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<nettime> [Coverage]The Association of Internet Researchers' inaugural c
Arun-Kumar Tripathi on 22 Sep 2000 17:48:22 -0000


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<nettime> [Coverage]The Association of Internet Researchers' inaugural conference sounds interesting & important


Dear Nettime Moderator,

[Hi, I thought --this might interest to Nettimers --recently at the AOIR
conference --the Association of Internet Researchers discussed "Online
Research Ethics Lacking" --any meaningful guidelines for online research
is missing. Most AOIR researchers looked differently at Internet --for 
details see On the Net --at Association of Internet Researcher site
<http://aoir.org> Thank you.-Arun]
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Researchers Looking at Internet
ET September 17, 2000
By ANICK JESDANUN, AP Internet Writer

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - As the Internet rapidly promotes new communities and
new ways to communicate, researchers still are trying to catch up and
figure out its costs and benefits.

The Association of Internet Researchers' inaugural conference ended
Sunday with more questions than answers about the Net's impact on social
interactions and relationships.

Does the Internet foster greater face-to-face contact offline, or does it
tend to make people more reclusive? Are face-to-face interactions even the
ideal means of contact for everyone, including the shy teen-ager who
thrives online?

   "We know very little," said Manuel Castells, sociology professor at
University of California-Berkeley.

   "We are transforming our world at the fullest speed - blindly," he
said. "It could create a backlash from many people saying that for them,
the Internet is worsening their lives."

   While Internet studies are only beginning, time is running out
because technology changes rapidly, warned Stephen Jones, president of the
association.

   The researchers' group, with more than 400 members, was formed to
bring together sociologists, educators, technologists and other
specialists who study the Internet.

Despite their efforts, many expressed frustration about how little is known.

   "There's a lot of rhetoric and a fair amount of pseudo research,"
said Gary Burnett, a professor of information studies at Florida State
University. "If we don't take measures to understand the subtleties
of the world we live in, there's the possibility for significant
negative consequences."

   Studies at Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon University have
suggested that the Internet promotes reclusion or depression.

   But other studies, including those presented at the conference, found
that Internet users communicate more often - online and offline - than
people who are unconnected.

   Many researchers agreed that the Internet does foster communities
around shared interests. Cancer survivors, gun owners and fans of 
television shows can all meet online even if they are hundreds of miles
apart.

   "It's changing the mode through which communities emerge," said
Andrew Wood, a professor in communications studies at San Jose State
University in California. "It's hard to say whether that's good or bad,
but it's certainly going to be different."

Burnett identified one potential downside of virtual communities:
Internet users may develop a large-scale view incompatible with the small,
rural settings they live in.

Dave Jacobson, an anthropologist at Brandeis University in Waltham,
Mass., found no evidence that people relate to one another any differently
on the Net. But then again, he said, individuals can enter or leave a
virtual community more easily than they can move from a town they dislike.

   And some researchers emphasized the difficulties of blaming or
crediting the Internet for societal changes. After all, said University of
Toronto sociologist Barry Wellman, neighborhood-based communities began
declining long ago.

   "Many of the things we ascribe to computerization had been happening
before," Wellman said.

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) -- Don't get too comfortable with your online 
support group. A researcher may be lurking, recording your 
outpourings in the name of science.

In fact, a researcher posing as a member of the support group may be 
posting comments simply to observe the reaction from participants.

As more researchers turn to the Internet for behavioral studies, 
there is growing concern about the potential harm to online users 
unaware that they have become research subjects when they discuss 
diseases, marital problems and sexual identity crises.

Online research ethics -- specifically, the lack of any meaningful 
guidelines -- was one of the chief topics of discussion this week at 
the inaugural meeting of the Association of Internet Researchers.

``We're waiting for a major lawsuit,'' said Sarina Chen, professor of 
communications at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. 
``Many people consider downloading data from the Internet `content 
analysis.' That's very naive.''

She ought to know: She said she almost lost her job when participants 
in a support group for eating disorders complained to her superiors 
about the tone of some postings that one of her students had made as 
part of a class assignment.

Failing to get consent before monitoring Internet chat rooms and 
other discussion forums amounts to an invasion of privacy and can 
make participants more guarded in their dealings with one another, 
Chen said.

In more extreme cases, other researchers warned, a posting inserted 
by a researcher can shift the nature of discussion and prompt 
participants to take action they otherwise would not.

Barbara Lackritz, a leukemia survivor from St. Louis who runs more 
than two dozen cancer support groups, said researchers have been 
dropping in with increased frequency.

``It's very frustrating,'' she said in a telephone interview. ``We 
have all kinds of researchers, from kids who are in high school to 
master's degree candidates who want to do a thesis.''

Researchers who want to monitor her discussion groups often get 
permission first from group moderators, she said. But too often, she 
said, researchers don't ask, and ``think we're a slab of people 
waiting to do research for them.''

She said one support-group participant who hadn't told his friends, 
family and neighbors about his cancer started getting phone calls all 
of a sudden from people saying, ``I'm sorry.'' He then learned that a 
researcher had posted his full name and diagnosis on a Web site.

Now that participant uses a pseudonym.

``He was furious,'' Lackritz said. ``In the long run, it hurt him 
financially and in his relationships with family.''

Federal law and university review boards generally prohibit 
experiments on humans without consent, though some observations in 
public settings are acceptable.

But where do you draw the line between public and private on the 
Internet? Many discussion groups are open to the public, but 
participants generally assume that fellow members join because they 
have similar interests or concerns.

That makes such forums less like a public square and more like 
someone's living room, said Amy Bruckman, a professor of computing at 
Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Other researchers, however, believe they can monitor those 
discussions as long as they do not identify subjects in research 
papers.

``It's more important how data is analyzed and disseminated than how 
it is gathered,'' said Joseph Walther, professor of communications, 
psychology and information technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic 
Institute in Troy, N.Y.

Storm King, a Springfield, Mass., psychologist and spokesman for the 
International Society for Mental Health Online, said seeking consent 
can actually cause participants to clam up, making observations of 
natural settings more difficult.

The Association of Internet Researchers will probably decide Sunday 
to form a task force to draft guidelines by next year's meeting, said 
Stephen Jones, the group's president.

David Snowball, professor of speech communication at Augustana 
College in Rock Island, Ill., said he was surprised when students 
proposed to eavesdrop on a support group and create fake traumas for 
the group to consider.

He was even more surprised when he learned the students got the idea 
from other faculty members, who believed the practice was OK because 
participants would probably never know.

``The online world is still new and opens up all sorts of ways of 
doing research,'' said Charles Ess, a professor in cultural studies 
at Drury University in Springfield, Mo. ``It's much easier to lurk in 
a chat room undetected than it is to stand in a room and take notes.''

On the Net: http://aoir.org
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