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  • 00:00

    [MUSIC PLAYING][Researching Online Community Support ForumsUsing Virtual Ethnography]

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    KIM HEYES: My name is Kim Heyes and I'ma GTA, which is the Graduate TeachingAssociate, at Manchester Metropolitan University.I teach abuse studies and psychology.My research is about virtual health communities,online health communities, in particular, mental health.

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: I've used virtual ethnography as a methodology.And this has quite a lot of contentious issues around it.So in order to explain this, I'm goingto go through what virtual ethnography is, how thatrelates to my particular research,and ethically, what you have to think about when

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: performing online research.[What is virtual ethnography?]Virtual ethnography is the ethnographic researchof participants who use online spaces, whether that'sonline forums, such as specific health communities,

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: or things like Facebook and other social media--Instagram is quite big one at the moment--and also other spaces online, such as Reddit,which is a mass forum.These online spaces have quite a lot of different guises.And it's important, really, to be flexible

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: within the research, within the ethnography methodologyto be able to fit to these spacesrather than being quite prescriptive about how you'regoing to perform the virtual ethnography.So online ethnography-- the virtual ethnographydiffers from offline ethnography,

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: as you don't get those visual cues.You're not sitting in the actual environmentwhere people are having these ongoing conversationsand discussions.It's all virtual.So the people who are in these communities online whoare having the discussions are allsat in very, very different spaces.

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: The lack of non-verbal cues--the NVCs, as we say in psychology--is actually quite interesting because itmeans that you focus specificallyon the language that's used, on how people interactwith each other through the use of wordsrather than how they communicate with each other

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: through these non-verbal communications.[How does it relate to your particular research?]My particular research was to be performedas virtual ethnography in mental health communities.Now, in order to do this, I set up a Facebook page

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: a year beforehand to try and gain as many participantsas I could.So in order to do that, I posted online,posted research about mental health that just come outin order to create some kind of discussionbetween the participants.And there were quite a few followers

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: on that Facebook page.So when I set up my own forum, I thoughtthat people would just migrate straight from Facebook pageto the forum itself.Now, I created this forum using an online free forum,and there's lots and lots of them out there.

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: And in order to do that, I created the forumin the same style as forums that I'd seen alreadyin the health community sphere.So I tried to emanate exactly what itwas like in these other communitiesso that people would feel comfortable discussing anything

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: to do with their mental health and healthrelated issues within this space.So I created sticky threads, whichis something that a lot of the mental health forums had.They had important information.So I'd put information like my research profile,

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: how to withdraw from the study, the participant consentforms, and some signposting informationall in sticky threads so that the participants wereable to find that information really easily any time.I then also created five threads which had a question each.

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: And each question was designed to elicit a discussionbetween the participants.I naively thought that this would be quite an easy thingto set up and hadn't really thought too muchabout the background of how other health forums had beenset up for years and years in advance

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: before they actually had quite substantial amounts of users.So even though I had quite a few followers on Facebook,they didn't naturally migrate overto my forum, even when I posted a click-through link that theycould just click on and then they could quickly

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: sign up and participate.They did go onto the forum.However, what they tended to do was click onto the forum,answer the five questions, and then leave againand never come back, which meant that therewas none of the discussion, none of the in-depth research

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: that I needed.So I had to find another way of getting all this information.So my idea had come about from Hauben and Hauben's researchback in the 1990s.They had used a forum and become part of that forum,

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: saying that they were more facilitatorsof the discussion than members of the forum itself.And that seemed to really work for them,and they got quite a lot of research out of that.However, that didn't seem to be working herebecause I couldn't facilitate anything,there wasn't any discussion going on.So I went onto a mass forum onto Reddit.

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: It And they have a huge amount of mental health threads.So I went on and posted my questions onto these threads.That did elicit some response, and I'vegot a lot more in-depth answers in the Reddit forumthan I did in my own forum.

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: However, it still wasn't enough.So I had to be a little bit more flexible.Now, one research that I did rely on quite a lotwas Christine Hine.Back in 2000, she wrote about the researcher,the online researcher, being little morethan a tolerated observer.

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: So all these ideas I had of being this facilitator,of being immersed in the researchweren't really very realistic with the topicthat I was trying to research.So I realized that in order to get the most outof the participants and really get the answers that I wanted,I had to be a lot more flexible in my design.

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: And that's something that Hine reallydoes talk about within her researchis that you need to change your design accordingto what is out there, what the participants are goingto react to.And I think this is particularly importantwhen designing your online researchbecause the nature of the virtual sphere

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: is constantly changing.So these ideas and the adaptabilitythat we're going to have to utilizeas academics going forward is going to constantly change.We're going to constantly need to be more flexible around howwe perform the methodology for the online research.

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: [What are the ethical considerations when researchingonline?]Being adaptive and being flexible is all well and good,but we need to ensure that ethically, we'revery responsible for the participants.And as opposed to offline research,we can't see the people that we're

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: researching so we don't know that they're OK.They can be sat in a library on a public computer,they could be sat in their living rooms on their own.We don't know what they're doing.We don't know how they're interacting with this researchand how they feel as a result of it.So we need to be very conscious about the kinds of questions

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: we're asking and that we're really up front about whatwe're doing.The guidelines that I've utilized throughout my researchwere from the BPS, the British Psychological Society.But most academic institutions will nowhave an online or virtual methodology ethics guidance

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: that you can have a look at.It's really important that it's clearthat the information that you're trying to gatheris for research purposes.It is a bone of contention that quite a lot of researchis believed that because the information isin the public domain, it's easy to access,

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: that therefore, we can just take that informationand use it for our research purposes.I don't believe that's the case.The BPS doesn't believe that that's the case.Through ethical guidance, it's importantthat we look at the methods that we use

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: to get the ethical clearance.Some of the online forums that I used have a gatekeeper,and they will allow you access if you give thema set amount of information.This can be a timely process.It can take quite a lot of time to process the informationand for the gatekeepers to come back

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: to you, which can mean that sometimes it's nota quick and easy method to use.However, forums like Reddit don't have gatekeepers.Therefore the information is easily accessible.I found the easiest way to alert people to the fact

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: that I was doing research was to post it very,very clearly at the top of the thread that I created.I posted who I was, what my institution was,how they could contact me, and how theycould contact my supervisor.So that if any time they wanted to withdraw from the study,they had a couple of different ways to contact me

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: and are still now able to withdraw if they wish.If you use a forum and you don't declarethat you are doing research, it can stillbe quite easy for people to find out whereyou got that information from.If you use quotes, then the BPS suggests that actually you

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: paraphrase those quotes so that if somebody putsthat exact quote into Google, they can't findwhich forum it's come from.Even if the people are anonymised,it just makes it that little bit harderto access those participants and it justprotects them that little bit more.

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: It's all about making sure that you'reprotecting the participant.If you feel that the research is relevant,and that you need access to a particular sphere,and you don't want to ruin the information by telling peoplethat you're there, then you need to really

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: think hard about how you're goingto get through the ethical approval for that.It's very difficult to say that your research ismore important than the protection of the participants.It may be that you want to rework your methodologyin order to make sure that the protection of the participantis paramount.[Strengths and Weaknesses of Virtual Ethnography]

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: One of the strengths of virtual ethnographyis that it is quite quick and quite easy to perform.It's also relatively cost-effective.However, there can be unseen issues, such as the onesI had in that you think that you've

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: got everything covered, that you think that everything is ready.However, you may then have to findanother way of finding that informationor getting your participants to respond.So you need to factor that into the time.Another strength is that online information is only

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: going to grow and grow.The amount of people using online forumsis growing exponentially, specifically in social media.The forums used within Facebook, for example,are growing endlessly.So the amount of information that we have online,

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: the amount of research potential is huge.And that is a massive strength for anyonewho is looking at doing online research.The weaknesses of online researchare the fact that you have to announce that you're there.So as with most ethnographic research,

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: you are in somebody else's space.You are there as a researcher, whichmeans that they may not act as naturally as theywould do normally.This does mean that it could skew some of the research data.But I believe that's a weakness with most ethnographicalstudies.

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: So I don't think it's a massive weakness,but it's something to consider.Another weakness is that the online sphere, as I said,is constantly changing, so trying to keep up-to-datewith ethical practices.And for academic institutions to keep up withethical practices is really difficult.

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: So it's really important that youmake sure that you know the most up-to-date practicesand that you adhere to the most up-to-date ethical procedures.[Conclusion]So hopefully this has inspired youto use online ethnography or virtual ethnography.

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: And if so, the main points I'd like you to consider and takeaway from this are that you need to be flexible,you need to think about where you're coming from,the kinds of approaches that you want to emanate in your study,be it Hauben and Hauben, be it Baym, Hine,any of those kind of founding researchers

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: in online ethnography.And you need to be flexible.You need to be able to change it along with the changingsphere of online today.So make sure that you're very clear about your research, whatyour project is, how to contact you in case of the wish

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: to withdraw or in case they wish to know somethingelse about your research before they commit to participating.So virtual ethnography is a really, really great wayto perform research.And I would encourage you to have a look online and seethe kinds of information that you

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: might be able to gather from participantsthat utilize online communities and online social spaces.The most important thing is that it'sfor a purpose, that you make sure that your participant isprotected, and that your overall research purpose is one

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: that you feel is necessary.But generally, good luck.Today we have about 3.5 billion internet usersaround the world.So globally, there's a massive, massive amountof information online that researchers

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: can use and utilize.Now, we must remember that that's still only about 46%of the global population.So we can't really say that it's relevant to the populationas a whole.Particularly in the global North,there's a lot of people that use online spheres every day

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    KIM HEYES [continued]: and for quite a few hours every day now.So the research potential is enormous.[MUSIC PLAYING]

Video Info

Publisher: SAGE Publications, Ltd.

Publication Year: 2018

Video Type:Case Study

Methods: Ethnography, Virtual ethnography

Keywords: accuracy in communication; communication in online communities; dissemination of information; international internet use; practices, strategies, and tools; Social network websites; Social networking communities ... Show More

Segment Info

Segment Num.: 1

Persons Discussed:

Events Discussed:



Kim Heyes explores the usage of ethnographic methodologies for researching in online communities. Heyes examines the ethics around online participation and subject safety.

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Researching Online Community Support Forums Using Virtual Ethnography

Kim Heyes explores the usage of ethnographic methodologies for researching in online communities. Heyes examines the ethics around online participation and subject safety.

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