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Legitimacy, Authority, and Community in Electronic Support Groups

Galegher, J., Sproull, L., & Kiesler, S. (1998). Legitimacy, authority, and community in electronic support groups. Written Communication 15(4), 493-530.

Galegher, et al perform discourse analysis on threads from three distinct Usenet support groups. Questions of legitimacy and authority are particularly interesting in this context, since participants must establish enough legitimacy for their advice to be trusted, and they cannot rely on many of the usual markers of legitimacy (clothing, mannerisms, obvious physical attendance, etc.) In such a situation, one must make a point of participating often in the conversation in order to even be counted present.

Shared experience is paramount in a support context, and the question-and-answer sequence is a frequent discourse feature (510). Both questions and answers are rooted in personal experience. These personal narratives are typically straightforward and unambiguous (511). Stating length of membership and remaining on-topic creates legitimacy, as does making legitimate claims (512). Simple requests for information that did not contain personal information or claims to membership often did not receive replies.

Authority stems from providing scientific information with explicit reference to scientific studies and, to a lesser extent, from personal experience (515). Challenges to authority often include requests for citations. Personal experiences are rarely challenged. Praise from other members and being quoted by them obviously bolsters one's authority within the group.

The authors note that establishment of legitimacy and authority increases the sense of belonging to a community. This is particularly important in support groups — there was a frequent incidence of comments such as “I no longer feel alone!” Discourse characteristics mirror those within f2f support communities: politeness, question-and-answers, and challenges to controversial or incomplete answers (524). Participants learn and reinforce group norms over time. One significant difference from f2f support groups is noted: permeable boundaries. No references, membership fees, or written constitutions are required for the support groups studied, rendering them far more open to newcomers.