The focus on Internet relationships has escalated in recent times, with researchers investigating such areas as the development of online relationships (e.g., McCown, Fischer, Page, & Homant, 2001; Parks & Roberts, 1998; Whitty & Gavin, 2001), the formation of friends online (Parks & Floyd, 1996), representation (Bargh, McKenna, & Fitzsimons 2002), and misrepresentation of self online (Whitty, 2002). Researchers have also attempted to identify those addicted to accessing online sexual material (Cooper, Putnam, Planchon, & Boies, 1999). Moreover, others have been interested in Internet infidelity (Whitty, 2003a, 2005) and cybersex addiction (Griffiths, 2001, Young, Griffin-Shelley, Cooper, O’Mara, & Buchanan, 2000). Notwithstanding this continued growth of research in this field, few researchers have considered the new ethical implications of studying this topic area. While it is acknowledged here that some of the discussions in this article might be equally applied to the study of other Internet texts, such as religious or racial opinions, the focus in this article is on the concomitant ethical concerns of ongoing research into Internet relationships. Given that the development and maintenance of online relationships can be perceived as private and very personal (possibly more personal than other sensitive areas), there are potential ethical concerns that are unique to the study of such a topic area (Whitty, 2004; Whitty & Carr, 2006). For a broader discussion of virtual research ethics in general, refer to Ess and Jones (2004) and Whitty and Carr (2006).
Early research into this area has mostly focused on the similarities and differences between online and off-line relationships. Researchers have been divided over the importance of available social cues in the creation and maintenance of online relationships. Some have argued that online relationships are shallow and impersonal (e.g., Slouka, 1995). In contrast, others contend that Internet relationships are just as emotionally fulfilling as face-to-face relationships, and that any lack of social cues can be overcome (Lea & Spears, 1995; Walther, 1996). In addition, researchers have purported that the ideals that are important in traditional relationships, such as trust, honesty, and commitment, are equally important online, but the cues that signify these ideals are different (Whitty & Gavin, 2001). Current research is also beginning to recognize that online relating is just another form of communicating with friends and lovers, and that we need to move away from considering these forms of communication as totally separate and distinct entities (e.g., Wellman, 2004). Moreover, McKenna, Green, and Gleason (2002) have found that when people convey their “true” self online they develop strong Internet relationships and bring these relationships into their “real” lives.
Internet friendships developed in chat rooms, newsgroups, and MUDs or MOOs have been examined by a number of researchers. For example, Parks and Floyd (1996) used e-mail surveys to investigate how common personal relationships are in newsgroups. After finding that these relationships were regularly formed in newsgroups, Parks and Roberts (1998) turned to examine relationships developed in MOOs. These researchers found that most (93.6%) of their participants had reported having formed some type of personal relationship online, the most common type being a close friendship.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Blog: Online diaries on a Web page, where the blogger updates entries, typically fairly regularly, in reverse chronological sequence.
Lurker: A participant in a chat room or a subscriber to a discussion group, listserv, or mailing list who passively observes. These individuals typically do not actively partake in the discussions that befall in these forums.
MySpace: A social networking site where members can communicate with school and university friends, connect with friends, share photos, comment on others’ sites and photos, and write a blog.
Screen Name: A screen name can be an individual’s real name, a variation of an individuals’ name, or a totally made-up pseudonym. Screen names are especially required on the Internet for applications such as instant messaging.
Bebo: A social networking site where members can communicate with school and university friends, connect with friends, share photos, comment on others sites and photos, and write a blog.
Chat Room: A Web site, or part of a Web site, that allows individuals to communicate in real time.
Cybersex: Two or more individuals using the Internet as a medium to engage in discourses about sexual fantasies. The dialogue is typically accompanied by sexual self-stimulation.
MUDs and MOOs: Multiple-user dungeons, or more commonly understood these days to mean multi-user dimension or domains. These were originally a space where interactive role-playing games could be played, very similar to Dungeons and Dragons.