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Blogs: Public, Private, and the "Intimsphere" - A Danish Example

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Presentation by Charles Ess at the Internet Research Ethics preconference workshop on 10/20/2010. Part of Internet Research 11.0, the 11th annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers …

Presentation by Charles Ess at the Internet Research Ethics preconference workshop on 10/20/2010. Part of Internet Research 11.0, the 11th annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR).

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  • 1. Blogs: Public, Private, and the Intimsphere- A Danish Example*
    Dr. Charles Ess
    Department of Information- and Media Studies (IMV)
    Aarhus University
    <charles.ess@gmail.com>
    * My profound thanks to an anonymous researcher who generously shared the core material and text of this case-study. Both the general details and direct quotes are used by permission.
  • 2. Overview
    Parameters, details
    Main ethical challenge:
    What the researcher elected to do and what happened
    Why I think the decision was a good one – though different ones, especially in different context and national cultures, might also be ethically legitimate
     Pluralism, cross-cultural differences, and ethical judgment
    2
  • 3. But first …
    A very brief history of Internet research ethics … (see: E. Buchanan, “Internet Research Ethics: Past, Present, and Future,” in M. Consalvo & C. Ess (eds.), The Blackwell Handbook of Internet Studies, 83- 108.)
    1990s (“First Age”) – from hard “virtual / real” // online / offline distinction to: yes, real harm can be enacted online (Dibbell, 1993)
    occasional articles and a special issue of The Information Society (12, 1996) with articles by C. Allen, S. Boehlefeld, S. King (see AoIR Ethics Document, 2002, References, pp. 11ff.)
    2000-2002: AoIR ethical guidelines working committee, first AoIR Ethics Document
    2003: NESH guidelines and an explosion of books (Buchanan, 2004; Johns, Chen & Hall 2004; Thorseth, 2003) and articles
    2005-present (“the Buchanan Era”): continued development, including ever-more international discussion – the AoIR pre-conference workshops and panels – important NSF grants – McKee & Porter’s The Ethics of Internet Research (2009) AoIR ethical guidelines 2.0
    3
  • 4. Parameters, details
    Researcher follows, captures both main blogger’s contributions and various respondents’ postings over several months.
    Very popular blog – small “community” / network of active respondents.
    Topics are primarily domestic life of the blogger, the blogger’s responses to both domestic and, occasionally, larger events in Denmark.
    Researcher follows up with interviews with blogger, selected respondents.
    4
  • 5. Parameters, details
    Research Questions focus on micro-sociological analysis of conventions and negotiations pertaining to the communicative spaces.
    Goal is to provide thick, contextualized descriptions – thus requiring quotes from the collected material.
    At the same time: Researcher did not see the blogs as ‘public’ – but rather as “potentially quite personal spaces” – belonging to the Intimsphere, a shared social space constructed by close ‘intimates’.
    In particular: many of the blogger’s and respondents’ comments – especially as surrounding a major episode of explosively angry comment and response – are seen in the Danish context to be private, not public.
    5
  • 6. Main ethical challenges
    What to do with contents of blog, responses, interviews in write-up for publication?
    Issue: protecting privacy and anonymity of material from the Intimsphere.
    To begin with:
    “Granting anonymity and giving users pseudonyms would be useless” – i.e., simple string search would uncover the texts and identify the authors
    6
  • 7. Main ethical challenges
    Issue: protecting privacy and anonymity of material from the Intimsphere.
    Further reflections:
    The lack of anonymity has of course meant that I am trying to be extremely careful with what I use as excerpts – in trying to be sensitive to what the participants may find too private and to what I as a researcher feel uncomfortable about addressing (as for instance the spring episode among the bloggers when I felt like I was suddenly too close to something that I was not supposed to) …
    I still struggle to find appropriate ways of dealing with the personal material that occasionally does pop up in the data and analytic process.
    7
  • 8. What the researcher elected to do and what happened
    I felt a moral responsibility to ask permission to use their blogs as part of my data material and therefore made informed consent agreements with them all before beginning to archive feeds and interview them.
    In the consent agreement:
    they have the right to withdraw at any moment in the research process;
    They give the Researcher permission to use their material publicly as long as they are still ‘in the project’ (i.e., if one withdraws now, Researcher would not be able to use the data and analysis at all).
    8
  • 9. What the researcher elected to do and what happened
    Further: I have talked to them about the analysis that I’ve done – and volunteered to share the analyses with them so they can check if there is something that they feel uncomfortable about having shared. In such a case, I revise and do not share.
    NB - the ethics-method interface: the decision to ask for consent was valuable for establishing a relationship with the participants for the interviews:
    By showing this ethical care from the beginning of the research, I think it helped me enter a more conversational mode with them, i.e. both I and they felt more comfortable talking openly about their personal feelings and experiences in the interviews.
    9
  • 10. Why I think the decision was a good one – though different ones, especially in different context and national cultures, might also be ethically legitimate
    1. Shows cultural/contextual sensitivity, beginning with (distinctively?) Danish notion of the Intimsphere as a shared but private rather than public communicative space.
    2. Shows absolute respect for the privacy and autonomy of her subjects, including not simply their expectations (whether justified or not) while posting on the blog, but also their subsequent reflections, feelings, and decisions regarding their postings as now reused in a public context.
    3. Is consistent with earlier instances of participant-observation research – including feminist / communitarian approaches – that, even if not required by law or code, place highest ethical value on respecting autonomy and wishes for privacy of the research “subjects.”
    4. Is consistent with the range of approaches to informed consent presented by Lawson, 2004.
    10
  • 11. Why I think the decision was a good one – though different ones, especially in different context and national cultures, might also be ethically legitimate
    Other decisions might be ethically legitimate – especially in different national-cultural contexts, e.g. Elizabeth Buchanan (Air list, 18. October 2010):
    From a research ethics perspective, in the United States, research conducted using a blog as a data source would not be reviewable by an IRB. For instance, if a researcher used only text from a blog, as part of an analysis, and did not interact with the blog author through, e.g., interviews or surveys, no IRB review or approval would be needed, as it is not considered "human subjects" under the federal definition (45cfr46.102f): “Human subject means a living individual about whom an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting research obtains(1) Data through intervention or interaction with the individual, or (2) Identifiable private information.” “Identifiable private information” is “information about behavior that occurs in a context in which an individual can reasonably expect that no observation or recording is taking place, and information which has been provided for specific purposes by an individual and which the individual can reasonably expect will not be made public (for example, a medical record).” Therefore, if a researcher is getting data from a blog that is public, then it would not meet the criteria for review as set forth in the US regulatory documents.
    11
  • 12.
    • Pluralism, cross-cultural differences, and ethical judgment
    While there are certainly functional equivalents in other cultures – most notably, the emerging sense of “group privacy” manifesting itself on Facebook and facilitated by recent changes to FB privacy settings …
    to my knowledge, at least, the notion of an Intimsphere is a distinctive dimension of Danish (perhaps, Germanic) culture(s) more broadly. (Cf. cross-cultural study of Danes / South Koreans)
    Individual privacy
    group privacy
    public
    12
  • 13.
    • Pluralism, cross-cultural differences, and ethical judgment
    2. In addition, compared with the U.S., Danish culture sets a much higher value on private information and thereby a much higher importance of protecting that information, at least as reflected in relevant law.
    Hence, an ethical pluralism may be apparent here – one familiar from earlier instances (e.g., AoIR ethics document, 2002), i.e., defined by
    Shared assumptions / values – e.g., privacy,informed consent, etc.
    But as interpreted / applied in diverse ways,reflecting diverse national/cultural contexts
    13

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