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Online Social Support: The Interplay of Social Networks and Computer-Mediated Communication

Author: Antonina Bambina
Publisher: Youngstown, NY: Cambria Press, 2007
Review Published: September 2009

 REVIEW 1: Willem de Koster
 REVIEW 2: Fred Stutzman
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Antonina Bambina

I must begin by extending a thank you to the reviewers of the book. I appreciate the time it takes to provide thoughtful commentary on a piece of scholarly writing. I thoroughly enjoyed reading all the comments and I am pleased that the reviews predominantly highlight the insights and contributions of the book. Naturally, the reviews include some critiques of the work. Although I did not find these to be severe nor completely unfounded, I would like to comment on them.

Willem de Koster notes that I aim to bring a sociological voice to the broader academic community of Internet scholars, but do not embed the work in the literature of "Internet studies." He goes on to state that some of the findings could be relevant to the study of virtual communities. To the latter point I say, wonderful! I agree that the findings regarding companionship were some of the most interesting, and are highly transportable to the field of virtual communities. It was my hope that an Internet researcher based in a field outside of sociology would find some common ground among our works and gain a richer understanding of their own research by being exposed to a sociological perspective. That being said, this work was designed to be a sociological study of online social support and contribute specifically to the discussion of online social support and computer-mediated communication. I purposely chose to embed the research in the broader literature of social support because that is the focus of the work. Research conducted on online interactions was introduced in the work when I discussed extending the study of social support from face-to-face interactions to computer-mediated communication. There is always more research that one can bring to bear on her work which makes it a matter of focus, parameters and parsimony.

This reviewer also comments on a discussion of the intimacy and support found on the SOL-Cancer Forum in light of theories that question the ability of online relations to transmit these. He believes the argument is forced given the documentation of online support by other researchers. My response is twofold. Yes, there is now a fair amount of research that documents the presence of online support and intimacy. However, when this work was completed, there was not yet a great quantity of this research published. As we all know, the process of publication often creates a lag time of a number of years. More importantly, in a developing field of research, which "Internet studies" is in comparison to areas that include a literature dating to the 1950s or 1970s, it is important to explicitly expound on foundational concepts and any contention that may surround them. Simply assuming that we all agree on the way online relations function because many research findings are comparable is not a prudent practice. Indeed, the debate about the quality of online relations and the intimacy they contain is ongoing with influential researchers such as Cummings and Kraut.

Willem de Koster also disagrees with the extent of my statistical discussion given that my initial findings are continually confirmed. Granted, reading extensive statistical procedures can be tedious. Nonetheless, detailed statistics yielding consistent findings are necessary to establish reliability. Omitting some of the statistical processes or results may have left the work open to questions of rigor.

A final critique of his that I will address is the lack of data from interactions that may take place between members of the Forum outside the Forum, either electronically or offline. I would have liked to collect data on members' offline networks and activities, but I don't believe that a great deal of them would include other Forum members. While following daily posts for over a year, I did not find evidence on the Forum of a significant amount of interaction taking place outside the Forum between members. It is not possible for me to gauge whether such activity took place without any mention on the Forum. I will speculate that it would be unnatural for members to interact extensively outside of the Forum, while also exchanging numerous, long friendly message on the Forum and not include any mention of their outside interaction in those messages. I also disagree with the assertion that accessing these kinds of data could have lead to the inclusion of instrumental support. This study sought to analyze support that was transmitted via asynchronous computer-mediated communication in a geographically disperse group. Instrumental or tangible support is most often physical in nature making it difficult to transmit in these circumstances. I refer to the literature I cite in the book (32) when making an argument against the inclusion of instrumental support to buttress this claim.

Fred Stutzman's main critiques center on certain methods used in the research. The first method in question is using a sample of two weeks of discussions from the Forum. The reviewer contends that the sample duration may be detrimental to the causal models. Analyzing a greater quantity of data will nearly always fortify causal models. In the text, I cite other studies that have successfully used a similar sample size to analyze online groups (23). In my case, given limited resources, I needed to decide early on whether I wanted more precise nuanced coding of the kind that a computer program could not accomplish or a larger sample size. I chose to invest in the most accurate coding process available to me because the entire study would be built upon the coded messages. This resulted in an tremendous task for myself and one research assistant to each code over one thousand messages for three categories of support and eleven subcateories of support all differentiated by whether the support was provided or requested. In light of the attention dedicated to the coding, I feel confident that the social support networks and the support structures they demonstrate accurately represent how different kinds and amounts of support where transmitted in this group.

The second method that Fred Stutzman takes issue with is the way messages are treated in the network analysis. He attests that all communication is treated as being of equal value which could have compromised the analysis. He states, "For example, if a star that communicated heavily but provided little value emerged, would they be as important as the saintly Elle? Of course not, but in the context of the analysis the two might look very similar." I agree that this could be the case if the content of the communication was not given any consideration in the analysis. However, as I stated above, coding the content of the messages to accurately capture the kinds and quantity of social support they contained was one of the most salient tasks carried out in the research. The value of Elle and every other member's communication in regard to social support is presented in extensive detail in the tables listing each member's binary and valued Freeman degrees for each kind of support. The social support networks are constructed from these data. There are some network diagrams that are based solely on the presence of messages regardless of content however the vast majority of sociograms are constructed from the kinds and quantity of support the messages conveyed.

Overall, I am grateful that the reviewers engaged so thoroughly with my work as to create an astute and valuable reflection upon it. Thank you, once again, for your time and thoughtfulness gentlemen. Finally, thank you, David Silver, for maintain this very valuable resource for us all.

Antonina Bambina

<adbambina@usi.edu>

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