Barbara Ley and the Architecture of Commitment

Ley, Barbara. “Vive les Roses!: The Architecture of Commitment in an Online Pregnancy and Mothering Group.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12 (2007): 1388–1408. Print.


I’ve read this particular paper quite a few times over the years. Ley’s notion of the architecture of commitment—the way an online space can be designed to encourage or discourage investment on the part of its users—has been pretty foundational in my approach to my study sites.

Ley studies the online pregnancy support community formed by a group expatriates from another pregnancy forum.  After decamping, they were banned from the original group and were therefore necessarily committed to making sure that the new one worked.  The article examines how both the social guidelines and the technical design of the site itself influence how strongly people commit to the site and to each other, arguing that the messages sent by these structures can have “multiple and even contradictory effects, depending on the social and historical contexts in which users engage it” (1389).

(Also, should I ever need to name-check other studies of the relationship between site design and social dynamics, she has a whole list of studies of online support groups for me to draw from on p. 1391.)

This, obviously, is extremely helpful for my discussion of Jezebel, considering that most of my argument rests on the dissonance between the social and the technical design. She points out that “[o]nline spaces both enable and constrain forms of thought, behavior, and interaction due to their in-built values and ideologies” (1392), which, yay! This concept of being in-built looks like it could be really helpful for the platform aspect of my work, but the resources she lists (Boczkowski 2005, Lessig 2009, Taylor 2006) unfortunately look like they might be a lot of reading for a little bit on confirmation. I’ll probably grab the Lessig at least, but we’ll have to see how time goes for the others.

I’m also thrilled to see a discussion of social capital here, which I don’t remember from before because at the time I hadn’t realized how important this would be to my work. (Notably, she name-checks Putnam’s Bowling Alone as an argument that the internet can’t provide social capital, but surely at this point, 12 years later, even that curmudgeon would acknowledge that it can. Right?) Although understudied, commitment is an important part of social capital, she says, because it requires participants to make “consistent and ongoing efforts to cultivate and sustain” the material of the group.

Finally, she briefly treats the argument that women in female-dominated online spaces tend to actively shape those spaces to allow for support and consensus-building (Baym 2000, Herring 1994, Orgad 2005, Tiernan 2002). The “safe space” becomes paramount, which is exactly what users themselves argue about Jezebel—the difference being, of course, that these fora are specifically formed for community while the group in Jezebel is more of an accessory to the main site.

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One Response to Barbara Ley and the Architecture of Commitment

  1. Barbara says:

    Hey! I just found your blog and thanks for the great analysis/review of my piece. It made my evening:-) In case you haven’t seen it, I wrote a follow-up Rose piece in 2011. The book chapter is called “Beyond Discussion Forums: The Transmediated Culture of an Online Pregnancy and Mothering Group.” It is Chapter Two in the anthology “Motherhood Online” by Michele Moravec. If you want me to send you a copy of the article, send me an email. There are lots of great essays in the book, though, so I recommend the whole collection.

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