Ten statues in a room, staring upwards

As part of the initial stages of our PhD research, all UWS post-graduate students are required to complete an online “postgraduate essentials” unit. It involves reading through a series of ‘modules’ explaining everything from how to use the Uni library and facilities, to how to apply for Human Research Ethics Clearance.

Before we can complete a number of these modules we are asked to post a message on the discussion forum to answer a question about the issue being addressed by that module. Module 8 instructs us to

Go to the topic Ethical Issues and post a response to one of the following questions: What are some of the ethical implications of the research design you are proposing for your confirmation of candidature? How might these implications affect how and when you apply for ethics clearance after Confirmation?

Because it’s a requirement of completing the module, the forum fills up with a string of single-post threads, and no one reads or responds to anyone else’s perfunctory postings. I think it’s sometimes useful to think about online social spaces as an imaginary geographic space, so if it were what would this one look like? One possible way to visualise this board would be to see it as a room full of people, necks all craned back while they talk to a figure above them, none of them looking at or interacting with each other. The disclosure of full personal names adds to a sense of a presence in the discussion board – ‘Benjamin Abraham’ or his representation as invoked by his full and proper name is there in the room preserved.

But the flesh-and-blood Benjamin Abraham is not always there, so it’s as if a statue or a simulacrum of him is left there in his place. Date and time information next to the message content that comes with these statuesque-textual objects gives a sense of a chronology to their appearance. At 9:43pm on the 25th of May 2009 the Benjamin Abraham statue appeared in the room and with it came the words, “One of the main ethical implications of the research I’m proposing…” etcetera, etcetera.

The people in my imagined ‘discussion board’ space are all staring up at a central figure for a reason. While most of the respondents launched straight into their answers, the beginning of their post launch straight into an answer to the question, at least one person didn’t. One user started with a salutation before beginning their answer: “Hi there. My DCA project…” and they signed off with a “Cheers” followed by their name. This changed my initial opinion of the space from one that felt like many people speaking to no one in particular (or to an empty room), to seeing the posts as speaking to some invisible or high above Other.

It demonstrates, I think, the awkwardness in this use of the discussion board for the module. Who we are writing/speaking to in answering the question is not immediately clear, and it initially nearly led me to copy and paste the question itself into the text of my post. This may have the effect of looking like I was talking to myself, but more simply it may be as if I were trying to follow the essay response technique of including a restatement of the question at the start of the answer. However this would still maintain the sense of projecting to an Other in the form of an audience, and while I opted out of this approach as a time saving device, several respondents did prepend their answers with a restating of the question.

At any rate, the imaging of this online social space as geographic space can go some ways to explaining the awkwardness I felt when formulating my answer. My initial desire to include a restatement of the question in my answer can be seen as an attempt at formalising a response – almost like reading a speech off a piece of paper to avoid meeting the gaze of the in this case spooky and invisible audience, the unknown Other. The postgraduate essentials discussion board experience was a strange one, and a rather uncomplimentary pairing of threaded discussion format to an arbitrary question & answer format.

The lack of a visible questioner/audience/reader makes answering the question without either restating it or addressing someone makes the process feel strange and arbitrary and the answerer foolish.