In most chat rooms, users can "go private" with one or several other users, which means that they create a sub-room within the chat room, to which only they and the people they invite have access. When they do so, other users can neither see their nicknames nor their messages. In the chat room I studied, it is also possible to send private messages, at the same time as being in the public room, and these messages will only be visible to the addressee.
Hence, the interaction that occurs in the public room is open and visible to just anyone, and participants are aware of this. King suggests that ethical considerations related to Internet data should be judged on two dimensions, how public the forum is perceived to be and how delicate the information shared is. The public room of chat rooms is perceived as an open space, and therefore, delicate information is normally lobers shared there.
The confidentiality requirement is for natural reasons easier to satisfy, since even I am unknowing of whom I am studying. When users log on to a chat room, they choose a nickname, a name with which they wish to present themselves. It is, however, more usual that users come up with own, more personal atures, that can provide information about properties such as gender, age, interests, musical or political preferences, profession, ideals, civil status, or even sexual preferences.
Even if all users are anonymous, in the meaning that I do not know what offline identities hide behind the nicknames, the nicknames that occur in my observation data may of course be recognized by other users, especially since users often have more or less permanent nicknames that they always stick to. This is especially true in small chat rooms with many regulars, i. Donath therefore argues that what can be found in online-environments is not anonymity, but pseudonymity.
For many users, the community of a chat room can often be experienced as just as real as their other environments, and their online-identities can then, when in the chat room, be just orom real as their offline-identities when in offline environments. Those who argue for an uncritical rendering of observation data from chat rooms with the opportunity for users to remain anonymous, or to change nicknames, have not taken into that users who have developed relationships to other individuals in a certain environment in this case a chat room will likely want to continue meeting and interacting with chxt under the name they have made themselves known.
Renderings of data should therefore only be done after strict considerations of whether individuals could be identified, both in their on- and offline roles, and in that case, if the information that is left out could harm the person in caht.
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My attitude towards this cha been that the fact that users are in the chat room cannot be seen as delicate information, and I have therefore chose to keep the users real online nicknames as example of what type of nicknames people chose. This should also be seen as a way of preserving authenticity of data. In order to avoid individual nicknames to be seen in relation to delicate information, I have made strict considerations when quoting actions, utterances or conversations.
I have also changed personal information that occurred in the conversations, relating to offline-identities, such as real names, cities of residence and descriptions of appearances. Identification of their offline identities, lonere the other hand, requires that one knows both who they are online- and offline. It is also important to keep in mind that I do not follow any specific individuals, but my interest has rather been on the interaction, discourse and activity of chatting.
My observations have been hidden to most of the users in the chat room. I would say that the users of the chat room I have studied are not subject to physical or mental harm, humiliation or offense as a result of my research. Another circumstance is that the observations were made almost four years prior to the publishing of this thesis, which makes identification of nicknames even more difficult. Doing ethnographic research in Internet environments clearly evokes new questions of research ethics, but it may also alter the way we look upon old guidelines.
In this paper, for example, we have seen how many of the established rules and guidelines for how research in the humanities should be conducted are overridden. The Internet media may sometimes make it easier to conduct research unnoticed, but above all, as we have seen in this paper, they may make it very difficult to ask for permission by the individuals who are under study.
I am still by no means convinced that it was the right thing to do. On the one hand, it can be argued that no one was harmed by my research. On the other, I hold that people really should have the right to know that they are subject to research, as well as have the opportunity to decide whether they will be participate in the study or not. With this paper, I hope to open up a discussion of issues of informed consent in Internet environments. Is it possible to get it, and is it really necessary?
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