James M. Hudson and Amy Bruckman
In this paper, we present an empirical study aimed at better understanding the potential for harm when conducting research in chatrooms. For this study, we entered IRC chatrooms on the ICQ network and posted one of three messages to tell participants that we were recording them: a recording message, an opt in message, or an opt out message. In the fourth condition, we entered the chatroom, but did not post a message. We recorded and analyzed how subjects responded to being studied. Results of a regression analysis indicate significantly more hostility in the three conditions where we said something than in the control condition. We were kicked out of 63.3% of the chatrooms we entered in the three message conditions compared with 29% of the chatrooms in the control condition. There were no significant differences between any of these three conditions. Notably, when given a chance to opt in, only four of 766 potential subjects chose to do so. Results also indicate significant effects for both size and the number of moderators. For every thirteen additional people in a chatroom, the likelihood getting kicked out was cut in half. While legal and ethical concerns are distinct, we conclude by arguing that studying chatrooms constitutes human subjects research under U.S. Law, but that a waiver of consent is appropriate in most cases as obtaining consent is impracticable.
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