prioritizing ethics

Thinking about research ethics this week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a comment that stuck with me from a class last year (I think it was from one of the final lectures in INF1001) – something along the lines of it’s ironic that everyone always says ethics are so important, yet we tack discussions about ethics onto the end of courses like an afterthought. In this course, the ethics discussion hasn’t been left until the very end, but pretty close. Yet the readings and guest lecture this week reiterated just how crucial ethics review is to the research process. At UofT, you can’t conduct any human-based research activities without getting clearance, even if it’s for a class project. I used to think of ethics clearance as just a bureaucratic hurdle to clear and forms to sign, but I am beginning to see that the entire research design hinges on consideration of ethical issues. Some of the questions asked at the end of yesterday’s lecture related to exactly that point: what ethical implications might result from the choice of method(s)? This might be a chicken and egg scenario, because you can’t really understand the implications of a method you don’t know anything about, but I wonder whether it makes more sense to talk about ethics earlier in a course like this. 
 
– Cynthia
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Mini-Research Assignment: Wikipedia, the People’s Encyclopedia

On a very basic level, Wikipedia is an online information infrastructure serving a dual functionality as an information resource from a user perspective (i.e., a collection of linked articles and images that can be consulted, referenced, and used for individual information needs), and as a collaborative interface where one can contribute information anonymously, or create a user account and join an online community. Wikipedia can be analyzed from a technical level as a repository of articles, discussion pages, coding and tags, user accounts, rules and guidelines, all with history pages of their evolution, time-stamped with each addition made. As Star (1999) suggests, one can examine the “hidden mechanisms subtending those processes […] digging to unearth the dramas inherent in system design creating, to restore narrative to what appears to be dead lists” (p. 377). As such, studying information infrastructure is a pursuit that attempts to uncover “embedded strangeness, a second-order one, that of the forgotten, the background, the frozen in place” (Star, 1999, p. 370).

A technique I found useful for analysing Wikipedia’s infrastructure is Star’s (1999) dimension of “transparency” in which she states “infrastructure is transparent to use, in the sense that it does not have to be reinvented each time or assembled for each task, but invisibly supports those tasks” (p.381). As an online information resource, Wikipedia is consistent and straightforward in terms of its navigation from a user perspective as one can access it like any other website. However, in order to actively contribute content, one must be aware of all the policies and guidelines delineated to do so if one endeavours to have their edit last. In addition, one also requires basic knowledge of HTML and how to edit and format text from a technological standpoint. These different approaches to and uses of Wikipedia are transparent insofar as they are clear to anyone who seeks them out; however, whether they are intelligible and by whom is another story. The degree of transparency becomes clearer the more one becomes familiar with the infrastructure, thus leading to another one of Star’s (1999) dimensions: “learned as part of membership” (p.381).

While Star (1999) describes a property of “learned as part of membership” (p.381) to be how “strangers and outsiders encounter infrastructure as a target object to be learned about, [while] [n]ew participants acquire a naturalized familiarity with its objects, as they become members” (p.381), in Wikipedia, the more one immerses oneself within the collaborative community of knowledge production (i.e., [re]presentation), the more one becomes aware of the power structures embedded within it that might not be as observable or even of consequence to the average user.

Another of Star’s (1999) dimensions of infrastructure is how infrastructure is “link[ed] with conventions of practice” (p.381). As Star (1999) explains, “infrastructure both shapes and is shaped by the conventions of a community of practice” (p.381). We can see this dimension manifest in Wikipedia’s infrastructure insofar it, as an information resource, is indebted to the community of collaborative efforts. My efforts engaging with Wikipedia have been unveiling insofar as anonymous contributions  I have made have been, more the most part, heavily scrutinized and even deleted; whereas the same edits I have made under my user account have been left unquestioned by otherwise suspect Wikipedians and bots. As such, the communal facet of Wikipedia is not something to be ignored as it is an embodiment of a convention that privileges, or in extreme cases demands, some degree of ownership or accountability to that which is contributed. Therefore, this suggests that perhaps the norm is to question or target, even dismiss, the substantive contributions made anonymously as opposed to focusing efforts on ensuring the best information is made available.

Beyond the elements of infrastructure discussed, I also found Star’s (1999) notion of infrastructure as relational quite useful. The very notion reminded me of dialectic in a Marxist sense, which is a useful tool for appreciating that different aspects of a situation take on a particular meaning depending upon the relationships established between various elements. What was useful about the idea of infrastructure as relational was that it helped me to see more clearly the power relations within the Wikipedia enterprise and the subsequent imbalances between contributors and the arbiters of given contributions. From the point of view of a contributor, my naïve assumptions about what counts as a useful/legitimate contribution were clarified in light of the authority that came to bear and make such decisions.


Mini Online Research Assignment: Grieving.com

Grieving.com is a website for people to meet and talk with others who are going through similar experiences. The definition of grief is used broadly, applying to anyone who has lost someone close to them, including causes such as death, the legal system, and divorce, among others. Users are able to express emotions that they may be uncomfortable expressing to those around them, as well as exchange advice on coping mechanisms. This is a particularly interesting case in which to examine emotional identity issues, and there are many questions that can be asked. What is it that draws users to this particular form of support? How often do users frequent the site? Do they consider themselves part of a community? Is this their primary way of dealing with grief, or are they seeking out information or services elsewhere? Methodological challenges could include the ethical decision about whether to study the users overtly or covertly. If studying them overtly, the changes to their risk behaviour must be taken into account. Overall, a study of grieving.com will make an ideal case study for a project on emotional information seeking.

-Melody, Kate and Tracy


Mini Research Assignment: Twitter

I propose that Twitter would serve as an ideal example of an online environment tailored towards emotional information seeking. Twitter is an online micro-blogging and social networking service in which users post short messages of up to 140 characters (“Tweets”). It is tailored to a wide audience (it currently has over 500 million active users) and thus could serve as an excellent subject for any study related to emotional information seeking. User activity consists of posting Tweets, following other Twitter users, and re-posting comments from other Twitter feeds. Because of the condensed nature of the Tweet, many messages consist of brief emotional responses or quips (following the Miami Marlins’ recent fire-sale trade to the Blue Jays, slugger Giancarlo Staunton tweeted: “Alright, I’m pissed off!!! Plain & Simple”). Moreover, many Twitter feeds are devoted to news and political information – Barack Obama’s strong Twitter presence was later judged to be instrumental to his success in the 2008 presidential election. Again, the concise nature of Twitter messages lends itself to brief emotional responses on important and controversial issues. Finally, the fact that Twitter is a social network in addition to a micro-bogging service means that it is an ideal environment in which to study information-seeking behaviour. For these reasons, I believe that Twitter would be an perfect subject for the above-described project.


Mini-research assignment: Reddit.com

Reddit.com may seem like an odd choice for research on emotional information seeking. It’s stereotype is one of a technology, humor, and perhaps politically dominated timewaster where contributors post cat memes or rants against the latest attack on net neutrality. However, Reddit is in reality a highly heterogeneous grouping of “subreddits”, smaller forum-style sites where contributors (anyone who signs up with simply a user name and password) post, usually anonymous or semi-anonymously just about anything they want. There are many subreddits dedicated to different facets of emotional information seeking, including reddit.com/r/griefsupport, /r/depression, /r/petloss, and so on. Anyone can create a subreddit and contribute to any of them, and as a consequence it is not tailored to any one particular person. Although some unofficial studies have found the contributors to be predominantly middle class males in their 20’s and 30’s. This is the first challenge that would present itself, another would be the fully anonymous aspect. Together these would make it difficult to determine whether the population skewed in any one way. Additionally the choice of subreddit would most likely effect the outcomeof the project drastically. Finally the ethics of observing the contributors, and the inability, or high degree of difficulty in soliciting direct communication from them would provide additional challenges depending on the type of methodology employed. Overall, however, Reddit provides a wealth of information for emotional information seeking study unparalleled by perhaps any other online community today, due to its significant number of contributors, heterogeneity, and relative longevity. I therefore believe it would be worth pursuing as the community for study in this research project.

-Emily P.


Research and technology

A a bit of a gadget nerd, Knight’s chapter “Doing It” made me feel thankful we’re not back in 2002. Discussions of the prohibitive cost of video cassette recorders are today somewhat irrelevant when nearly everyone walks around with a videocamera in their pocket every day. Likewise, we no longer have to worry about storing things on floppy disks our our websites when we can easily fit small-scale research data on our laptops and/or in the cloud. I think it would be interesting to read about how or if research has changed based on technological improvements over the years. Now that you can store and access much more data, disseminate questionnaires and even conduct interviews online, what impact has this had on research on both a small and large scale? I’ve read a bit about it in the recent past, but would like to learn more. Perhaps it’s the topic for another paper!


Week 12 — Mini Online Research Assignment — Getting the “Gist” of daily emotion.

Prompt 1.

The social media platform  Grace in Small Things” (GiST) is a great example of an online environment tailored to emotional information seeking because it asks users to share emotional experiences from their daily/current life with others. It would be a particularly interesting site to use for this case study, because in direct opposition to large-scale commercialism, as it asks users to share about simple moments or experiences that make them grateful. However, it is interesting to note that some users, including myself, often end up finding daily grace in “small things” that are consumer products, and posts about these items may inspire public dialogue with other users about the products that can verge on promotional. (i.e. “Today I am grateful for waking up to fresh coffee straight from the Bodum press.”)

What it is: GiST is like Facebook and WordPress rolled into one. Its express purpose is to inspire gratefulness and positive thinking in an online community by asking users to share about the good and little things in life. Many users (as I have done) post a list every day of the things they are grateful for or have impacted them that day. There is also now an app being developed for iOS and android to compliment the site.

Who it is tailored to: GiST has almost 2,000 users and is open to everyone, but I have never encountered a male user personally (although they do exist). The majority of users seem to be middle-aged, (upper-and lower-) middle-class  women, but there are also younger women like myself who use it. I would assume that the site’s main user  group is very similar to the major user group of Pinterest.

What emotional relations might exist: As a user, I have experienced only postitive, supportive emotional relations on GiST. This also makes it an interesting case study because it is one example that goes against the notion many observers of Internet culture have put forward that the anonymity of the Internet fosters inherently negative and aggressive social interactions. Comments on the site are usually posted in the form of encouragement as in “Good for you for making time for yourself today!” etc.

Why it would make an ideal case study for the larger project: see post introduction. This would probably best when used in conjunction with other case studies as well, given the uniquely positive nature of this site.

Potential methodological challenges to be addressed: because there are not many users of GiST compared to other online communities like Facebook, and because the nature of posts on GiST is usually so personal, it would perhaps be more difficult to protect participants’ anonymity,  especially from other GiST users, upon publication.

–Averie