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Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

Netiquette including flaming and online harassment

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Open/close headingWhat is netiquette?

According to Hall et al. (2004, 243), research etiquette on the internet requires special consideration, raising some different concerns to more conventional research approaches. Netiquette is the term used to describe the code of conduct between those communicating on the internet. It is concerned with internet courtesy and protocols. It is directed at preventing aggressive and insulting behaviour. It includes often unspoken rules about what is considered appropriate and polite and respectful behaviour online. Netiquette is inevitably flexible, as different types of online venues will have different rules and conventions. Some examples of netiquette can be found in Mann and Stewart (2000), Rinaldi (1996) and Scheuermann and Taylor (1997).


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[Open/close heading]Guidelines for netiquette

According to Denscombe (2003, 50) netiquette includes:

  • Private messages expected not to be abusive or contain bad language (swearing);
  • Private message should not be made public unless prior permission has been obtained from the sender;
  • emoticons – symbols to depict an emotion or feeling to replace body language and facial features not visible in online interactions (see the 'Designing online interviews' section of the online interviews module);
  • Sensitivity towards communicating with people from various countries and cultures- as English may be a second language and humour may be different to that of the sender;
  • Messages should be succinct and relevant as online time has financial costs.;
  • spamming - unsolicited mass mailing should be avoided;
  • If netiquette is not followed then sender may be 'flamed' and errors pointed out to them or they may be excluded from chat rooms etc.

O'Dochartaigh (2002, 81-82) also warns that care must be taken owing to the instantaneous nature of internet communication and recommends simple guidelines for good practice:

  • Think twice. Never send a message without re-reading it to check content and spelling;
  • Think of tone. It is easy to sound abrupt and unfriendly so ensure your communications are polite. In particular, avoid capitals as it annoys people and ensure that you sign your messages;
  • Be careful about what you write. The WWW is a global open access system so be mindful of the fact your communications may be read by others including authorities at your institution, intelligence agencies etc.


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[Open/close heading]Implications for online researchers

Such guidelines for netiquette have implications for online researchers. Hewson et al. (2003, 116) suggest that netiquette demands that postings to a newsgroup or discussion forum should be relevant- but most researchers' invitations to join a research project will not be relevant to the intended discussion. This raises ethical issues for the online researcher. The best practice is to approach the moderator of the list, newsgroup or discussion forum directly to get permission for the invitation posting but to be sensitive to the fact that such an invitation may be considered spamming and unacceptable.

Based on their research with newsgroups, Hall et al. (2004, 244-247) recognize 6 further issues of importance where netiquette is concerned.

  1. The importance of the subject header used in any posting to a newsgroup, to assure no misunderstandings between the researcher and newsgroup members occur;
  2. Self-identification and self-presentation of the researcher are critical, as readers will form their evaluations about the credibility of the research and the researcher based on this. A formal verifiable, disclosed identity of the researcher, for example through a link to an institutional website, can increase the credibility of the researchers claimed identity (see Madge and O’Connor 2002) and shows respect and courtesy to members of the newsgroup;
  3. The researcher must be familiar with the common language used on the specific newsgroup, including jargon, abbreviations, acronyms, emoticons and common grammatical rules. The ability to 'speak' the newsgroups 'language' shows respect to the rules and conventions of the group;
  4. The researcher should always ask appropriate questions, not ones that could have been answered by a library or archive search, and to do this the researcher must acquaint themselves on the subject matter before asking for help;
  5. The specific culture of the newsgroup should be attained through online acclimation or reading FAQs and archives, prior to 'jumping in' in order to understand the nuances of group interactions;
  6. The researcher has an obligation to be 'up front' about the purpose, nature, procedures and risks of the research.


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Open/close headingFlaming and online harassment

In addition to netiquette, online research also raises issues with respect to flaming and online harassment. Flames are hostile and aggressive interactions online. This can include vicious verbal attacks and derogatory, obscene and inappropriate language. Verbal disagreement can escalate to mutual abuse, threats of violence and 'flame wars'. According to Thompsen and Foulger (1996), a message becomes a flame when a clear tension is detected. Overall O'Sullivan and Flanigan (2003) suggest that flaming is extremely complex because the expectations and experiences about what is acceptable and normal behaviour varies between individuals, culture, geographic location and with time. If a researcher acts inappropriately or unethically, they may find themselves subject to flaming. Also online researchers must ensure that their research project never incites flaming because flaming is not just aggressive but it may also be potentially libelous. However, since cyberspace is not governed by national boundaries, international law has been slow to catch up with the implications of cyber libel, data protection and intellectual property concerns.

Additionally, a small minority of people are also involved in systematic sexual, racial or homophobic abuse online. As with offline interactions, such harassment is totally unacceptable and online harassment is subject to the same laws as elsewhere, with ultimately law courts having the potential to deal with the matter (O'Dochartaigh 2002, 83). The online researcher has an ethical obligation not to collude with online harassment for the purpose of the research project. Cyberstalking is also an uncommon but significant (for those victims of it) feature of online interactions. Here, too, the researcher will have to consider several controversial ethical issues. What is the moral responsibility of the researcher to inform victims (and perpetrators) of cyberstalking? What can a researcher do if they become subject to cyberstalking? (see Tavani and Grodzinsky 2002, for details).


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