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Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

Privacy including the public/private debate

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Open/close headingThe public/private debate

According to Spinello (2001, 140): ' Privacy is under siege as never before thanks to the power of digital technology.' Thus Thurlow et al. (2004) suggest that privacy is the most important ethical issue for online researchers. On the internet there is no clear agreement as to what is public and what is private in '…conception, experience, label or substance' (Waskul and Douglass, 1996, quoted by Bruckman 2004, 101). Of course, as in physical space, this in not a simple binary division but a question of degree (Bruckman 2004, 101) but the issue revolves around the distinction between public and private internet space. Is a researcher ethically justified in using publicly available information as data for a research project, even if this was provided by the internet user for private consumption? Should a researcher be able to 'data mine' from newsgroup postings and individual webpages? There is much debate over this issue but Hewson et al. (2003, 53) suggest that data that have been made deliberately and voluntarily available in the public internet domain (including on the WWW and newsgroups) should be accessible to researchers providing anonymity is ensured. Hacking into individual's files or email accounts is unacceptable.

But this issue is not clear-cut. Chen et al.'s (2004) research on using mailing lists and newsgroups for research purposes elicited responses from a variety of sensitive/controversial mailing lists. Many of the responses included animosity towards the 'research paparazzi' in cyberspace. A member of a miscarriage support group for example stated: 'We are bereaved, frequently openly grieving, and therefore fragile. Just asking questions about our current situation or experience can reopen wounds to a significant extent' (quoted in Chen et al. 2004, 160). Another response from the 'devilbunnies' newsgroup reported: 'Such endeavors are almost universally seen as an intrusion into the world we've created…' (quoted in Chen et al. 2004, 161). Other responses about online researchers were more welcome. For example, the owner of a mailing list for women who are second wives responded: 'I have a positive feeling towards researchers and journalists- I believe the second wife/second family situation is a serious one and needs as much support/exposure as it can get' (quoted in Chen et al. 2004, 164). So it is important to remember that the specific venue of research is important when considering the privacy issue. Cyberspace should be viewed as differentiated and heterogeneous space (Madge and O'Connor 2005).


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[Open/close heading]Expectations of privacy

Expectations of privacy is the important issue and different venues may have different expectations. Barnes (2004, 206) argues that many social messages exchanged through the internet can foster the illusion of privacy. This is because correspondents do not see the numerous people reading their messages, including 'lurkers' to sites, so individuals often believe they are communicating with a small group rather than a large audience. She cites various examples: many people corresponding in public chat rooms or discussion groups perceive their conversations to be taking place in a private setting; in contrast, public lists, such as academic discussion groups, require proper citation to be given to materials used in their discussions (Barnes 2004, 220). So a key issue facing the online researcher is whether the individual or group considers their correspondence to be public or private. According to Ess and the AoIR Ethics Working Committee (2002, 7) if the participants of the research believe that their communications are made in private, or if they are understood as subjects participating in private exchanges via chat rooms/MUDs or MOOs, then there may be a greater obligation for the researcher to protect individual privacy. But if the research focuses on publicly accessible archives and inter/actions by authors/agents are public and performative, (for example e-mail postings to large listservs or USENET groups, production of web logs and home pages), then there may be less obligation to protect individual privacy. According to Barnes (2004, 219), the situation for discussion lists is complicated- they may be considered both public and private and here she cautions that the researcher must respect the specific privacy guidelines for the online group. Indeed, many discussion groups now state their privacy or citation policy when you join them and the online researcher should check the welcome message of public discussion lists for guidelines on how to properly cite email messages.


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[Open/close heading]Alienation or privacy?

The privacy debate has recently moved on with Bakardjieva and Feenberg (2001) arguing that 'alienation' not privacy is the core ethical problem of online research. For these researchers (2001, 236) alienation is the '…appropriation of the products of somebody's actions for purposes never intended or foreseen by the actor herself, drawing these products into a system of relations over which the producer has no knowledge or control'. Berry (2004) explores the issue in more depth, arguing that privacy is in fact a misleading and confusing concept to apply to the internet, with non-alienation being more resourceful in addressing ethical issues. On this basis he argues for the principles of 'open source ethics', which includes a participatory and democratic research method.


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Open/close headingCase study: Privacy and thirdspace in the research of gay online communities (James Barker)


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Privacy and thirdspace in the research of gay online communities - James Barker (Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences, University of Wales, Aberystwyth)

As we have seen in the section above, one of the ethical difficulties in undertaking online research is when we are faced with the difficulty of personal privacy. Arguably, these problems associated with privacy in online research can be exacerbated when research is being undertaken into something as personal and intimate as sexuality. This has been reflected in my own research experience (Barker, 2005). My undergraduate dissertation was originally centred on rural experiences of 'gay' sexual identity. Online discourse formed two strands of the research thread. Firstly, I was using the internet as a tool to interact with informants. Secondly, it became apparent that the internet was an outlet through which rural gay males could freely express an identity. Two main issues surrounding privacy arose during the course of my research and these shall be discussed in turn. However, these are linked through the description of online 'communities' as operating in thirdspace (cf. Soja 1996), that is a blurry, liminal existence that is difficult to place.

The first issue arose because of the way I was using data that was posted on message boards on various gay men’s social and support sites. As has been alluded to previously, if somebody has placed a message on a site, there is the question of whether this communication is now in the public domain and therefore freely available for citation. Alternatively, given the unique blurring of the public and private on the internet, are we wrong to use this communication because of the personal nature of much internet discourse and the risk of taking any statement out of context? For example, in my research there were messageboards with intimate accounts of coming out. The personal nature of the content aside, there is the ethical question of whether it is written for broad consumption or just for those in the community – those in 'the know'. By using comments in academic research, we open up the discourse to a wider outside audience which can transgress the privacy of online communities.

The second issue of privacy and thirdspace is perhaps slightly more pertinent. It seems to me that the creation of communities in the blurry world of thirdspace is in part in order to create a sense of intimacy that would not be possible because of people’s actual geographical locations. So with regard to sexuality and living in rural places, the thirdspace nature of the internet facilitates a close, open discourse that may not be possible in the 'real' world because of the physical distance between the rural and the urban, the heart of the male gay 'scene'. Therefore, the issue arises as to the need to respect the value of privacy within this context. The right of a researcher to reveal these intimate online worlds must be continually assessed in order to ensure that personal privacy is not jeopardised. In the case of my research, it became apparent that the function of these online communities could potentially be disrupted by my presence as a researcher, for it did not fit in with the actual purpose of the community. Further, I did not feel that I had the right to reveal this hidden online thirdspace world because its unique nature meant that I could not offer a comprehensive report on the various voices being offered a place to be heard within this online environment. I therefore changed my research focus to concentrate on the difficulties of online research that I have described.

In sum, the unique blurring of the public and the private in the liminal world of the online thirdspace, as demonstrated though my research into sexuality, means that issues of privacy can become even thornier than in 'traditional' research because of the confusing spatiality of the research environment and the uneasy blurring of the public-private binary.


Barker, J. (2005) Reflexivity and positionality in the research of Human Geography on the internet with specific reference to sexual identity. Unpublished undergraduate dissertation, University of Wales, Aberystwyth

Soja, E. (1996) Thirdspace: Journies to Los Angeles and other real-and-imagined places. London: Verso.


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