Researching online subjects: a few conflicts – by “Chuen-Yee C”

As the use of web 2.0 tech continues to grow, researchers and developers who decide to study the effect of MMOGs, forums, and social networking spaces must face a new strain of ethical dilemma. These new environments are ripe for research on human interactions, social structures, and the nature of fandoms and group generativity; but do the usual rules of research ethics apply to non-traditional spaces?

Rules of ethics are around to protect human subjects from harm. People online are just as human, but the ways in which research is conducted and informed consent required still remains a somewhat undefined area. Informed consent is required for research, as well as the assurance that the researcher will not let the subject come to harm or cause harm. In an online setting, if a researcher is going to be interacting with or studying people, these people have the right to be told, given the chance to opt-out, and be assured that they will not meet with any harm. But how do you make sure you don’t hurt someone when you’ll probably never know if it happens? Interacting online means that you may not know how something really affects them. People get depressed and can commit suicide because of things that happen to them online or in virtual spaces; real psychological harm can be inflicted.

The experimental model for research doesn’t exactly work when studying existing spaces; researchers are more likely to take a field research approach. But what happens when someone in the “field” doesn’t want to participate? If the “field” is perceived to belong to the users before the researcher came along? This obviously causes problems for the researcher’s desire to study the space, and there’s no clear answer as to what form of reconciliation should take place.

The anonymity that comes with being a research subject should not be conflated with the default anonymity that most people assume online. In real life, one glance at a subject or at least some related background information (untied to the subject’s name) can reveal if they are part of a “vulnerable population”—children, the disabled, mentally unstable, and so on. However, online it is hard to determine who falls into one of these categories and who doesn’t. To borrow a concept from Rawls, in dealing with the online populace we have to assume a stance behind a “veil of ignorance” and afford everyone the protection given the “vulnerable populations.” In assuming that everybody is vulnerable, we can avoid ethical liability.

Confidentiality is another issue; nobody knows anything about anybody besides what they choose to reveal most of the time, but as demonstrated in the Scalia situation, publically available information can be readily compiled and trends inferred. When dealing with social media, there might be a great deal of personal information within the researcher’s grasp. Screennames are just as a part of people’s identities as anything else, and can leave a (somewhat incriminating) paper trail, if researched thoroughly enough. Gamer tags and forum screenames may go back for years; personally speaking, I’ve carried the same screenname for over ten years.

And what about the researchers themselves? There are a myriad of perceptions about the Internet, social networking sites, forums, online games, and the people who use or play them. If a researcher can’t approach the subjects or subject matter with an unbiased position we expect in lab studies, they probably shouldn’t be studying it. Conflicts of interest may also emerge, say if a researcher’s relative is a marketer at a firm that uses social networking apps to market their products.

Online spaces are used more and more for social, political, recreational, and economic purposes and have great potential to reveal a lot about ourselves as individuals and the larger social picture. However, the research on online spaces must be carefully gathered or else we may just end up perpetuating previous attitudes or gathering inaccurate data. The common definition of experiment doesn’t work well in online spaces; because the space is different, new ethical guidelines need to be laid out.

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