Photo by Stuart Miles
As the world increasingly becomes digitised, more of our communication, information seeking, and community making occurs online. The internet is seen to be a ‘way in’ for those who have access to this online world, and can be used for a variety of purposes. Unsurprisingly then, social researchers too have moved online. Social media, blogs, forums, message boards, all provide spaces in which social interactions and social phenomenon can be viewed by the researcher. The appeal of such settings for researchers often relates to the fact that online communication can be seen to be ‘natural’, i.e. not disrupted by presence of a researcher, or the interview context, and online spaces can help access topics which are difficult to access in real life, i.e. offline. Difficult to access topics may be things which are sensitive, and health topics can often fit within that category.
Such research can sometimes appear from the outside as an ‘easy’ option, requiring no face to face interactions, or generation of data, rather being seen merely as requiring the ‘collection’ of data from the chosen web-source, similar to how analysing documents may be described. However, online research requires careful consideration, and the ethical parameters which governs such research can be seen to be situational and requiring diligent working though. The BSA (British Sociological Association) digital sociology group has some useful ethics links here. The BPS (British Psychological Society) has ethics for internet mediated research which provides a comprehensive overview of the ethical issues for doing research online.
Key issues for consideration when doing research online relates to the public nature of the material you are seeking to explore for research (and how private members of a social network may perceive that material), the risk of compromising anonymity and confidentiality, as well as the potential benefit of the research. A wide variety of methodological material now exists around best practice for ethical research online, and exploration of how ethics has been managed within published research provides a further useful steer around how researchers are handling the issues in the (online) field.