
2) the field definitely does not involve the vulnerable, as far as can be established (ie no children, those explicitly with mental health issues, etc)
3) try to stick to communities where there is no reasonable expectation that the communication taking place is private (ie YouTube is probably OK, much of Facebook probably isn’t: see Michela Clari’s paper in the secondary readings for an example of work around a Flickr ‘community’)
4) if there’s even a suspicion of possible risk to participants in your research or publication of the analysis, avoid the field.
In most cases you would want to avoid the need to gain individual consent in such a small-scale piece of work, though it may in many instances be appropriate just to post a message letting people know you’re doing the research and to let you know if they don’t want you to cite them, particularly if you are researching a community of which you are a part. Or it might be appropriate to contact the moderator of the group to gain permission that way.
One final point – if you have doubts about ethical implications for your own study, please talk to your tutor about them. Your tutors carry ultimate responsibility as far as the School is concerned, if anything goes wrong.
If you feel constrained by the limits of this micro-ethnography, bear in mind that you can come back to an activity like this for a more sustained piece of research for the dissertation.
Finally, please share your links on ethical issues in internet research by using the delicious tag edcethics.