I want to announce a new research project called DVIS – Domestic Violence and the Internet in Sweden. (or the long name – The role of the Internet as a surrogate social network in situations of domestic violence in Swedish context) The goal of this project is to map how victims of domestic violence in Sweden are using social media both to find information and to connect with networks of people that they may not have access to when living in situations of domestic violence.
This project is planned over three years, and will end with a symposium to which policy makers, victim’s rights advocates, and researchers will be invited in order to start a discussion about domestiv violence victims’ habits online and how we can learn from these habits so as to provide information and support to the people who need it.
One thing that I have noticed, just in the short amount of time since we have begun this project, is how much networking and conversation is going on outside of forums that are dedicated to domestic abuse support. Perhaps this is an issue of safety, as cookies to places like post secret, twitter and Second Life landmarks are not as dangerous as cookies to women’s (and men’s) help organizations. Actually, post secret has a very interesting and active community and when postcards are posted that talk about abuse, there are often many instances of other’s ‘reporting’ or showing solidarity through telling similar accounts.
A particularly interesting case I found was on a postcard where a man talked about touching a young girl inappropriately, and how his life has been defined by this. What I find interesting, however, is the tone of the small conversation that happens below the card.
People have written in both in support of his admittance and effort to make amends, but also describing the victims point of view. The tone is open. While I would say that ‘amicable’ would be overstating the tone, it is neither full of hate nor anger. I need to look more closely at how these messages are selected. I know that there is some moderation by the owner of the site, but looking at their twitter stream and the conversation in the comment section of the twitpics, the conversation still seems to be open and fairly free of the hostility you may expect when you get these two groups in a fairly anonymous (a very loaded notion, which will be explored further later) space.
Another example of this non-intended use is, of course, Second Life. And in this space, there are so many different issues that a book, not merely a blog post, could be written. There are issues of victim’s rights (à la A rape in cyberspace), and ethical issues (when is it abuse if you are abusing an avatar? What about if the avatar is a bot and there is no human on the other end?), or the not uncommon occurrence of therapy in SL. How do you know the therapist is qualified, what kind of support are you getting, and how hard is it to find?
And beyond systems of support, what happens when this technology – that we argue could play an important role in providing a social network when real-world networks have been removed – is used against the victim? If the aide agency does not have a warning, will the user know to clear the browser history? Will the pictures you posted on facebook of your child’s birthday party, which you thought only a select few would be able to see, but due to holes in security when commenting on something, provide a way for your abuser can to find your location?
I started this post with excitement to announce the start this project. And I am excited. Very. Because I feel this is an area that is lacking in research, but also one that is so important. However, with such a sensitive topic the ethical hurdles are immense. For example, I wrote above about twitpics on post secret. Twitter profiles can be anonymous, but there is also a strong perception of anonymity on twitter. How do I keep research subjects as anonymous as possible?
Ethical questions and preliminary results will appear here every so often as I try to work my way though the data. I hope that others will join me in a conversation so I/we can negotiate these ethical pitfalls and results together.
More information about the DVIS project can be found on the project’s website here.