Internet research ethics: revisiting the relations between technologies, spaces, texts and people

Challenges in internet research are part of a broader landscape of change in the production, dissemination and status of knowledge. Such shifts include the blurring of producer and consumer, the moving perimeters of private and public, and the changing forms and value of information and knowledge. In this sense issues in internet research ethics also speak to the politics of knowledge production.

At the same time the question of internet research ethics is also very specific. Internet technologies raise new epistemological and ontological questions as well as reinvigorating older debates. They produce new genres and new social encounters as well as re-mediating old ones. Although it is true that internet research now touches every discipline it cannot be accounted for entirely by the research paradigms that have been fashioned to deal with other phenomena. An approach to new media genres cannot always be accounted for by either the requirement for informed consent in biomedical and social sciences – or the assumption that there are no human subjects – framing some media studies, literary criticism and art history.

The space of ethics is not something that can be assumed. My thinking about this space is informed on the one hand by practical concerns such as the rise of ethical protocols, and the need to protect researchers and the researched. It is also informed on the other by a central theme of Donna Haraway’s work, that the basic unit of analysis is the relation [Haraway, 1997]. Ethics then is about relationality and more specifically, in this context, it is about having the space for a reflective and responsive account of research relations. The relationships between researcher and researched, field, subjectivities, research materials, published materials, technologies, genres, objects, people and knowledge invite a responsive account of the particular configuration that comes into being as a research assemblage. The question of what, who and how is related in internet research indicates the space of ethics.

In 2002 I contributed to the Association of Internet Researchers [AoIR] guide for thinking about internet research ethics through their working group on the topic. I also wrote an article ‘Ethics of Internet Research: Contesting the Human Subjects Model’ [Bassett and O’Riordan, 2002] as part of this work. In the article I mapped out, with my colleague Liz Bassett, some of the tensions between approaching internet technologies as texts on the one hand and approaching them as social spaces on the other. These tensions between social texts and social spaces, and between representations and people, are still very much with us today in considering internet genres and fora. My reflections today are based on revisiting that article and on thinking about the salience of these issues across a range of projects in which I’ve been involved in the decade since. These projects have each demanded different responses to questions of ethics and include both working with other researchers: examining women blogging in Quebec [Laurence Clennett-Sirois]; the impact of new media on feminist activism [Aristea Fotopoulou]; Romanian urban identity and virtual environments [Patrick James]; trans narratives on YouTube [Tobias Raun]; life histories and digital traces [Julie Samuels]; spiritual and queer identity intersections online [Dr Heather White] – and my own work on using life history interviews to create a web installation [Queering Genealogies, O’Riordan and Ross] – and on examining the public interface of human genomics in the form of web based genome scanning [O’Riordan, 2010].

In returning to the questions of whether or not internet technologies represent people or texts – or are a social space or textual archive – I want to touch on just one example that raises similar questions to my research on online coming out narratives 10 years ago. This example is an analysis of YouTube videos by Tobias Raun at Roskilde University provisionally entitled: ‘Bodily transformations in new media genres’. The two sites of analysis are TV on the one hand and YouTube on the other and the work collates and analyses a corpus of video blogs in which FtM trans people narrate their encounters with transitioning processes and technologies. In this context I don’t think that informed consent and anonymity are necessarily the most relevant frameworks for the research. However, the YouTube analysis has attracted pressures to conform to and account for informed consent procedures, a pressure which is less evident when the whole of the project is disclosed. It appears less obvious to researchers that the analysis of television might also require informed consent when in fact it is sometimes relevant. However, it seems overwhelming obvious to interlocutors that researching trans identities is sensitive research, that video blogs – although a broadcast platform – might be thought of as intimate, that users might not understand that they are broadcasting themselves, and that informed consent and anonymity should be pursued.

However, the application of informed consent and the pressure to anonymise in this context can also seem complicit with pathologising trans identity and an infantilisation of the people involved. It also indicates a failure to acknowledge the intimacy of contemporary public life, the diversity of the media ecologies we inhabit and it also fails to credit videobloggers with the kind of technological and social expertise that can operate in this domain. The automatic application of consent in this domain also points to a conflation of images and people, and by emphasising individual agency it draws attention away from structural dimensions and potentially undermines the capacity of media analysis to point to the ways in which digital media shape our political horizons.

In terms of contributing to a manifesto on e-research ethics I would like to see an attention to mediation, to the relations between technologies, spaces, texts and people. My manifesto point is that importing one size fits all models of informed consent [which themselves have problematic provenance] – or assuming that human subjects do not appear – can both be failures to open up an ethical space. Conversely a close attention to the relations of internet research – and a relational account – could provide an opportunity to develop a more critical analysis of the current technocultural conjuncture.

Bassett, E.H. and O’Riordan, Kate [2002] ‘Ethics of internet research: contesting the human subjects model’ Journal of Ethics and Information Technology. Volume 4, 233-247
Haraway, Donna [1997] Modest Witness. London and New York: Routledge.
O’Riordan, Kate [2010] The Genome Incorporated. London: Ashgate.