Pfeil, Zaphiris & Wilson and ONLY OLD PEOPLE, OKAY?

Pfeil, Ulrike, Panaylotic Zaphiris, and Stephanie Wilson. “The Role of Message-Sequences in the Sustainability of an Online Support Community for Older People.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 15.2 (2010): 336–363. Print.

As I read the abstract for this article, I was thinking about how much of the work on online communities focuses specifically on support communities. I suppose it’s because the participants almost by definition have an investment in the space—in posting regularly, building relationships and inducting new members. Unlike, say, fandom-based communities, hese are people who have an actual stake in finding other people like them with whom to discuss their issues. This is community for community’s sake at, perhaps, its most absolute. Bringing these findings into conversation with my study—about communities that arise as an appendage to other discussions—could be a bit tricky. Of note, though, is that the community on Jezebel seems to have developed many of the characteristics of a support group, despite essentially being a side effect of the blog posts. I would obviously need to follow up on this more rigorously before I can say anything definitive, but it’s certainly something to think about as I work.

Funnily enough, Pfeil, Zaphiris & Wilson (heretofore PZ&W) are meticulous in justifying their site of study, citing several studies that indicate that online support groups tend to be more responsive and to sustain participation over longer periods of time than other kinds of online communities. Well, now we know, PZ&W.

The authors’ point of intervention is that while many people talk about communication on online support communities, these studies don’t take into account how the dynamics of those communities may change over time. To which I say, well, yes and no—I would argue that several of the readings I’ve discussed here so far do take up these questions, but perhaps not as explicitly as Pfeil, Zaphiris & Wilson (PZ&W) have in mind. What they are specifically looking at is the role of what they call “message sequences” (and what may on other sites be called comment threads) in the activity level of an elder support group. P & Z apparently did an earlier study showing that the posts in these support groups most often either (1) disclose personal information or (2) build community and encourage a feeling of togetherness (339). With the addition of W, they now ask: how does that content affect the sustainability of the community?

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This was one of the first three images that came up when I did a google image search for “online support group for older people.” I couldn’t think of anything more creative, okay? Do you have a problem with an adorable older couple doing the dishes together?

Lest you think that these authors are trying to make an argument about online communities in general or even support groups in particular, let it be known that this is not the case: PZ&W are very clear that their findings can only be applied to “online support communities for older people specifically.” So get off their lawns, middle-aged people! This is not about you! The funny thing is that after all that specificity, they don’t even really discuss what makes a support group for elders any different from a support group for anyone else. I mean, if you’re going to go out of your way to say that your conclusions can’t be extrapolated to other groups, it would be good to at least explain why. A case for Lauren Marshall Bowen, perhaps.

Also, a word about methodology: while SeniorNet seems like an intuitive study site for this kind of research, I must emphasize that the conversations aren’t threaded. Let me repeat that: THE CONVERSATIONS ARE NOT THREADED. This is kind of a big deal when what you are studying is interaction and responsiveness. Unthreaded responses are fairly unusual in forums and ostensibly have a huge effect on the progression of conversations. Obviously I understand that eventually you get used to navigating the system, but still.

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This book cover was Google image search result number two. Actually, is was number one, but I didn’t want to lead with the most depressing image in the world. This is not just a book, not just a book that is sold at Target, but a book that is actually SOLD OUT at Target. I bet you miss those old people doing dishes now.

What PZ&W found is that sequences of messages dedicated to community building appear more often than could be accounted for by randomness. These messages “are often posted in order to reassure each other about the fact that the online support community is a place of togetherness and caring” (353). Further, the authors find that these community building sequences are “basic components” of the communication within the community and are correlated with activity levels on the site.

The kind of message most closely correlated with an increase of activity on the site, though, is self-disclosure. Talk about one’s personal life is generally responded to in one of two ways: either participants respond with personal details of their own, or they give statements of support. It was uncommon for this kind of post to be met with silence.

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No trolling: this is actually the actual third Google image result for “online support group for older people.”

So: messages that build community, disclose personal details, or give support to others are central to the construction of a thriving support community. What’s interesting is that I saw this stuff all the time in Groupthink on Jezebel. So, while on the main page they are modding the stuffing out of the comments, in the open thread interactions are turning into a literal support group. And then they wonder why commenters feel like they have ownership in the site!

Anyhow, before I finish I do want to give a shout-out to the resources that this article provides beyond its own (extremely) specific conclusions. There’s a pretty good section on methodological ethical considerations and a truly TERRIFIC, kickass chart of qualitative studies that address “interactivity and response patterns” in online communities that is probably what I should be doing with these readings instead of a blog. Anyway, when I need to name-check a bunch of people, I now know where to go. Thanks, PZ&W! In addition, there is yet another chart detailing the coding scheme for the study, breaking the comments down into “self-disclosure,” “community building,” “deep support,” etc. If I do want to look at the support group aspects of Jezebel at all, this will provide a great starting point for building my case.

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