Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Researching surrogacy online: the challenges and opportunities of digital ethnography

Online discussions on support websites, in which geographically dispersed people communicate about shared concerns, can yield valuable data for fieldwork when looked at correctly.

Zsuzsa Berend
6 May 2016

'House of knowledge' by Jaume Plensa in Borås, Sweden. Photograph by Adrien Sifre/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

More and more of social life is now happening online. While interactions in cyberspace are often called virtual reality, real people with real problems have increasingly moved online in order to seek information and advice in relation to any number of urgent issues. This has in turn created new methodological challenges for researchers. Herbert Blumer, the prominent Chicago sociologist, wrote decades before the internet, but his approach is as valid as ever: “Respect the nature of the empirical world and organise a methodological stance to reflect that respect”.

In my own research of surrogacy I observed women’s discussions and debates on (SMO) and took my methodological cues from the nature of this online support group. SMO has been the main public online forum for advice and information about surrogacy-related medical, legal, and emotional issues since 1997. Operated and moderated by current and former surrogates, SMO facilitates discussions and information sharing among surrogates and also intended parents; its classified forum helps parties match independently, without intermediaries.

In its heyday, before most discussions moved to Facebook groups a few years ago, SMO was the place where women found help, comfort, and appreciation from fellow surrogates, debated issues, and worked out answers regarding the evolving practice of third-party reproduction. Many other people – e.g., veterans, parents of autistic children, breast-cancer patients, family members of alcoholics – seek out online forums as the main way to engage with geographically dispersed others in similar predicaments. One worry, both lay and scholarly, about online talk is that there is no way to verify whether people are being truthful or not.

However, people do not gain by misrepresenting themselves on information and support sites. Women on SMO, and people in general on such sites, want answers, advice, and support; unless they present their individual circumstances realistically enough, the information and counsel they receive is not meaningful. To be sure, they sometimes exaggerate and present themselves in the best light, just as people often do in physical life. However, others on the site often catch inconsistencies or improbable details, raise questions, or challenge participants who appear suspicious. In my decade of reading SMO threads I saw such ‘policing’ of the site, but the suspect accounts have mostly turned out to be poorly worded posts, rather than blatant lies.

As this article demonstrates, sustained online communication – i.e., ongoing discussions on forums where membership can be long-term and members often recognise and reference frequent contributors – can yield valuable ethnographic data. These forums are not simply one amongst many forums for interested people to discuss common issues, but are frequently the main or only forum for such discussions. Thus, online ethnographies of such forums can shed light on areas of interactions that may otherwise be invisible and go undetected. Since social interactions shape meanings and inform behaviour, such ethnographies have the potential to further our understanding of the social world.

Evaluating the solidarity of

My methodological approach to online fieldwork evolved over the course of my research. In the beginning, I read SMO threads daily to see which topics women discussed and how. Initially I read two main forums; gestational and traditional surrogacy respectively. However, I soon decided to read discussions on many more forums to capture interactions about more topics. Threads in “just chit-chat” and “support” forums, for example, reveal quite a lot about surrogates’ interests and concerns; they discuss family, work, leisure, and even politics. By reading many different threads, I was able to piece together a qualitatively detailed picture of the interacting group and put surrogacy-related discussions in a broader context.

Threads were easy to save in separate documents, making it feasible to undertake qualitative coding in order to identify distinct concepts. However, the sheer amount of data on online forums can overwhelm the researcher. Writing analytical memos helped to organise data, explore emerging themes, and identify ‘negative cases’, i.e. sequences of communications that did not fit with initial patterns and explanations, and therefore required further inquiry.

For example, in the “surrogate disappointed with intended parents” category, I noticed that some reactions to narratives of disappointment were quite hostile. Given that surrogates’ reports of ill-treatment by intended parents (IPs) are typically received with empathy, I took lack of support to be a negative case. Negative cases prompted further inquiry into how IPs disappointed the surrogate.

Accounts in which “IPs ‘were not there’ for surrogate” were often met with censure, while accounts of “IPs failing to honour the agreement” were unanimously received with sympathetic support. Surrogates insist that both surrogates and IPs have to follow the agreements they had made, so violation is considered a major betrayal. However, IPs’ lack of support, their ‘not being there’ for the surrogate, was understood as a subjective evaluation of the situation that had to do with expectations rather than agreements. Although women often empathised with disappointed fellow surrogates, they were also critical of unreasonable expectations, neediness, and lack of resilience in the face of hardship. These distinctions contributed to a better understanding of what was collectively regarded as a ‘good surrogate’: a trustworthy, intelligent, empathetic, giving, but also strong and independent woman.

Lack of negative cases can also be instructive. For example, I did not find instances of pregnancy loss that were not mourned. When Abby, a gestational surrogate (all names have been changed), posted that the foetus she was carrying stopped growing at seven weeks, 43 fellow surrogates posted sympathetic messages over a period of three months, and several indicated that they had talked to her over the phone. This and other similar examples testify not only to sympathetic support but also to collective definitions of surrogacy-related events and behaviours, in this case early miscarriage and emotional responses to it.

By offering condolences for both the “death of this precious baby” and the lost dream of “making IPs parents”, surrogates define reproductive loss as a complex traumatic event. “The world crashed today”, wrote Molly, another gestational surrogate, who “fell apart” after her miscarriage at 4 weeks, grieving for the “lost little life” and for “letting her IPs down”. “It’s an awful shock” and “a terrible tragedy”, fellow surrogates affirmed. “I know exactly how you feel”, was a typical element of most replies. Women’s outpouring sympathy validates and normalises feelings of lasting distress: “Hugs to you, it takes a long time to regroup”.

Moving forward with online ethnographic research

As the above examples indicate, threads rather than posts need to be regarded as the meaningful units of analysis. It is necessary to focus upon how surrogates talk and respond to one another, especially in terms of how their notions are informed, validated, or called into question by others on the site. Threads also reveal how surrogates collectively work out what the issues are in the first place. Topics are elevated to significance by frequent, lengthy, and heated debates.

Online forums can also be a valuable platform for asking questions and acquiring information. I wanted to see what surrogates thought about SMO debates, so I posted requests asking surrogates to get in contact. Via these requests, I corresponded with 35 women regarding their experiences of surrogacy and also about SMO discussions. These communications both generated and confirmed important details.

For example, I noticed the increasingly hostile arguments against transferring multiple fertilised ova into the gestational surrogate’s uterus. There had always been warnings about multifoetal pregnancy (i.e., carrying twins or triplets), yet the older mantra was “transfer as many as you’re willing to carry”.  Over time, the focus shifted. “By putting in multiple embryos you're stacking the odds against a healthy pregnancy and child”. Some had harsher words. “Is there some sort of trophy for … the most sets of twins …???? This whole thought process of it being ‘cool’ to be pregnant with twins just continues to shock me and disgust me actually”.

Henrietta made it her mission to educate others on SMO about the dangers of transferring multiples, and emphasised surrogates’ collective responsibility:

Surrogacy is mostly unregulated. It's like free market capitalism … the people who stand to make the most money … the REs [reproductive endocrinologists] – they're the ones who are supposedly looking out for our best interests … Since we've seen that, much like [a] Wall Street CEO, they can't all be trusted to make the best decisions for the people they stand to make money off of, we have to educate ourselves.

Discussions increasingly emphasised the importance of reading up on medical findings. In their emails to me, surrogates reported that these discussions were of the utmost importance because they helped women to “stand up to clinics and specialists” and be truly responsible for their surrogate pregnancies. Liz said that it is “better to flame someone before she does something really stupid than cry with her afterward”. Surrogates did not see criticism as the opposite of empathy.

Sustained reading of threads created a picture of the changing course and consequences of online interactions. The patterns of discussions, i.e. the way some topics persist while others disappear over time, and the modes of discussions, i.e. sympathy, criticism, praise, or censure, and their combinations and proportions in threads, reveal how online communications shape meanings. Surrogates produce and sustain collective understandings and crystallisations about this new practice without intermediaries, and at times against pre-established hierarchies of knowledge.

“I absolutely appreciate you coming here to tell your story... this is exactly how we all learn to make surrogacy work!!!” Through validation, praise, censure, and criticism surrogates on SMO collectively worked out not only the definition of “the good surrogate”, but also the ethos of surrogacy. What some call virtual reality is in fact real discussions about real issues that have real consequences. The researcher, using insights from interactionist sociology, is thus able to find, as Jack Katz said, “what ethnographers always find: that people act collectively and that what outsiders think of as the product of individual personality is in fact the result of social interaction”.

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