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Final Blog Post: Anxiety and Ethical Issues of Online Research

I began my project with the intent to study the similarities I had noted between online communities that, on the surface, seemed to be about radically different topics. Two of the sites, xoJane.com and autostraddle.com, were sites that hosted communities which I considered myself to be a member of. The other two, waitingtillmarriage.org and christianforums.com, were sites that I had lurked on from time to time, but I had never actually participated in any of the discussions that occurred within the community. I initially planned to observe each community for two weeks, then to reach out to the members of the community, stating that I was a researcher who would like to ask them a series of questions about their relationship to their community.

However, throughout my initial observation periods, I found myself growing increasingly anxious about having to identify myself as a researcher to these communities. On the sites where I believed myself to be an active participant, I was afraid that admitting that I was studying and writing about my fellow community members’ online activities might jeopardize the relationships and the status I had built among the community. I deliberately wrote my blog posts to be as observational as possible, in an attempt to avoid offending any community members who might stumble across the site. In short, I suppose I had difficulties detaching myself from the strong feelings of loyalty I felt towards my favorite online community while I was attempting to do my research on them.

When it came to the communities I was not familiar with, I became concerned about the ethics of silently researching a community without disclosing my real purpose for my presence in the community. I saw other research queries (and, most recently, casting calls for documentaries) be met with extreme anger or disdain, as the members of the community feel they will be exploited or demonized in some way by the outsider to their community. I came to the conclusion that, to most community members, a stranger suddenly appearing in their midst and making it known that they had been silently studying the users of the community for some time would be seen as invasive. Would it have been ethical of me to fail to disclose a substantial piece of the reason for my participation in the community in order to avoid receiving that reaction? These questions concerned me so much that I never fully made the jump into participating in the communities I was a stranger to.

As my project draws to a close, I can really say that the hallmark of my experience was conflict. I was conflicted over the ethical nature of reading and critically analyzing the “publicly private” content users were putting online (Waskul & Douglas, 1996). Although all of the sites I observed (with the exception of exjaners) were completely visible anyone on the Internet without requiring so much as a username and password, these people were sharing incredibly personal details about their lives on these forums. Clearly, everyone knew intellectually that thousands of people could see the comments they were leaving. But the personal, friendship-type relationships that develop can make it easy to forget the invisible people who are watching but never participating. Taking on the position of the voyeuristic other made me feel, for lack of a better word, like a creeper. I was also conflicted over how my role as researcher would change my relationship to community member whom I had grown to consider friends; people who were now covertly my research subjects.

As a result of this sense of conflict, as well as in reaction to my realization that it is incredibly easy to determine who an individual is online, I slowly withdrew my online presence. First, I started withholding personal opinions from my class blog and SLC twitter account, and deleted the Twitter account I had created under my given name. Then, I fell behind on the class blog entirely out of fear that someone would be able to link my SLC account to the screenname I use nearly everywhere online (it’s practically become a second given name, as I started using it when I was about 12 and have never stopped). Finally, I began withdrawing from the communities I was participating in. I still participate from time to time, but conflict within the communities, my privacy concerns, and fears of having committed an ethical breach keep me from making the several very opinionated daily posts that I was making as recently as two months ago. I am curious to see how I will feel once the class ends and identitythenecessity.com is taken down.

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