November 4, 2006

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.

October 1, 2006

The strange case of the electronic lover

Van Gelder, Lindsay. (1990). The strange case of the electronic lover. Talking to Strangers: Mediated Therapeutic Communication. Ed. Gary Gumpert and Sandra L. Fish. Norwood: Ablex, 128-142.

This case study outlines how anonymity over the Internet, previously perceived as an advantage of the medium, shattered the trust of a social network in the mid 1980s when a man adopted the online identity of a disabled woman, unbeknownst to others (mainly women) in the network. The man conversed online with various women in the group, gaining trust and winning affection. At first, contact was merely online conversation, but later, contact was made with several women for online sex and even for a face-to-face meeting, as a supposed blind date, set up by the “woman� known as Joan to meet her friend, Alex, Joan’s actual identity.

Once Alex’s actual identity was uncovered, the group felt varying degrees of betrayal. Although a rather extreme example of online subterfuge, particularly for its time, when the Internet was viewed perhaps more optimistically (or naively), it highlights issues that are still relevant today. Anonymity can be a positive feature of online communication (allowing for otherwise shy persons to take on different, more social roles); yet, it can also be potentially harmful (in cases of fraud, for instance). How is trust gained on the internet? What is considered acceptable behavior and how can it be monitored and/or policed? Should it be? The author of this article describes the Alex/Joan story in detail, but provides little commentary in terms of implications. She closes with comments from a feminist perspective relating to trust, intimacy, and sharing between the sexes, admitting that gender remains a major issue in power and communications. But she offers little, other than to “personally applaud� those who actively dismiss categorizing their gender online.

August 9, 2006

Interpreting Soap Operas and Creating Community: Inside an Electronic Fan Culture

Baym, Nancy K. (1997) Interpreting soap operas and creating community: Inside an electronic fan culture. Culture of the Internet. Sara Kiesler, Ed. Newbury Park: Sage. 79-94.

Baym explores functional aspects of virtual communities through ethnography of the r.a.t.s usenet usegroup. Among the features explored are community linguistic and politeness norms, emerging discussion genres, and group performance expectations. Her discussion of group performance evaluation (111) is applicable to blogs: participants compliment skilled performance through responses, explicit praise, and thanks. In turn, social capital is gained by demonstrating "humor, insight, distinctive personality, and politeness" (112). Through this study, Baym confirms that virtual communities demonstrate many of the same features as f2f communities, and are just as complex, interwoven, and personalized (119).

August 8, 2006

Rhetoric and Community: The Problem of the One and the Many

Miller, Carolyn. (1993) Rhetoric and community: The problem of the one and the many. Defining the New Rhetorics. Theresa Enos and Stuart C. Brown, Eds. Newbury Park: Sage, 79-94.

Miller provides an overview and problematization of rhetorical theory concerning the individual within communities from classical Greece to French postmodernism. She argues that a New Rhetoric must better consider how community is viewed in rhetoric. Particularly pertinent to Internet concerns (most especially those of WIkipedia) are her comments on ‘radical democracy’ (90):

As conceived of by Chantal Mouffe, radical democracy does not try to suppress conflict but requires it and creates ‘equivalence’ between different struggles; it is a matter ‘not of establishing a mere alliance between given interests but of actually modifying the very identity of these forces.’ This is possible only when social agents and the political community are conceived of not as essentialized entities but as ‘discursive surfaces.’
Miller ends by calling for a notion of community that is not geographic or demographic or empirical, but rather a rhetorical construction that facilitates emotional solidarity and political action.

August 7, 2006

Virtual communities as communities: Net surfers don't ride alone

Wellman, Barry, and Gulia, Milena. (1999) Virtual communities as communities: Net surfers don't ride alone. Communities in Cyberspace. Smith and Kollock, Eds. Routledge, 167-194.

This piece poses seven research questions and conclusions:

1. Are online relationships narrowly specialized or broadly supportive? Communities are often based on narrow, info-specific subjects. However, participants very often reach out to others who are experiencing similar social issues, feelings, or physical symptoms. “Even when online groups are not designed to be supportive, they tend to be” (173).

2. In what ways are the many weak ties on the Net useful? Weak ties are more likely to link people with different social characteristics. Heterogeneous groups have a greater base of problem-solving skills (176).

3. Is there reciprocity online and attachment to virtual communities? There is a striking amount of reciprocity, which may be driven by simple kindness, desire to gain/maintain social capital, or community norms of reciprocity and/or citizenship. (177). Group attachment is tied to mutual aid.

4. Are strong, intimate ties possible online? Virtual relationships share same of the same criteria as strong, intimate f2f relationships, but cannot exactly meet all the criteria due to contraints of the medium. This question remains somewhat unresolved, and the authors also question research regarding duration of f2f relationships.

5. How does virtual community affect ‘real-life’ community? The authors list a number of reasons this dichotomy is false (see 181-182). Essentially, we must not assume that participation in a virtual community is deterimental to real-life communities -- community is not a zero-sum game. Both communities blend in the participant’s life, and need not be mutually exclusive.

6. Does the Net increase community diversity? Yes, because class/gender/race don’t matter. The authors fail to address the fact that class/gender/race/beauty do influence access, and thus who has the opportunity to get online in the first place.

7. Are virtual communities real communities? They are different but real. “They are not just pale imitations of ‘real life.’ The Net is the Net” (186). Relationships develop, support is given. The architecture necessarily shapes interactions. And then there’s the inevitable use of the word glocalization.