Faced with the impossibility of conducting research in person due to the current pandemic, many researchers find themselves looking for alternative online methods. This often poses new practical and ethical considerations, with some academics trying out online research they might not have encountered yet. Since my PhD project has been designed as an online study, I believe it might be helpful for fellow researchers to share some of my insights.
In my doctoral project, I examine articulations of “intersectionality” in digital feminist activism in Germany. In addition to a discourse analysis of the websites/blogs and social media of two activist case studies and online interviews with self-identified feminists/activists, I also plan to conduct online focus groups with my interview participants. Designing the latter has posed the biggest practical and ethical challenges and is hence what I will focus on in the following discussion.
Online focus groups offer a series of advantages: they make it possible to reach participants not only in other locations, but simultaneously in different geographical areas, which has the benefit of eliminating travel time and costs. Considering that my participants will be located in Germany, this would make these concerns obsolete. Moreover, online focus groups can be conducted both as synchronous (all participants are online the same time) and asynchronous (participants contribute in their own time; potentially over a longer period of time) practices. They can also be conducted via video group chat (e.g. Skype), simulating a face-to-face focus group, or in written form, like in a chat or forum. Written online focus groups also have the benefit that they automatically produce a transcript. Some may worry though that written focus groups won’t produce similar rich data compared to in-person focus groups, but as Underhill and Olmsted (2003) have shown, the quality of computer-meditated focus groups and groups conducted in person does not vary significantly. While the latter may have produced more words in total, both generated about the same amount of new ideas.
Another worry might be that using online focus groups requires a lot of technical know-how and funding for software. While this may be true in some cases, researchers should ask themselves if these platforms are really the best choice for the project in question. In my doctoral research, I am looking at online discourses on three different social media platforms. It is therefore sensible to conduct my focus group research using one of the examined platforms. Facebook, with the option to set up private discussion groups, appears to be a great fit.
Of course, there’s a number of ethical issues in using Facebook for data generating purposes. For instance, Facebook’s data policy means that the platform will save all data conducted throughout the research. However, since participants have already signed up to Facebook, they should be familiar with this policy. Another issue is that Facebook is a commercial platform that operates for profit. According to Fuchs (2014), the more time a user spends on Facebook, the more data, and thus economic value, they generate. Consequently, asking my focus group participants to spend more time on the platform by taking part in a discussion group would mean asking them to generate more data, producing an economic gain for Facebook, and essentially asking my participants to perform free labour. While this dilemma must not be underestimated, I also recognise that – as with most ethical questions – there is no perfect solution.
Ultimately, the benefits of using Facebook in my study outweigh the disadvantages. Ease of use is one of the benefits of using the platform. As mentioned above, since participants have already signed up to Facebook, I won’t have to ask them to sign up and can be sure they are aware of how Facebook works (Dinhopl 2017). Facebook also allows users to express their opinions, thoughts, and feelings by implementing emojis, gifs, pictures, or videos. Similarly, the focus group moderator can use videos or newspaper articles as well as polls to alternate between discussion topics. Furthermore, the layout of Facebook groups can both work as a forum and chat at the same time, giving participants more flexibility in when and how they are going to engage with the discussion topic. The reply function (@username) allows participants as well as the moderator to respond to individual messages.
However, there is still one potential problem in using online focus groups that I haven’t discussed yet – conducting focus groups online means both participants or third parties (besides Facebook itself) could make copies of the discussions. To minimise the risk of confidentiality breaches by participants, I have designed the following measurements: first, by signing the consent sheet, participants agree to keep everything posted in the Facebook group confidential. Second, since I will set the privacy settings of the groups to “closed” and “hidden”, the groups will not come up in any searches (neither Facebook nor Google or other search engines) and participants will only be able to enter by invitation. Moreover, when joining the group, participants have to read the rules/code of conduct and they have to select that they agree to them. By clicking on the ‘about’ section, group members can find the rules and re-read them at any time. In addition, the groups are kept relatively small with only 4 to 5 participants per group. Participants will, therefore, become familiar with their fellow group members quickly, which will make it less likely for them to break confidentiality. Finally, participants will be given the opportunity to set up an anonymous Facebook account solely for the purpose of the study, in case they are not comfortable using their private account. That said, full confidentiality can still not be guaranteed, however, this is never the case, whether the focus group is conducted on- or offline.
Surprisingly, culture and media researchers have not been at the forefront of online focus group research – a field pioneered by social health and medical scientists. And despite a growing number of online focus group research, I have only come across a small number of studies using Facebook as group discussion tool (Lijadi & van Schalkwyk 2015; MacLeod et al. 2016; Buelo et al. 2020). Hopefully, the current situation will lead to more culture and media scholars catching up on digital methods and online focus groups in particular.