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A fly on the wall or a fly in the face? Methodological concerns in online participant-­‐observations

Maria Rosén, Lund University, Sweden.

Even though social media continues to embed itself into our everyday and academic lives,  it is still not always obvious how to study it as a social phenomenon. Social media platforms enable researchers to follow people's actions and interactions in real time. Texts and images created and shared online could also be saved, stored and made available for researchers. While for researchers the opportunity to access data created in the past seems to be advantageous, this is clearly not the case for users. People using social media sites may not necessarily be aware of the multiple audiences for their words and actions, and may not have imagined that they made themselves available for research. Ethically speaking, it becomes important for us as researchers to attend not just to the fact of availability, but also to the means by which those attitudes are justified, technically speaking or not (Hine, 2012).
In this paper I aim to ethics of participant-­‐observation as a method for studying online social movements. Online participant-­‐ observations descend from classical ethnographic research where the researcher immerses him-­‐ or herself in a group of people or culture under study, generally involving observation of people's actions, interactions, shadowing group members and carrying out interviews with members (Bryman & Bell, 2007). Participant-­‐ observation aims to emerge with a credible authentic account of participant’s behavior and beliefs, and calls for considerations over participation on one hand and observation on the other (Harrington, 2002). 
Approaching issues that surround ethics when studying online   movements raises important questions that concern public/private environment, informed consent, anonymity and obtrusiveness. An overall question that relates to these issues could be formulated as follows: How do we determine when the right balance has been struck between participation and observation when studying social media interactions?
To illustrate this discussion, I study Matfusket, a group on Facebook where hundreds of swedes engage every week in issues concerning food, food fraud and alternatives to industrial food. The group was founded in March 2013 by an “ordinary consumer”  and is now moderated by a small group of people (here called “the administrators”). In less than seventeen months the group has  become one of the most popular Facebook sites in Sweden, and has now approximately 124 000 members (2014-­‐08-­‐16).   


FULL VERSION  A fly on the wall or a fly in the face? Methodological concerns in online participant-­‐observations