The online field is a popular topic with us. It’s certainly an interesting one. I’ve noticed that one recurring issue is that of identifying oneself as a researcher to the people in the community being studied. In the physical world (where “the field” is not so metaphorical) the question is a lot more clear cut. Researchers are potentially crossing boundaries that have physical dimensions – and going into someone’s private home, or joining a social gathering under false pretences is a clear boundary violation.
The ethical dimensions of identifying oneself as a researcher in a face-to-face context might get fuzzy in the most unusual situations, but for the most part seem clear, even intuitive. But I do not think that these rules and strategies translate very well to the online field. Calling both of these spaces (the face-to-face world, and the online environment) “fields” makes every bit of sense, but should not be used as an excuse to simply transplant research strategies and guidelines that developed in the “real world” field into the online field. Online, the kinds of information publicly available to researchers are different – sometimes impoverished (lacking non-verbal and vocal cues) and sometimes far richer (i.e. access to conversations in their entirety as they occur, sometimes across years); and the nature of the communities involved are different in numerous key ways. There are practical problems with identifying oneself as a researcher in some online communities. Many participants are transitory, and their investment in being a part of a particular community is often lessened for online communities. I suspect that people are more easily silenced or scared off by the advertised presence of a researcher in their “midst”.
Lurking around an online community that is completely public has no real-world equivalent. Delurking to identify oneself as a researcher could potentially be a very intrusive action. Navroop (from the Resarch Methods Repository blog group) paired a couple of important points: those of the ways in which a researcher’s open presence can change people’s behaviour; and the effects of (perceived) anonymity on people’s behaviour online. (Her post is at: http://rmr-inf1240.blogspot.ca/2013/10/who-you-are-when-no-one-is-watching.html)
At the moment, I don’t yet know where to go from here, or how to reconcile the ethical issues with the nature of the online field. The issues are complex, and I have a lot of reading up to do!