Online Fan Communities and Research Ethics: An Interview with Dr. Natasha Whiteman
Where there are communities there will, almost inevitably, be researchers observing and studying them. Just as the Internet provides a refuge for fan communities to dwell, so to does it provide a site for academics to research.
Dr Natasha Whiteman studied two online fan communities: Silent Hill Heaven, a website and forum dedicated to the videogame Silent Hill, and City of Angel, a website about the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off television programme, Angel). Her study focussed on the establishment, maintenance, and destabilisation of fan identities; community relations; and the decorum of the communities in terms of authority and expertise.
Natasha has since turned her focus to realm of research ethics in online environments. She has written a book on research ethics and conducting online research. ‘Undoing Ethics: Rethinking Practice in Online Research’ is currently in press and due for publication in 2012. Below is an interview exploring some of her findings on fan communities as well as an account of the current state of online research ethics.
– Your PhD focused on the online fan communities of Silent Hill and Angel. What attracted you to study online communities and them in particular?
I became interested in online communities during my MA studies. My MA dissertation looked at the online marketing campaign for the Spielberg film AI, and the activity of the Cloudmakers (an online community of fans of the campaign) and from there I started to look at online TV/videogame fan cultures. Part of the reason for choosing Silent Hill and Angel for my PhD was to do with my personal interest in these texts – I had watched a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel and had enjoyed playing the Silent Hill games. There were also more “academic” reasons for choosing them. They shared some features, both being serial forms of entertainment, within a similar genre and with well established fan interests. Plus there were some key differences that I was interested in exploring, such as the relationship between videogame and TV fandom in relation to ideas of interactivity and gender.
– How did you find authority/fandom was established?
My study explored different aspects of the day-to-day life within fan communities. This included how members of fan sites constructed their identities as fans and as members of specific fan communities by asserting their difference from other types of audiences/other fans – for example Silent Hill fans contrasting themselves with Resident Evil fans, or Angel fans comparing themselves to fans of reality television. I looked at the different strategies by which posters asserted their authority on the forums of the sites and the role of moderators and community members in policing misbehaviour. I also became interested in the seriality of the texts and the expression of different modes of nostalgia in fans’ responses to change. This could be seen in responses to new episodes of Angel or the release of new games in the Silent Hill series. One key theme of my PhD was a focus on the de-stabilisation of fan activity on the sites and how posters responded to unsettling events such as material that they didn’t like, or more significant events such as the announcement of the cancellation of Angel.
– Your experience with the hacking and ‘forum flush’ raises questions as to whether data can be unpublished, what are your thoughts on this? (e.g. If you’ve already collected the data but it no longer exists online)
Well I am not sure how much of an issue this is. Lots of research involves data that, once collected, no longer exists – for instance observation of fleeting interactions in offline environments. I think there’s a real danger when doing online research in getting lulled into the expectation that the data will always be there. My own experience reminded me of that..
– Your focus has since shifted to the topic of research ethics. Was this a result of your experiences researching identity and fan communities (The spring clean of COA, the hacking of the SHH site, etc.)?
Definitely. Before these events happened though, my interest in research ethics stemmed from the nature of the questions that I was asking (which were interested in the nature of textual interactions within the forums, rather than the perspectives of members of the sites) and my role as an observer rather than participant on the forums. This then tied into broader arguments about the legitimacy of “lurking” as a researcher within public settings which I needed to get some grip on. When I presented my research at conferences I was often asked about the ethics of my study (and criticised for being a lurker), so I felt the need to explain and justify my work quite keenly and spent a lot of time reading/thinking about the ethics of online research and how it related to offline research practice. This then led to a long ethics chapter in my thesis, which then led to my book.
– How do you see the current climate regarding research ethics?
The situation has changed a lot in the UK since I started my PhD in 2004. When I started my doctorate my work didn’t undergo formal ethical review – we didn’t even have an ethics committee. This is one reason why I spent so much time worrying about ethics during my PhD I think. Now I’m Ethics Officer for my Department and every piece of work (at Undergraduate or Masters level) involving human subjects has to obtain ethics approval. So research ethics increasingly has to become part of how students think of themselves – as “researchers” with specific responsibilities to the University as well as to their participants etc. The challenge is to encourage students not to see the ethical review procedure as an inconvenience, but instead as a useful process that can help us to refine/clarify our research design/aims/objectives etc… But then I am sure there are situations where going through the review process is more restrictive and difficult.
– Do you think instability may be necessary in research ethics? ‘Keeps the research on their toes’, reduces complacency?
I think that to some extent instability is unavoidable. The nature of empirical research means that ethics are always unstable. I suppose this is something that is being recognised by some ethics committees in moving towards the ongoing review of projects throughout the research process.
– You mention that while other areas of research have developed this localised/contextual approach, but do you think the Internet and the architecture of such technology has intensified/quickened the pace of the change in the view of research ethics.
The Internet has unsettled expectations and assumptions about what constitutes ‘good’ research practice. It also makes certain methodological questions more visible, more obvious perhaps, and casts an interesting light on offline research. One example of that is the way that research subjects are imagined and brought into being in offline research, which I hadn’t really thought about before embarking on online research.
– Do you see any problems in the long term of a ‘localised, situated ethical decision making’ over universal/general ethical principles?
I don’t think it’s really an “over,” or an either/or. General principles are always shaping what we do, it’s just about how these shape our practice in local contexts, which is part of the challenge of “doing” research ethics.
– What’s the role/Is there still a role for ethics guidelines from institutions or University ethics clearance in a state of such fluid/contextual ethical decision making?
Yes I think so (see my answer to the question above regarding the climate of ethics).
– Could you explain your proposal for an “ongoing construction of an ethical stance” and the four constitutive domains of research ethics.
My interest is in how researchers answer ethical questions relating to their work, the different ethical discourses that can shape the production of ethics during the research process and how this production can become unsettled in the face of contingent or unexpected events. Some of these discourses are academic – coming from the institutions in which we work and the writing of other scholars – whereas others relate to non-academic discourses, such as our own ethical inclinations and the ethics of the sites that we study. I suppose the point is that, in the face of conflicting guidance, establishing an ethical stance involves manoeuvring in relation to different positions and domains of ethics. The framework I’ve developed tries to impose some order on this movement.
– Are these thoughts, proposals and theories that you’ve developed the basis of the book, ‘Undoing Ethics: Rethinking Practice in Online Research’, that you’ve written? Could you say what assertions/conclusions you make in the book?
The book emphasises the similarities between online and offline research practice by looking at shared ethical concerns that researchers face when working in online/offline environments and warns against reifying the physical world as if it offers a privileged route to some absolute truth. Based on my experience of doing online research it focuses in some detail on the ethics of covert or unannounced research and emphasises the constructed nature of ethics (rejecting the idea that some methods/answers to ethical questions are inherently ‘right’ or ‘wrong’). It also develops a sociological interest in how other researchers have established their ethical stances, looking at accounts of research practice and the rhetoric involved in how researchers present their ethical decision-making.
Dr. Natasha Whiteman is a lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Leicester, UK.
Whiteman, N. (2007) ‘The Establishment, Maintenance and Destabilisation of Fandom: A Study of Two Online Communities And An Exploration of Issues Pertaining To Internet Research’. PhD Thesis.
Whiteman, N. (2010) ‘Control And Contingency: Maintaining Ethical Stances In Research’. International Journal of Internet Research Ethics. Vol. 3 (12/2010): pp.6-22.