Eysenbach and Till’s 2001 article “Ethical issues in qualitative research on internet communities” raises a critical question for qualitative researchers and participants of online forums alike: where is the line between “public” and “private” community spaces on the internet?
Consciously living in a cyber-saturated world, I have learned that online content can never truly be deleted (as ensured by The Wayback Machine), and as such, nothing one posts online can truly be private. But this viewpoint, while perhaps technically accurate, does not accommodate the very private – and very real – spaces where confidential support groups regularly deal with highly sensitive, personal issues like addiction, depression or terminal illness.
For researchers, observing online support groups like these could easily seem akin to watching a group of people interact in a public place – since it can be argued that the internet is a sort of public place. However, the difference lies simply in whether the group being observed is aware of the researcher’s listening ear. In the case of in-person interactions, it is obvious where the line between observing and eavesdropping exists. While experientially that line seems blurrier online than in person, in reality it is not. As Eysenbach and Till point out, participants of subscription-based discussion groups are likely to regard the group as a “private place” and trust that anyone in the “room” is open to a similar level of vulnerability. It is the ethical obligation of the researcher to respect individuals’ privacy online in the same way they would face-to-face.