Although vastly different, the studies of virtual and real worlds are also very similar.  In order to get the answers you’re looking for in your research you must ask the right questions as well.  In the Carter reading, she mentions her sectionalized questionnaire, “the five sections were general background information; second, question around communication, language and technology; third, the nature of community and belonging; fourth, the nature of reality and virtuality and finally cyberspace sociality” (Carter, p. 150).  As you can see, she was able to develop questions by first identifying her key areas of interest and then working down.  After she knew the topics of the information she was seeking, it was easier to create more descriptive questions to fall under the categories.  She was able to get a large number of responses, but only after establishing herself within the community.

It is one thing to physically be within a community, and another to be a part of that community.  In order to gather accurate information, one must become reputable in the community they are studying.  The only solution to this problem is time.  Carter says, “people who spend less time in chat rooms ‘are more likely to tell lies’…Conversely, the more time people spend in chat rooms the more open they become about themselves” Carter, p. 152).  So if a researcher wants accurate results then they should spend copious amounts of time in the community, which should result in more accurate observation and gathered information.  But, as most things in life, this is not perfect.

There are some concerns I see with online communities research.  The main issue to me is lack of true transparency regarding communication.  For example, out of the 130 questionnaires distributed, Denise Carter received 86 responses from people who occupied one particular neighborhood in cybercity.  In real life, this would be considered a convenience sample and thus would not be as accurate as others.  This is why the lack of transparency causes a problem.  Where are these people actually located, what are their true demographic or psychographic, are they legit?  For all we know the neighborhood is a true convenience sample and everyone in it virtually is sitting in the same room physically, but then again, we may never know and therefore cannot truly trust.  Then again, this is more of a question of ethics than anything else.

Ideally, you would like your participants and observers to be fully ethical, but this is not always the case.  From the observer standpoint though, steps can be taken to avoid unethical behavior.  These steps are actually the same virtually and in reality.  There are 4 moral obligations for dealing with human subjects and they should be taken into account in either environment.  They are:  “the principal of non-malificence, the protection of anonymity, the confidentiality of data, and the obtaining of informed consent” (Carter, p. 152).  If these obligations are met than the observer should metaphorically be in the clear for the remainder of their work.

 

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