Internet Research and Public Exposure

I’ve written before about internet research ethics when I was doing my #mscret blogs for University, but I’ve been writing about these ideas again and putting them into practice whilst writing my MSc Dissertation on mobile video and social media. I’ve just completed one case study on #NextGenHello, the Instagram-based crowdsourced film that I wrote about last time, and I’m currently conducting two research surveys – one is an open survey on smart phone users which you can take right here if you want! (Shameless plug, please take my survey. I promise it’s very short.)

The surveys are fairly easy to deal with when it comes to ethics – all entries are kept anonymous, the data is used strictly for my work, all of the questions are optional. My methods had to be pre-approved by the University as is standard in research work. However the case study has been harder to deal with. The video clips in #NextGenHello were for a film, so they were intended for a wider audience, but no-one in the study specifically signed up for my work. And how does this hurt people? Well, for starters it could hurt the communities of people who made the videos in the first place.

“…virtual communities [are] extremely sensitive; a breach in trust can
destabilise the foundations upon which the online group rests.”*

As a result, I’ve been very general when describing the videos in the study, by grouping them into general themes so as not to highlight particular videos, and not mentioning usernames or other details, even though in a way it harms my research to do so, hence why I’m doing other surveys to create more data. If I approached the video makers and asked them for their consent to study their work it might be different (and I have no doubt plenty of them would give it.) But without the informed consent, I don’t believe I have the right to do anything.

“…researchers have an ethical responsibility to understand how the diverse forums of the Internet work and how the users of these forums form expectations about what and where they are communicating. They see the greatest risk for cyberspace participants occurring in the situation where members remain unaware that their messages are being analyzed until the results of the research are published. Moreover, if the results are published in such a way that members of a virtual community can identify their community as the one studied without their knowledge, psychological harm may result.”**

Internet Exposure outside of the academic sphere

The amount that I’ve read on internet ethics often makes me uncomfortable at some of the articles I read online – Buzzfeed is starting to be a big offender here with some of their smaller articles, which tend to focus on images or statements from social media that they can use for humourous purposes.

While the ethics I’ve covered tended to focus on not harming internet users through academic work, it seems like it should be equally important in journalistic work. Although people do post their thoughts and lives publicly, there is a great difference between sharing a picture or a thought between friends, and between thousands of people on a separate site.

Unfortunately, there tends to be a negative attitude towards people who object to having their posts shared and dissected by complete strangers, probably because we as a society are so used to being told that anything we put online could have a negative impact. If someone’s Instagram picture gets ridiculed out of context on a website, the comments from readers tend to be, ‘well, you shouldn’t have put it up if you didn’t want that.’ I don’t agree with this at all. People have the right to post what they like online, but I believe anyone who writes publicly, from tiny blogs like this to massive publications, need to recognise that profiting off this can hurt people.

*Krotoski, A., “Introduction to the Special Issue: Research ethics in online communities” in International Journal of Internet Research Ethics (Vol 3, Dec 2012)

** Frankel, M.S. & Siang, S., “Ethical and Legal Aspects of Human Subjects Research on the Internet” A report for American Association for the Advancement of Science (November 1999) – also has some great comments on how informed consent still applies to people using pseudonyms, because ‘people invest in their pseudonyms the way they invest in their real identities within a physical


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