Thursday, October 08, 2009

"Ethics Has Become What You Can't Do"

This line from the AoIR "Ethics" panel moderator Elizabeth Buchanan expressed the frustration of many Internet researchers with the human subjects protocols that are mandated by university Institutional Review Boards, which tend to be designed for biomedical investigations rather than scholarship that engages with questions of self-representation and the liminal areas between public and private discursive realms. I've heard many talks in which speakers merely complain about their campus's IRB processes without much critical reflection, so I was pleased to see that the line-up at AoIR was engaging in a much more substantive and theoretically sophisticated discussion about what should be best practices.

Of course, there was some justifiable venting. Edward Lee Lamoureaux complained that his research in Second Life was frequently stymied, even though his study of religion in virtual worlds often concerns the rhetoric of display and involves participants who blog about their activities and express far less sensitivity than he does to the fact the SL isn't entirely a public space. In particular he bemoaned the fact that the "confidentiality" standard rather than one of "minimal risk" was expected by IRBs, who can't understand the self-publicizing nature of the Internet in which social actors may use multiple digital media platforms for communications with varying degrees of assumed openness. In his Prezi presentation he bemoaned the dominance of the "common rule" for research methods, which privileges the medical model and its biopolitics. The discussion of his presentation also raised interesting questions about the difference between studying digital objects and avatars.

Next Michael Zimmer presented a remarkable paper on the "Tastes, Ties, and Time" study of an entire college cohort's use of Facebook, which was sanctioned by the social network site itself, and attacked the fiction of unidentifiable information in the era of data aggregation. Using this study, which he could easily figure out was conducted at the supposedly anonymous Harvard campus, based on the size of the freshman class and their offerings for undergraduate majors, he argued that protocols are far too frequently designed "for protecting researchers not research subjects." Although he granted that the Harvard study presented important scholarship about the relationship between physical and network analysis and was also obliged to release data under the terms of their NSF funding, he claimed that this "new way of doing social science" also unfairly took advantage of "insider access" granted to Harvard graduate students who were also on the Facebook network of the university. Of course, since I'm a member of the Harvard Facebook network as well and a person who remembers a "facebook" as a print publication. In closing Zimmer also reminded the audience about the resources at and credited Buchanan and Charles Ess for improving the practices of the field.

Dylan Wittkower, who is editing a new collection on Facebook and Philosophy that includes essays from Ian Bogost and myself, was the final presenter in the panel. (You can also check out his free philosophy podcasts, where he donates his time as a reader.) Like Lamoureaux, he was experimenting with software presentation alternatives to PowerPoint. In his case he used FreeMind's mind mapping software. Since we are teaching Aristotle's Ethics in the Humanities Core Course this year, and I co-authored the writing assignment about the nature of friendship in Aristotle's text, I was very interested in Wittkower's thesis that friendships of use or pleasure could become friendships of virtue as Facebook members are exposed to signifiers of civility and tolerance when unintentially exposed to albums with gay families or gay weddings.

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