Today an anorexia recovery blog started following me. I’m now hyper aware of the ethical implications of my contributing to a movement promoting mental illness. As I learn more and more about the everyday online interactions between followers of certain hashtags I edge closer to doing something that really does need ethics clearances. I am a 21 year old female posing as a 14 year old girl, I’ve told myself that this is ok as that 14 year old girl is still actually me but I’m feeling a bit icky this morning about the different people who have encountered this online construction. Chxse_happy is a 16 year old recovering anorexic from the US (apparently). The purpose of his instagram lies in promoting mental and physical health, his feed is all positive, lovely screenshots of inspirational quotes. He picks his shots well, the girls seem to like the JK Rowling ones the most. I imagine Chase came across one of my photos on a thinspiration feed and clicked through to my account. He followed me in the hope that I would check him out I assume, as is the natural curiosity of anyone with a public instagram account who is not Kim Kardashian. Someone thought I was actually an at risk teen, I had totally deceived them in a sense worse than cat fishing. I feel compelled to message Chase and let him know the truth behind my project but interacting with other users on that level is out of hand. I need to reassess the boundaries of this project. Is it ok if the person I’m posing as is really me? And the posts I’m writing are based on real moments from my diaries? What are the limits of my interactions with other instagramers? As voyeur? Contributor?
My account means I am granted access to look at fascinating conversations and interactions in the comments sections of certain posts (I’ve reflected on these before) but I’ve got to take on a role as ethnographer, someone who doesn’t solicit reactions out of their interview subjects but merely observes them in their native environments. In his contribution to Digital Anthropology, Boegstroff attacks notions of ethnography as a practice of elicitation methods. He writes there is a common confusion between qualitative research methods such as interviews and surveys and actually doing ethnography. Ethnography contains, “kinds if data obtainable from participant observation that could not be acquired by interviews or other elicitation methods” (Digital Anthropology 46). Elicitation which is removed from participant observation can lead researchers to confuse representation with reality, “and thereby mistakenly equate culture with rules, scripts and norms rather than embodied practices” (Digital Anthropology 55). When ethnographers ask interview questions, they gain from their subjects representations of social practice. These are certainly, “social facts and have cultural effects…. But they cannot be conflated with culture as a whole” (55). In this way, ethnography is more sound when it involves the observation of naturally recurring behaviours than milking these out of the subject who will enact a process of representation. This process may inhibit real cultural understanding of the organic behaviours of the subject.
In a word, step off Holly.