1. When you invite people to participate as subjects of your work—whether you will interview, photograph and/or film them—be transparent, clear and honest about your intentions. What are your purposes and goals in doing this work? How do you plan to use the material you're gathering? Where/how will you archive the data, and where/how will you publish your work?
2. Be respectful of other people's identities and ideas, especially (though not only) when they have entrusted you with their stories, thoughts, and—if filmed or photographed—faces. In particular, pay attention to people's rights to acknowledgement and to privacy. Credit people for their presence in and contributions to your work, but also allow them to determine what level of sharing and exposure they're comfortable with, and offer them the option of remaining anonymous if they prefer that.
3. Be attentive to what effects your publications may have. What messages are you communicating in your digital texts, and how? As these messages enter the public arena, how might they impact the specific individuals featured in your work? How might they impact readers and viewers and shape public discourse on this topic? Such attention to message and impact is important at every stage of your work—from gathering material; to editing and framing that material in your own multimodal texts; to publishing, curating and archiving those texts online.
This research may take various forms, such as conducting interviews, collecting oral histories, or doing ethnographic study of social or cultural phenomena. While material may be gathered through observation and written notes, often the research uses audio or video recordings. In any research that involves human subjects, it's essential to get participants' informed consent beforehand—which includes stating the aims and methods of your study, what you're asking participants to do, and how you'll respect confidentiality in archiving and sharing the data. In particular, be sure to clarify whether participants can remain anonymous if they choose, and how you'll ensure that anonymity in your publications.
Usually the best way to get informed consent is to use a written consent form which potential participants can read and sign. Not only does this help ensure you have communicated all the necessary details, but it then gives you a written record of what you and your participants have agreed to, particularly regarding levels of exposure or anonymity. This sample consent form link to form illustrates helpful elements to include: information about who you are, what your project is, options for how the participant may be involved in the study, and exactly what the participant is consenting to.
Digital activism—using online technologies and social media to shape public opinion, raise awareness and foster action for social or political change—is a rapidly growing phenomenon. In “Digital Activism 101,” Mary Joyce explores in more detail how digital technology can contribute to activist work. As she notes elsewhere in her blog, one accessible and powerful form of such activist communications is to “tell stories about real people.”
Just as with research involving human subjects, it's essential to get informed consent when you want to use someone's story to promote a cause through your digital publications. Again, a written consent form is the best way to do this. Here's another possible model for a consent form is for photography and video recordings, but it could be adapted to also cover, for example, a written version of someone's story.
Additionally, when you intend for your digital publications to further a cause and contribute to social change—for example, immigration reform, ending homelessness, resisting racism, etc.—it's important to partner with those who who are most affected by this issue (including when you are part of that population yourself). Besides getting consent, talk with the people involved about what their goals and hopes are, and think strategically about how your publications might support those aims. Look critically at how the stories and images you publish represent the persons you feature—as subjects or objects, as agents or victims? Partnering well with those whose cause this is doesn't mean that you'll necessarily agree with everything they say or do; it does mean that you will consistently respect their dignity and agency.
“Life writing” covers various genres of writing about your own and other people's lives, from autobiography or memoir, to biography or history. Even when your focus is on your own life, your story will often overlap with other people's. As editor Paul John Eakin notes in his introduction to The Ethics of Life Writing (Cornell UP, 2004), “Because we live our lives in relation to others, our privacies are largely shared, making it hard to demarcate the boundary where one life leaves off and another begins” (8).
Therefore, it can be challenging to balance the importance of telling the truth and of protecting privacy, especially when the events you're narrating are sensitive or contentious. Realizing that two or more people living through the same events rarely, if ever, experience those events exactly the same, how do you navigate your right to tell your story in your way, while treating respectfully those whose perspectives differ? This tension is never completely resolved, but a good way to handle it is to be transparent and honest about the position from which you're speaking, as well as thoughtful and aware of how your narration (verbally or visually) frames and presents others.
If someone else features prominently in the text(s) you're creating, you may want to share the text and get that person's consent before publishing. If you do this, you should probably be willing to make changes and prepared to negotiate between their preferences and yours, if needed. Often, it's not necessary to get consent from the people who appear as characters in your own life story. However, you may want to leave characters unnamed, or change names and details to protect others' privacy, acknowledging explicitly that you are doing this.
Finally, stay mindful of boundaries and impact in digital publishing. Publishing to your personal domain allows you to maintain more control over your public image, but that control is never exclusive, particularly as the material is more accessible and gets more exposure. So when you represent others in your work, treat their identities and images with as much care and respect as you would want others to express toward your own.