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Addressing Ethics of Research in Anonymous Online Spaces

We began our YikYak project in September 2016, which means we have not only completed our data collection phase but, thanks to a tumultuous YikYak year, there is no longer a YikYak service running at all. However, in this post I will be reflecting on some of the ethics challenges our research design and initial work raised and raises for us.

Piloting our approach: exploring a lawless space

In January 2016 we began initial pilot work for this Yik Yak project. We knew, from our Managing Your Digital Footprint research work, that use of Yik Yak was increasing amongst students at the University of Edinburgh but we were not sure how it was being used, and whether there was anything here of interest in a teaching and learning context. So, around Burns Night 2016 we spent a week exploring the Edinburgh Yik Yak community, with three of us (Sian, Louise and I) using the app regularly to see what was being discussed, what might be interesting…

Our initial explorations revealed Yik Yak to be a hotbed for crude and explicit sexual bragging, commentary and ranting on local issues (whether local to the University or the city), a space for bullying or abusive comments or offensive opinion sharing… But that wasn’t all; we also saw discussion of news issues (at various levels and qualities of discourse), a large number of personal calls for help and informal peer support, and discussion of teaching, learning, and assessments amongst students. So, there was something useful about this anonymous space to consider – hence this project – but taking place in a lawless space where a sensitive cry for help might be met by detailed and helpful advice, or an ill considered pithy remark, or even an outright trolling response. And amongst useful content there were also huge volumes of unpleasant of offensive content, which would potentially be highly problematic to expose colleagues and student research assistants to.

As we started to develop our research design we needed to think not only of how to manage risk and exposure, but also how we might ethically conduct ourselves in the space as researchers since, in an anonymous space where adding profile information wasn’t an option (at the time), and where requesting participation, or similar consent measures would be difficult if not impossible to implement.

Consent and Visibility of Research

One of our key concerns had been how we could disclose that the research was taking place in Yik Yak. There is a significant amount of research work taking place in anonymous, pseudonymous, and mixed spaces at present. We knew from our pilot work that there was no easy data collection process at scale and, whilst anonymous, we were also interested in conversation threads, in etiquette, mood, tone, and how that shifts across time and particularly at key points of stress and high workload in the academic year. Collecting data at several points in the year would, however, make it more tricky for us to clearly flag up our presence in the space.

In the end we identified a mixed methods approach to our data collection and analysis: using ethnographic participant observation at set data collection points in time; using some semi-automated/scraped data collection (working with our Informatics colleagues Richard and Claire) to allow text mining approaches to be used; using Digital Footprint survey data to provide wider context and commentary from students in their own words; and using in-person interviews to follow up all of the above data collection and analysis.

The Role of Student Research Assistants

We recruited several undergraduate student research assistants (RAs) to undertake the ethnographic participant observation as we were keen to ensure student perspectives were part of this research, and we wanted authentic YikYak users to engage and interpret what was taking place in the space. However, between our pilot data collection and recruiting our RAs the owners of YikYak decided to make a major service change and introduced (optional but required for posting) “handles” – making the space a great deal less anonymous. Whilst the decision was eventually reversed (see video below), those new handles eroded anonymity and really changed the space, with trust a particular big issue for users.

That change meant that whilst many students had previously used YikYak, were now moving away or rethinking the anonymity of the space – placing greater emphasis on how we could enable our RAs to be present in the space, transparent in their practice, but not contribute to that complex context of reduced trust.

With some wonderful RAs in place last autumn we looked at how best to support them to undertake this work, and be an effective and appropriate participant observer in this space. We looked to the AoIR Ethics Guidance as a starting point, as it provides an unusually nuanced take on the peculiar ethical issues that can arise when working in public or semi-public spaces and communities online where individuals may have quite different ideas about the visibility of their contributions, how they might be used, and how researchers can or should engage in their spaces.

We held a training day where the whole team could come together to provide guidance, to talk through concerns, look at ethics approaches and as a result of that we decided to collaboratively write an Ethics Statement for the project. That statement sets out clear boundaries and assurances, but also provided a consistent URL for more information which was linked to from “here’s who I am, and here’s what I’m doing in the space” type posts, shared by each RA at the beginning of each data collection period.

Being an “Informant” – when do ethnographic approaches feel more like surveillance? 

Of course participant observation in a space which advertises anonymity as its main selling point raises more concerns about surveillance, trust and authenticity than usual. Part of monitoring progress has been reviewing that issue of being an “informant” in the space, and how that works for our RA. As use of Yik Yak has been declining we have also looked at other social media but getting that balance of privacy (for the RAs and their community), and taking an ethically transparent approach has remained challenging.

One of the issues we did have to discuss at the outset of the project was how any issues of particular sensitivity – extreme bullying, abuse, or other illegal activity – would be handled. Yik Yak’s lawless nature made these relatively likely to occur – although we knew from pilot data collection that most of what we expected to observe would be illegal activity at a very low level (e.g. discussion of recreational drugs), and we felt confident that this did not need to be reported elsewhere. However, with many discussing their mental health, we did discuss how to handle any immediate concerning situation that may be encountered – addressed in part by the academic research team being available for guidance or support as needed. That approach seemed to strike the right balance between our duty of care towards our RAs and the students engaging on Yik Yak, and being mindful not to invade privacy or private lives, particularly as our project focuses on teaching, learning and assessment discussion in particular.

 

So, how has this all been working in practice? In our next post one of our RAs, Lilinaz, will write about the experience of undertaking this work and the challenges and observations she’s made over the last few months.

What do you think about the ethics of engaging in anonymous online spaces? We would love to hear your take on our YikYak work, and how our ethical approach has compared to other work in online communities. Do leave your comments below. 

 

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