[Air-l] RE: public forum discussion - public or private?

Eszter Hargittai eszterlists at netscape.net
Sat Jul 13 12:44:56 PDT 2002

>It seems to me that the issue is whether such online forms of expression 
>are considered public or private.

Ildiko brought this up and yes, it has been discussed on air-l before, but
I think there's plenty of room for more discussion so I'll pick up on the

The following thoughts came up at the SSRC ITIC Summer Institute about a
month ago. 

Yes, people in some of these online public discussion groups may realize
that they are in a public forum where anyone can stop by and read their
comments. Some people who do research on such publicly accessible material
claim that it is no different than analyzing other publicly available 
material (e.g. comments someone might make in a speech on a street corner)
so they claim that there is no need to ask for user consent or that
there is little to be concerned about even when asking for consent.

But there is a difference. The comments posted in an online forum usually
have some identifying information attached to them (say, an email address
or a name).  And that email address or name also shows up in all sorts
of other locations online (e.g. other discussion groups, Web sites, etc.).
When you make a public comment in a physical public square not only is
your name not necessarily scribbled on your forehead - although your face
is there - but few of the people who are present on the square at that
moment will come and follow you to see where you go after you made that
comment, what other comment you may make somewhere else, where you may
show up two days later, etc.

Using social network analysis and some identifying information about a 
participant in an online forum, it is possible to track their comments
through time and across online spaces potentially finding out much much
more about a user than what they said in one particular online forum.

It seems that via such aggregation, we know much more about the person
than any observer on the public square in physical space would.  And this
is something that I think a lot of users are not at all aware of. And
it seems this makes commenting in a public forum online different from making a comment in public offline which may then have implications
for how researchers should approach human subjects in such a situation.

Any thoughts?


PS. SSRC ITIC = Social Science Research Council Program on Information
Technology, International Cooperation and Global Security
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