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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

In Online Social Support: The Interplay of Social Networks and Computer-Mediated Communication, Antonia Bambina explores the dynamics of social support in an online forum. Bambina locates the study in the fictitiously-named SOL-Cancer (Support Online) Forum, a "virtual space where those who have had cancer touch their lives exchange numerous types of support" (22). Utilizing social network analysis, Bambina analyzes the dynamics of support: what kind of support is created in the forum, how the support is transmitted, and what roles key actors play in transmitting support. The main contribution of the research is Bambina's useful theorization of online social support transmission as a contingent, contextual practice.

Social support is a subjective construct employed variably across disciplines. For the purpose of the study, Bambina draws upon a health behaviors definition of social support that has four primary forms: emotional aid, informational aid, companionship, and instrumental assistance. The first three forms are transmitted effectively in an online communication setting. The fourth form, instrumental support, is generally tied to offline action (making a house call, picking up medicines at the drug store), and is not considered in the context of the study. In most research on the topic, outcomes of social support are traditionally explored through the buffer and direct effect hypotheses. The buffer hypothesis explores the indirect role social support plays on outcomes such as health or stress level. The direct effect hypothesis, by contrast, explores the outcomes of direct, practical support provided by a network. A buffer effect may be reduced stress leading to longer lifespan, while a direct effect may be a support network exerting an unmediated, positive effect on health status through a critical intervention.

As Bambina points out, the buffer and direct effect hypotheses are both limited by their theoretical construction; as tasks and group constructions vary, we cannot assume a main effect for social support from a group. Bambina uses contingency theory (Litwak et al., 1989) to test a theory of optimal matching -- that groups are particularly able to address specific needs, and that groups and needs vary contextually. This leads to Bambina's construction of a task-specific model of social support for the SOL-Cancer forum. This model is contextual in nature, and is particularly applicable to online, distributed groups where construction and task vary.

The book begins with a concise overview of social support and social networks, and reviews the challenges of researching social support in online settings. I was impressed with Bambina's ability to distill a large and interdisciplinary literature, drawing out the key issues in a clear, well-structured format. In fact, most of the book follows this form: the prose is clear, concise, and to-the-point.

Bambina's study of the SOL-Cancer forum utilizes a record of all public forum transactions over the first two weeks of March, 2000. Notably, private messaging or transaction logs are not part of the dataset; Bambina relies singularly on communication transacted in public by registered members of SOL-Cancer. The final dataset ends up being comprised of 1,149 messages, posted by 84 members of the forum. Drawing on previous coding schemes for guidance, the SOL-Cancer dataset is coded as requests and provisions for the three studied forms of social support: emotional support, informational support, and companionship. Bambina's coding strategy, presented in the second chapter of the book, is a strong contribution.

Chapters 3 and 4 present a social network analysis of the SOL-Cancer forum. For each dimension of support, Bambina constructs a simple sociogram and analyzes common measures of centrality. In this network analysis, individual posters are nodes, while a communication instance comprises an edge. The SOL-Cancer forum displays characteristics common to online communities: a small cluster of dedicated posters, a larger collection of semi-regulars, and the largest component is comprised of "takers," in Bambina's term. These takers only request support from SOL-Cancer, without reciprocating.

After grouping posters by their contribution characteristic, Bambina employs blockmodeling to examine the directionality of support transmission in the forum. The findings are interesting, highlighting a cluster of "prime givers" that engage in reciprocal support, and the emergence of a "star" member that supports both moderate users and takers. While the discovery of "star" members in online communities of scale is fairly typical (Kumar et. al., 2006), the particular nature of "star" support in SOL-Cancer raises concerns. Bambina's analysis finds that the Elle, the star, is responsible for a tremendous amount of community gardening -- it is Elle who reaches out to new members and addresses their questions. In turn, a core cohort of active posters supports the star. In the absence of such a star, the dynamics of the forum would be significantly impacted. To address this, Bambina runs a number of analyses in chapter 4 that exclude the star, estimating the significant impact of the star's absence.

In the fifth chapter, "Designing a Network Support-Specific Model," Bambina adapts theoretical perspectives on the provision of social support into a task-specific model. The task-specific model provides a framework for optimally matching group characteristics to specific social needs (tasks). This model is a worthwhile adaptation for an online forum, in which groups can be constructed in an ad hoc and situationally relevant form. The sixth chapter provides an exhaustive test of the hypotheses generated from the task-specific model. While Bambina finds support for most of the hypotheses, the limited nature of data casts some of the findings in question. For example, Bambina finds that level of dedication exerts a strong and significant negative effect on requests for informational support. In the study, dedication is operationalized as the number of days a forum member posts; this measure is skewed by singleton posters who request one-time informational support. Theories of information-seeking (Dervin & Dewdney, 1986; Kuhlthau, 1988; Kuhlthau, 1991) treat the question-formulation process as iterative, where the concept is refined and reshaped over time. In the context of a topic as complex and personal as cancer, it is questionable if dedication can actually suppress the need for informational support, or if dedicated posters have simply been conditioned to understand of limits of informational support the forum can provide.

The preceding example highlights how artifacts of the study's methods pose threats to the validity of the findings. I found two main issues -- the sample duration and the treatment of edges in the sociogram. The first issue of sample duration is addressed by Bambina in the study's limitations, where the author suggests the extension of the study into a longitudinal form. I would also considering expanding the sample duration, or exploring a cohort-lifetime approach. A snapshot of two weeks gives us a good grounding on the dynamics of the forum, but does it provide sufficient power for the many causal models? With regards to network edges, Bambina weighs all communication instances equally. This approach is practical for external coding, but it misses important natural variation in communication value. 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.

As Bambina points out, the study provides a middle ground to direct and buffer-effect hypotheses of social support. Studies that employ these hypotheses are limited by their theoretical position, but this position is often forced by the design of the study; studies of social support often focus on outcome measures. By employing a network analytic approach, Bambina is able to analyze the provision of support contextually, treating the provision as a process. A drawback to this approach is the lack of outcome measures -- we know where support is going, but we are left up in the air about the effects. That said, the purpose of this study is to provide a framework for analyzing the contextual provision of social support, not an outcomes evaluation of the forum. A study that combines Bambina's contingent theory with outcomes measure would provide powerful evidence for designers of electronic support resources.

Increasingly, people are turning to the Internet for social support, particularly in times of stress such as a disease diagnosis. Online forum, blogs, and social network sites all provide locations for the provision and transmission of social support. As these tools evolve, we will find situational task- and group-based needs addressed through ad hoc group formation in social software. This particular affordance aligns nicely with the support trajectory Bambina proposes. Bambina's good work resides at this particularly timely intersection, and stands to make important theoretical contributions.

Dervin, B. and Dewdney, P. (1986). Neutral questioning: A new approach to the reference interview. Research Quarterly, 25(4), 506-513.

Kuhlthau, C. C. (1988). Developing a Model of the Library Search Process: Cognitive and Affective Aspects. Research Quarterly, 28(2), 232-42.

Kuhlthau, C. C. (1991). Inside the search process: Information seeking from the user's perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 361-371.

Kumar, R., Novak, J., and Tomkins, A. (2006). Structure and Evolution of Online Social Networks. In Proceedings of KDD 2006, 611-617.

Litwak, E., Messeri, P., Wolfe, S., Gorman, S., Silverstein, M., and Guilarte, M. (1989). Organizational Theory, Social Supports, and Mortality Rates: A Theoretical Convergence. American Sociological Review, 54(1), 49-66.

Fred Stutzman:
Fred Stutzman is a Ph.D. student at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Information and Library Science. His research explores the role of social networking sites during transitional periods.  <fred@fredstutzman.com>

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