Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Digital Culture, Media Industries

Shaping digital methodologies and ethics at Humboldt University’s MeDiA Lab

Fabian Broeker

As part of my PhD research, I am currently carrying out a year of ethnographic fieldwork in Berlin, focusing on the intersection between technology, culture, and the mythology of the city among dating app users. Professor Christoph Bareither graciously agreed to supervise me during this year as a visiting PhD researcher at Humboldt University’s Department of European Ethnology and invited me to attend the MeDiA Lab (Media & Digital Anthropology Lab) sessions regularly hosted there.

The MeDiA Lab is a space for researchers, ranging from BA to post-doc scholars and beyond, to exchange ideas around the theme of media practices in “everyday life”, the challenges of empirical fieldwork in digital contexts, and ethical approaches to digital anthropology.

It has been truly enlightening to be a part of this space of discussion with a focus dedicated to exactly the challenges and ideas shaping my own research. One issue which has been a recurring point of debate is the ethics of carrying out research on platforms where sometimes notions of public or private are distorted.

Spaces which officially signal a private sphere, may, in fact, be treated as public by their users and vice versa. A good example that came up in discussions in groups on Facebook. There are closed, private Facebook groups, often popular havens for meme-sharing, which have hundreds of thousands of members, and constitute a community which cannot truly be classed as private.

On the other end of the spectrum, aligning with my own research, dating apps are a good example of a digital community which is officially public, but has many characteristics of a private sphere. On Tinder, anyone who creates a profile in theory immediately has access to all the other profiles on the platform; however, content posted here may showcase far more intimate details than one may expect from a platform with many characteristics of a public space. Indeed, one of my informants told me of how she would use her profile for short periods, then deactivate it, because she had the uncomfortable feeling that she might run into someone who saw the profile, and the intimacy this represented, on the street.

This problematises notions of what can be ethically incorporated as research data. Of course, the easiest course of action remains to gain explicit consent from anyone whose online profile is featured or discussed in research, but sometimes this is simply not viable, for example when filtering through hundreds of Facebook comments on public posts or indeed dating app profiles. Anonymity, rather than explicit permission often remains the key consideration here, allowing the collation of research data without exposing individuals.

Indeed, questions of anonymity discussed at the lab, focused not solely on research informants, but also the researcher. The potential for anonymity that research on online platforms offers makes this a truly salient point. While engaging with research participants on certain platforms via anonymous online profiles is usually not ideal, sometimes it is the only valid approach. For example, one of the MeDiA lab members is carrying out research on women in alt-right communities on Instagram. Disclosing her true identity to informants could potentially put her at risk of online trolling, among other safety concerns.

My own research has seen me grapple with similar questions of anonymity, albeit for different reasons. I have used both anonymous and non-anonymous profiles to study users on dating app platforms. However, I have found that, for example, as a male seeking to interview men searching for women on dating apps, this endeavour is far more successful when my identity and indeed gender is not featured in my research profile.

Since most popular dating apps, such as Tinder, allow you to label your gender freely but sort you into either the category of man or woman looking for man or woman or both, my research participants may assume they are talking to a woman if their profile is set to searching for women and they are engaging with me, even if my anonymous profile does not disclose my gender.

Being listed in the category of women searching for men has been highly informative, for I have had certain men aggressively asking whether I am a woman and only agreeing to an interview if this were the case, or even instances of “mansplaining” my research to me. My interactions with women searching for women, men searching for men and women searching for men have been far more pleasant both in cases where I use anonymous and non-anonymous profiles. Indeed, my profiles have only ever been banned on dating apps when I was looking to establish contact with men searching for women and in my fieldwork thus far, men seem to be the most likely to report profiles.

The MeDiA lab has offered me the opportunity to probe these facets of digital ethnography. For researchers who find themselves in Berlin and are interested in digital methodologies and theoretical approaches I highly recommend joining a session or giving a presentation.

Finally, I would like to extend a word of gratitude to the Study Abroad office at KCL. Their generous grant facilitated this academic exchange and has allowed me to hopefully continue to strengthen the flow of ideas between these two great institutions.