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Visual Anthropology

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Ethical Issues of Online (Visual) Research

Luc Pauwelsa a Department of Communication Sciences, University of Antwerp, Belgium

To cite this Article Pauwels, Luc(2006) 'Ethical Issues of Online (Visual) Research', Visual Anthropology, 19: 3, 365 — 369 To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/08949460600656691 URL:

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Visual Anthropology, 19: 365–369, 2006 Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 0894-9468 print=1545-5920 online DOI: 10.1080/08949460600656691


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Ethical Issues of Online (Visual) Research The World Wide Web has been discovered by anthropologists and other social and cultural scientists as a particularly rich venue in many respects: as a field of study, a research tool, and a means for scholarly communication. While every methodology and field of research has its specific ethical implications, using a hybrid and unrestrained field and medium such as the Internet for research purposes involves a particularly complex set of ethical questions and considerations. Researching the Internet for an important part can be done in an ‘‘unobtrusive’’ way. Researchers, just like other cybercitizens, are free to ‘‘surf’’ all Web content that is not protected by passwords and firewalls. They can ‘‘overhear’’ discussions between people, browse other people’s Websites, including personal stuff such as photographs and CVs and letters, or take part in discussions often without anybody being aware of potentially becoming the subject of research. A major advantage of using unobtrusive techniques is the absence of effects of monitoring and other types of unwanted reactivity from the side of the subjects of research; on the other hand such an approach also tends to raise more ethical concerns than other more overt forms of research. With the exception of a minority of scholars who think of the Internet as a public domain where everything can be appropriated without restriction, there seems—as Lee notes—to be a common agreement that ‘‘research in cyberspace falls within the scope of existing guidelines on ethical research practice in respect of informed consent, privacy and confidentiality and the need to protect research participants from harm’’ [Lee 2000: 135]. The question however remains regarding how these principles can be put to work in the heterogeneous and elusive context of the Web. For the Internet constitutes an ambiguous private-public space where some uses and applications are clearly private and some others are clearly public, but a whole bunch are floating somewhere in between these two ends. When entering the private or semiprivate space of individuals and groups, it is expected from researchers that they obtain the explicit agreement of the subjects of research to play a part in the project. The latter parties should be made fully aware of the research goals, any uses that will be made of the results and its supporting materials, and the personal consequences such exposure (sensibly and realistically) may have. But apart from the problem of distinguishing between ‘‘public’’ and ‘‘semiprivate’’ or ‘‘semipublic’’ spheres, even the so-called ‘‘public spaces’’ are not to be treated without ethical deliberation. Several authors [e.g., Lee 2000: 136, Hine 2000] have pointed at the problem of obtaining informed consent from on-line populations that tend to constantly 365

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shift, as is the case with discussion groups. I will however focus the discussion of ethics more on issues connected with websites as visual-verbal constructions of a more permanent and ‘‘premeditated’’ character. Surely there is a notable difference between private e-mail conversations, discussion lists and the majority of Websites? ‘‘Publishing’’ Web content almost by its very nature is a public act and, consequently, using it as data at first sight seems to embroil fewer ethical concerns. However, can pictures and texts in Websites really be seen as public performances, open to be appropriated for academic or other purposes without prior permission or any form of restraint? Is the mere fact that someone has chosen a freely accessible medium a public statement in its own right? Should the same ethical rules apply to private persons and more public persons and organizations (politicians, government sites, corporations) and irrespective of the ethical standard of their purposes and behavior? These questions need careful consideration, not in the least because they may need very different answers depending on the often very different circumstances and effects. Crucial in this discussion is what exactly one intends to do with the acquired information. Web producers may seek to connect with like-minded folk (fellow hobbyists, ‘‘soul-mates’’) and not seek exposure beyond this sphere. Is using these Websites in radically other ways than those intended by their creators unethical? Should people be contacted before links to their sites are installed? Some of these questions will in certain instances not go beyond ‘‘netiquette’’ (or rules of courtesy in an electronic environment), but sometimes more serious forms of damage or harm may be involved. Lee refers in this regard to a useful distinction made by Reid [1996] between ‘‘the ethics of access to information and the ethics of its use,’’ implying that having access to some kinds of information does not automatically entitle one to its use [Lee 2000: 13], or at least not any type of use. There is, for instance, quite a difference between just citing a Web source as an example and evaluating or adding an analysis to it that may reveal unwanted comments and insights (e.g., publish it in ‘‘worst of the Websites’’), or trigger forms of Web stalking or other kinds of harassment. In some cases, even just providing additional exposure to a Website (by referring to it in an article or a book) may result in unwanted consequences for the Website owner or other individuals. This raises the point that, in fact, all Web producers and users, not just the academic ones, have ethical issues to deal with. Choosing the Web (or another medium with a broad reach) as a means of public communication to some extent implies that one takes the role of a mass communicator: a role that is clearly far more ethically sensitive than that of a communicator in more private settings. Consequently, people should not continue to communicate in the same manner as they are used to in those more secluded spaces, yet quite a few people tend to forget that [Pauwels 2002: 233–234]. Furthermore, Web content publishers (and users) should ask themselves whether they really ‘‘own’’ or are entitled to the content (in a legal, intellectual, even emotional sense), whether they are really free to express whatever they see fit in whatever form they choose, and what consequences these public expressions may have for different groups of potential ‘‘visitors.’’ These issues are even for the benevolent practitioner often very hard to disentangle. So what if certain individuals deliberately don’t assume

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their responsibility and go on publishing very personal and potentially harmful stuff that involves other people without their consent or even against their explicit will? Does this ‘‘offense’’ committed by another individual permit the researcher to use this material and thus further magnify or expose a perhaps only minor offense into a much bigger one? So far these crucial issues haven’t been adequately dealt with by academics nor by policymakers, notwithstanding the fact that rather troubling ‘‘cases’’ in this regard are piling up. Gauntlett [2000: 88–94] included a section in his book Web.Studies on the controversy around the ‘‘Teacher Review’’ Website, an online database where students of the City College of San Francisco are invited to voice their critical remarks on their teachers. The views in this debate are well reflected in the headings of the two short contributions of the opponents: ‘‘Just what the Internet was made for’’ versus ‘‘The dark side of the Internet.’’ Whereas the Website owners described their type of Website—which has become fairly common in several institutions—as a valuable resource for students and a true vehicle for the free speech of students, some professors who felt personally attacked by its contents (which included insults and threats to their address) called it nothing less than a form of ‘‘cyber terrorism.’’ Without taking sides in this debate which, not surprisingly, serves itself from high principles such as freedom of speech and the right to privacy, it seems once again clear that in the ambiguous online sphere, things are being accepted or tolerated that normally would cause severe problems (up to legal prosecution) in an offline situation. A double moral climate and even a legal vacuum seem to have evolved. A more extreme instance of troublesome web behavior is what could be called the ‘‘Aunt Priscilla’’ case. While doing research on family Websites I came across Wes & Tom’s Cool Site, the Website of a gay couple with AIDS, that included a large section called ‘‘Letter Wars’’ made up of a series of personal letters back and forth between Wes and his Aunt Priscilla. Start of the family feud was a letter of this aunt in which she informed her nephew Wes that his partner, Tom, was not supposed to show up at the family reunion because of the ‘‘bad influence’’ it would have on the younger children. This incident triggered a long debate between Wes and the aunt (whom he started calling ‘‘Priscilla, Queen of the Northwest’’ in reference to the drag movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) which was entirely written in letters, since Wes and Tom lived in Houston and Aunt Priscilla lived in Oregon. In her letters, Aunt Priscilla fiercely disapproved of the lifestyle of her nephew and tried to get him to better insights using long quotes from the Holy Bible, while Wes reacted as fiercely and provocatively to challenge the aunt’s staggeringly conservative ideas. Eventually several family members joined in the discussion with even a letter from the aunt’s solicitor requesting Wes to stop this letter war because of the harm it was doing to his aunt’s health, which was put in full length at the Website. Subsequently, a USA Today journalist picked up this story and brought it out under the headline ‘‘Playful revenge.’’ In this very article, the Web is hailed as a truly democratic medium that allows freedom to publish and express views to large audiences, whereas before this was a privilege of those who owned the mass media or had enough money to hire them. The newspaper story and subsequent articles in other media served a prominent role for the gay movement’s cause, giving

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it exposure throughout large parts of the country. The couple’s broader cause may be a very legitimate one—trying to expose to the world the insanity and danger of antigay rhetoric and religiously inspired homophobia–and one can hardly feel any sympathy for the fanatically conservative and truly homophobic views of the aunt. However, the manner in which the couple choose to serve this cause—namely by publicly ‘‘crucifying’’ the old lady for expressing her ideas in personal letters—seems way over the edge and clearly not exemplary for a more democratic use of a medium that indeed is becoming within reach of larger parts of the world. In my view, taking this discussion to a public forum would have been legitimate only if the aunt at some point had deliberately chosen to enter a public debate, e.g., produced flyers, or wrote an open letter to a newspaper with her thoughts. Returning to the implications of researching the visual part of Websites, and more in particular camera images, it is clear that while these visuals of course can be considered already ‘‘self-published’’ imagery, as distinct from pictures taken and selected by the researcher or drawn from some very private source, their in most cases irreducible iconic nature may cause some extra difficulties when using them in the reporting phase, e.g., in a book or again in a Website. In some cases, one may choose to refrain from using the visuals (a very crude measure) or try to make them unrecognizable. However, visual ‘‘anonymization’’ in most types of visual research remains a hard issue to resolve, not only because it encumbers the assessment or replication of existing studies [Lee 2000: 136 referring to Lee 1993] but also because it ultimately destroys the visual nature of the research or at least its possibilities to share its visual dimension with scientific and general audiences. In a similar fashion, copyright issues may severely hinder the use of visuals in a research process, although other ethical issues are at stake here. On the one hand, it is fair that authors get rewarded for the use of their work, but on the other hand the absence of something like a right for scientists to ‘‘quote’’ a visual resource for noncommercial purposes and without any cost (cf. textual parts of books or articles) is a major obstacle for visually and multimedia-oriented scholars. Using the Internet as a site and a tool for research produces a set of complex ethical issues. However, the problem shouldn’t be magnified to such an extent that one would be inclined to put aside the thought of using this extremely rich cultural data repository and research tool. Researchers in this area need to be cautious while not paranoid or overly concerned. For so many other fields of activity—particularly those that have to do with visuals—are ill-defined and poorly regulated (e.g., taking pictures in public places). Furthermore, society increasingly demonstrates an astonishing indulgence toward privacy-invading practices (e.g., hidden cameras, reality show formats) that by far exceed what even the most unscrupulous researcher would ever imagine doing. Notwithstanding the fact that, in society, views on ethics seem to have become increasingly elastic, ethical conduct remains a prime responsibility of the researcher, and ethical considerations should be an integral part of any type of research. To some extent researchers will have to develop their norms by themselves, especially in these rapidly evolving and unpredictable technological environments. This is not just a matter of staying within the boundaries set



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by law, but acting sensibly and ethically in the many instances where legal stipulations fail, are lagging behind, or remain too vague. Furthermore, the Internet being a worldwide phenomenon, even the most judicious rulings may prove powerless or turn out contradictory when applied in a cross-national context. The Internet and subsequent technologies will continue to affect what we study, the ways in which we study, and how we communicate and share what we have found. The magnitude of both the research opportunities and the ethical questions connected to this technological and cultural evolution deserve further and much greater attention. A constructive interplay between technological advancement, ethical consideration, theoretical reflection, and methodological innovation may further help to disclose the Internet as a rich cultural resource and agent, and also boost its already impressive potential as a research tool. Luc Pauwels Department of Communication Sciences University of Antwerp Prinsstraat 13 2000 Antwerpen Belgium E-mail:

REFERENCES Gauntlett, David (ed.) 2000 Web.Studies: Rewiring Media Studies for the Digital Age. London: Arnold. Hine, Christine 2000 Virtual Ethnography. London, Thousands Oaks, and New Delhi: Sage Publications. Lee, Raymond M. 2000 Unobtrusive Methods in Social Research. Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press. Pauwels, Luc 2002 Families on the Web. In Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life, Fourth Edition. D. Newman, ed. Pp. 231–235. Thousand Oaks, California: Pine Forge. Reid, E. 1996 Informed Consent in the Study of On-line Communities: A Reflection on the Effects of Computer-Mediated Social Research. Information Society, 12: 169–74