I recently came across Mariana Goya Martinez’s and Aimee Hope Morrison’s work. The latter is a researcher in Canada and mommy-blogger, her presentation raised a number of interesting questions. Morrison argued that the diary-style blog, as sub-category of the blogosphere, constitutes a hybrid as it links the private and the public mainly by comments. These two areas are also interdependent as they nurture each other – comments provided on each other’s blogposts help to maintain and build networks and relationships. The theoretical framework was very much rooted in Goffman’s notion of the frontstage and the presentation of the self in the everyday. An everyday I would also define as a hybrid of the public and private, online and offline. The extent to which the bloggers’ narrative self-disclosure was part of an everyday life lived offline, though, was not subject to analysis.
Guilty pleasure as a concept sprang to mind as it was argued that many of those [female] bloggers ‘under investigation’ avoided tagging and categorising by purpose in order to prevent identification. It seemed, underlying the lifecycle of those blogs were also strongly correlated events and stages in offline life which forced the researchers to be either in a similar situation in order to comment and engage with the authors or to remain in an undisclosed role. Participant observation, textual analysis and auto-ethnography constituted the methodological framework.
Researching blogs without revealing one’s own identity, motives and activities might be very tempting and legitimate in ethical terms as the blogs are publicly available. Yet, when it comes to evaluation of findings the lack of participant validation as one strategy to ensure triangulation strikes me. Part of the problem may be the fragility of a blog’s lifecycle which is certainly subject to periodical crisis. Revaluation and redesign seem to be part of a blog’s coming of age with comments as currency generally providing a more or less constant flow of stimulation, positively or negatively. This may even result in its death with the role of flame wars in this context certainly not to be underestimated. Without interviewing bloggers at a more in-depth level, though, the complexity of events, complex decision-making processes and the impact of the unconscious upon all this must remain behind the public presentation and largely obscure – or subject to speculation at the researcher’s end.
This is the nexus where it becomes clear that participant observation and textual analysis are no doubt valuable methods but they may need to be reviewed as bloggers become increasingly aware of being subject to scholarly scrutiny with them being subjectified to observation and their products to textual analysis. The politics of ethnography would benefit greatly from a more sophisticated understanding of an unequal distribution of power in the blogosphere and what strategies bloggers resort to in order to prevent their blog becoming a casualty of the politics of ethnography.
In July I attended the Internet Studies Festival at John Moores University in Liverpool which was a rather small but very valuable event. One issue though seemed to remain in the dark and it is still not as widely debated as it should be: ethics.
A post-grad social researcher argued that ‘one would need to find a way to work around’ – she left us in the dark about the details of her own research, i.e. how exactly she had ensured privacy and data protection in her fieldwork centred around ‘understanding student’s use of Facebook’ were secured at all times. Rather she had perceived the semi-public sphere of facebook with her friends’ contact details a rich source of data – and subsequently presented poorly disguised images and personal details of her participants as part of her findings to the delegates – assuming this would be another semi-private/exclusive space. Hence, a safe arena.
This may come across as a specifically sad case but looking at the currently available formal framework of guidelines as provided by the AoiR [Association of Internet Researchers] AoIR Research Ethics and the BSA Research Ethics the guidelines are perhaps not explicit enough and might remain vague to those students who learned to expect a larger extent or more explicit guidance. Also, the applications online available, the range of settings and practices within and around the online social networks, the micro-/blogosphere etc may change faster than academic institutions/committees are usually able to respond and amend their guidelines. Dynamic and flexibility would need to increase – or students might need to get equipped with the skills and attitude to adopt/develop guidelines themselves according to the demands of the specific environment under investigation.
Another issue in this context might be the persistence of a rather unhelpful debate: the public/private dichotomy. Certainly, the online sphere deserves just as much careful consideration of ethical issues as the offline spheres – otherwise we, i.e. the community of researchers [at all stages], may risk to loose reputation, credibility – and most importantly: the degree of influence we actually seek when we embark upon the research journey.