I've been meaning to blog this for about a week now, but never found the time. But at lunch, the issue of ethics was brought up so I'll mention some reflections on this.
Eszter Hargittai and two doctoral students ponder methodological questions, especially sampling. This is not so much a problem for me, as the Finnish blogosphere isn't that huge yet. The "theme blogs" that I'm particularly interested in aren't numerous.
My thoughts have been on the issue of virtual etnography. Once I've spotted the blogs or sites of interest, how do I proceed with the study? I, as a researcher, obviously have a great deal of power as I can claim any webpage as public, and therefore researchable without permission of the "owner" of the site. Or can I? Is a posting to a website public or not? Perhaps the notions of public and private are constantly reconstructed in the information society. I suspect that especially when it comes to weblogs, there's a cultural understanding in Finland that a post is public. But suppose that a blogger or someone leaving a comment doesn't agree, or doesn't find it public at all, does that matter? If the informant of my study gets furious when the research is published, should I as a researcher say: Bad luck! Your message is equivalent to a letter to the opinion editor at a daily newspaper, only that you've used another medium.
And the other way around, a person who is eager to discuss, be read and be commented upon, for instance in a weblog, will (s)he get offended if I try to protect him or her, and question whether s)he knows that the opinions might be seen as public? One of the core question is, I guess, that should I reveal myself as a researcher and explain my mission, or carry out my study without asking for the permission? What will that do to the research and, not to forget, will my choice cause the informants any harm?
I feel that absolutely everything posted on the Internet should not be seen as public, and therefore researchable. One should be sensitive regarding to who posted it (teenagers, participants in a news group of women facing domestic violence etc). And I think the perception of the people engaged in a interaction online should be taken into consideration. But I do consider my weblog public and I'm fully aware of the fact that someone might analyze my writings as I write.
Clearly, there are no ethical rules to follow when it comes to virtual etnography, only guidelines. This makes it all so interesting. But how does one know how to proceed, and which method is the best when studying virtual arenas? I think that if you thoroughly discuss the method used, this shows that you've reflected on the pros and cons and reached a decision that you feel is the best for your research. If you do that then you've come far in my eyes. As McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) states in the movie "One flew over the Cuckoo's nest" when trying to escape the mental hospital and fails: well I tried,didn't I? Goddamnit,at least I did that.