An Ethics of Multimedia Practice?

A guest post by Samuel Collins and Matthew Durington. The authors are recipients of a 2011 AAA Ethics Grant.

Consider the following case.  As a class project, you decide to have your students videotape interviews with HIV+ patients at a local clinic about their experiences with treatment. The clinic wants to use videos for their volunteer training and assessment. It’s a good example of engaged anthropology, and you make sure to obtain IRB clearance before you proceed. In particular, you’re concerned about what happens to the videos — what happens to the edits, where the original material will be kept, how the consent forms will be organized, etc.  Interviews are awkward at first, with some students’ prejudices coming in the way of real rapport, but eventually there are some breakthroughs. Students report that they are “friending” some of the interlocutors on Facebook. Half-way into the project, material starts to show up on social media — photo stills of the field research on Flickr, video clips taken not by students but by patients on Youtube, extra-curricular interviews of relatives and friends who have HIV, all linked through keywords of place and activity. Some patients are demanding copies of the videos to share with family and friends. Finally, students are also writing many of their thoughts on your class and this research on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter; these pop up immediately when you Google your own name.

This is “public” anthropology, but probably not the public you were thinking about. For a generation engaged with social media, the world exists to be recorded, shared and distributed: Facebook, Youtube, Flickr and other social media are testament to this documentary zeitgeist. But rather than attempt to clamp down on this and demand absolute proprietary rights over this material, we believe that we should adapt our courses to this explosion of social media. But how do we take this interest in communicating everyday life and reconcile it with more traditional ethical guidelines in anthropology and the social sciences?  In the above example, the anthropologist’s behavior may have been exemplary with regards to the University’s protocols on human subjects, but the students and the community didn’t necessarily share the same ethical concerns. How do we take a community’s interest in these tools and forge a partnership that is both socially beneficial and scientific?  While the tools and the desire to undertake multimedia anthropology have never been so readily available, the guidelines for our courses are conspicuously lacking.

Our assumption is that a multimedia anthropology in the age of Web 2.0 needs to engage a networked public in an ethical way that recognizes that these materials are different from those conventionally produced in anthropological research. Currently, ethical guidelines for a networked anthropology do not exist, and will need to be formulated on the basis of a new way of sharing and communicating in a Web 2.0 age. This has important ramifications for ethics in anthropology in general, but we believe that this is especially important for teaching undergraduates — they have been enthusiastic contributors to a multimedia, networked anthropology. And they will continue to be, whether or not they have our “official” approval. The question is: can we come to terms with it, given the importance of ethics in anthropology?

Developing ethical guidelines for this networked, multimedia anthropology means adapting to key characteristics of research in a socially networked age: that information flows between networks of acquaintances, and that informants and communities are interested in a “privacy” that they define as keeping their material to a networked public. But the ethical issues raised move multimedia anthropology into grey territory. We would benefit from consulting with a variety of sources, institutions and ideas that lie well outside of anthropology, including associations that work with diverse media materials (the American Folklore Society, the Society for Ethnomusicology), copyright and intellectual property, Creative Commons licensing, art collectives, other community organizations and even major multimedia producers.

It would be helpful to formulate ethical guidelines that speak to the following questions: 1). Who is the networked public for multimedia research in anthropology? 2). How should multimedia materials gathered in the course of anthropological research be shared with this public? 3). How might this material be restricted according to the ethical obligations of anthropologists and networked participants? For example, under what conditions (if any) can thesematerials be altered? 4). How does this networked community, together with the media they share, alter, and comment upon, become part of anthropological work and research?