After the horrible nightmare that was Loyola professor Dr. David Myers’ study in the City of Heroes online community, I started thinking about the ethical challenges that face researchers wanting to do studies using virtual environments – massively-multiplayer games, forums, social networking spaces like Facebook or Twitter, even blogs.
They are very tempting environments for research on anything from human interactions to social structures to even the nature of fandoms or group imagination, but can you take the existing rules and apply them to these very non-traditional spaces?
The crux of the matter really is that rules of ethics are supposed to protect human subjects from harm. Subjects don’t become any less human or prone to harm because they are online. This is really the issue where researchers seem to get stuck most often (see Dr. Myers again). This isn’t to say that there aren’t many, many well-intentioned, ethical researchers out there looking at social media, just that it’s a new and dicey area and not every researcher handles it well.
Informed consent is required for most research as well as reasonable assurance that the research won’t cause harm. This means that if a researcher is going to be interacting with people in a forum or in a game, they have the right to be told, given the chance to opt-out of the study and be assured they won’t come to harm.
But the space belonged to the users before the study came along, so what happens if someone doesn’t want to participate? Does that mean they have to leave the game or forum or conversation? It shouldn’t, but how can the researcher’s desire to study the space be reconciled with the subject’s right to refuse? I have no answers on this one, but it’s definitely something to take pretty seriously.
Harm is thorny too. When you’re interacting with people exclusively online, you don’t know how something really affects them. Going back to Dr. Myers for a moment, he assumed that everything was fine because it was in a game and because of the people who talked to him largely just said how annoying it was, but most people won’t say anything (especially when it really starts to affect them strongly). I wouldn’t have said anything to him, but I likely would have been crying in real life and not played CoH again for a long time, if ever. There have been people who were pushed over the edge and committed suicide because of things that happened to them online. That’s real psychological harm. So how do you make sure you don’t hurt someone when you’ll probably never know if it happens? Again, I don’t know, but it’s something worth thinking about.
A big focus in the ethical rules for sociological and psychological studies is being very careful of “vulnerable populations” (children, the disabled, the mentally unstable, etc.), but online it’s hard to know who falls into one of these and who doesn’t. There are specific sites geared to children (so you know that’s who you’re studying) where a researcher really wanting to set up a serious study could likely find a way to work with the site designers to arrange for consent from parents, but what about everywhere else? My guess is that in studies on the internet, we’re going to have to start affording everyone the protections given to “vulnerable populations” simply because we don’t know who falls into them and who doesn’t.
Confidentiality might seem like an easy one, since nobody knows anything about anybody else most of the time, but I actually think it’s really important when dealing with online spaces. Blurring out identity is still important, and when dealing with social media there might be a great deal of personal information at the researcher’s fingertips. But even information that isn’t obviously personal might be. Screennames aren’t generic – they have become as much a part of people’s identities as anything else. Gamer Tags and forum screennames are chosen with care because they identify who you are. Often people carry the same screenname for years – my husband and I have both used ours since high school (and at over ten years now, that’s about how long such things have been commonly around – now even my grandmother has one).
Finally, there’s the ethics surrounding the perceptions of the researchers themselves. There are a ton of preconceptions about the internet, social networking sites, forums, online games and people who use and play them. It’s really important that if they are going to be examined they be examined with the unbiased positions we expect of laboratory studies. If a psychologist is so convinced that people who play World of Warcraft are mentally ill that s/he can’t make objective observations, even if that idea is contradicted, s/he probably shouldn’t be studying World of Warcraft. On the same note, if the researcher’s spouse is a marketer at a big company that regularly uses Twitter to market their products, it might be a conflict of interest for that researcher to study the difference in effectiveness of Twitter campaigns from large and small companies (at the very least, the connection should be disclosed in the paper).
Online spaces are great and as they are used more and more for social, political, recreational, economic and other purposes they have the potential to tell us a lot about ourselves as a society and as people, but the research on that needs to be carefully gathered or we might end up learning more about ourselves through how the research was done than what it’s results were. I think that it’s important that these issues be discussed and I would really like to see the organizations that govern research ethics discussing them. Fundamentally, human beings are still human beings no matter where you interact with them, but the logistics of the internet are different than that of a lab and the guidelines for making sure subjects are protected should be carefully clarified before another debacle like Dr. Myers’ Twixt study happens.