Ethical issues in the use of social networks as a field of research: public places or private rooms?


  • Carla Luzia De Abreu Fine Arts Department, University of Barcelona, Spain



Ethical issues surrounding ethnographic research have long received special attention in academic debates. Such attention has increased in recent years, mainly due to tecnological advances, particularly the internet. The Web has expanded methodological possibilities in view of new research spaces, which add up-to-date problematics to the academic scenario. The post-modern trend of consuming, producing, and commercializing data and images, particularly in Western societies, has grown alongside the development of digital tecnologies and has broadened human predisposition to further exchanges not only of images and data, but also of emotions, beliefs, frustrations, successes, and ideologies. Such behaviour is especially clear in social network websites, whose users are encouraged to record their daily lives and to mediate experiences, perceptions, and meanings. This mixture of “real†and “virtual†results in even more complex limits separating what is public from what is private, and offers important consequences for research studies that focus on on-line environments, given the fact that the methods and guidelines used to regulate ethical issues have undergone changes so as to adjust to digital environments. This feature further complicates decision-making processes in research and increases differences in researchers' opinions regarding their ethical standards. This paper offers some ideas on ethical issues that have come forward while writing my PhD thesis, whose topic is the construction and becoming of non-heteronormative on-line identities in social network websites. Discussing topics such as sexuality and gender requires, because of their very nature, special attention to research data. When such discussions take place in on-line environments, however, they require extra care, because, even though social network profiles are semi-public spaces, they do not necessarily belong to the public domain. This is the point where problems begin, given the difficulty of distinguishing what is public from what is private in such environments. This paper presents my alternatives to solving these issues and states that setting ethical parameters in research studies carried out in digital environments is both important and useful, but should not be restrictive. The reason for this is that the internet makes it more difficult to establish clear and predefined norms because fluidity and decentralization deter unyielding methods.

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