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Immersion in online sperm donation: Reflections and updates on our digital ethnography

“I want to understand the world from your point of view. I want to know what you know in the way you know it. I want to understand the meaning of your experience, to walk in your shoes, to feel things as you feel them, to explain things as you explain them. Will you become my teacher and help me understand?” - Prof James P. Spradley (1979)

Welcome to the second phase of our research project, the part that looks to the community to understand the dynamics, the interactions and unique ways it operates. Ethnography, a method that aims to understand the culture of a group, community or organisation, is how we have chosen to get under the surface of what actually goes on when you choose to create new families using online sperm donation.

This phase is different from the first phase of the research - where we interviewed volunteers who were seeking sperm (who we call “recipients”) and volunteers who were offering sperm (who we call “donors”) - because, for this year, we are doing an online sperm donation ‘ride-along’. We are on the connection platforms alongside recipients and donors, learning and taking notes as we go.

The first thing we did was determine which group to understand. We have selected six sites to embed with that we believe are representative of online sperm donation platforms as a whole: some are very large, some have been created for specific users and needs, some are public, some are very active, and others are less. With this range of different kinds of connection sites, we hope to get a picture of how people use the internet in general to create modern families.

Digital ethnographers are sometimes thought of as ‘lurkers’. That’s not entirely true. Although, yes, part of the research process is to write down what we see without talking to anyone, an important part of “understanding” comes from checking our work. So we will also be sharing field notes, and asking for feedback publicly and privately. Have we got something totally wrong? Did we manage to crystalise exactly your experience? We will also be reaching out to people to clarify something we might not understand. This is where we become a participant and, with a carefully trained pen (or keyboard!), we’ll document the meanings of what goes on as close to accurately as possible - crucially, as defined by recipients, donors and site owners themselves.

This is my favourite part of the ethnographic process, because it doesn’t just involve writing, but doodles, and other interpretations - different ways of playing with what we call “data”, so we can see the ways that implicitly exist in how donors and recipients navigate the online networks, but are generally left unspoken. Some ethnographers take photos; others even compose songs. Still others (including those in our research group) try to model the complexities of the community they’re studying with clay, cake, and molten iron! One of the ways that we have tried to make sense of online sperm donation is by creating mock sites (paper and pen only!) thinking about how online sperm donation is sometimes framed by insiders and outsiders. In the image below Lauren was trying to convey the concerns that people sometimes have in online sperm donation: are people who they say they are? How do we spot scammers? Is the site legitimate? How do I know that what I am being told is factual?

These are the ways we try to get closer to the unspoken: the implicit rulesets that dictate how people behave in any community. Sometimes they are just as or even more important for understanding the dynamics of how you determine who and how you will connect with. For example, one of the many things that we have been attending to is the different ways people moderate online sperm donation platforms: how are rule breakers identified? How are they ‘dealt with’? And how is user-produced content policed? These can be centrally sanctioned in theory, but in practice, the decision-making is nuanced and saturated with meaning. So what we’re doing is looking at these decisions and creating theories about the benefits and consequences of different moderation styles for people who use online sperm donation platforms.

Our subject of interest is how the community as a whole makes sense of what your options are - which means it isn’t just how people interact, but uniquely, how the sites you use allow you to interact. That’s what makes this a digital ethnography: the technology has certain obvious and invisible rules too. Public walls, private DMs, screenshots, profile pages, search, friend connections, AI keyword moderation, algorithms, and more all help to curate your fertility options. We are paying attention to them too.

At the end of this research phase, we aim to have a comprehensive picture of the current online sperm donation landscape. With these insights, and the insights gained in Phase 1, we will advance to Phase 3 where, with your contributions, we will put what we have learned into practice.


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