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Sunday, September 28 • 14:16 - 14:35
"Social Media and Social Support: Mapping Mechanisms in a Domestic Violence Forum"

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Background: A broad spectrum of strategies and resources are needed to address cases of domestic violence appropriately. This is not the least a fact because of the normalization of violence that takes place in the lives of many battered women. Social networks can provide crucial information and encouragement to use particular coping strategies. While researchers have mapped some of the available online resources and strategies for helping victims of domestic violence, there is virtually no research on the actual and concrete affordances of these resources.             

Objective: This article uses a Swedish discussion forum for victims of domestic violence (henceforth called DVForum) as the focal point of a case study. This study has the two-fold purpose of mapping the content of the communication flowing through the network, and of assessing structural aspects of the social network with a focus on the potential for offering support. While one might focus studies on the design and usability of online support forums, this article is interested in the actual interactions — in discourse and network terms — of participants in a popular and seemingly well-functioning forum.

Methods: A six year sample from the DVForum was collected, and included 16,850 posts from 4,345 participants to 3,304 discussion threads. As a first analytical step, we look at the topics discussed. A combination of qualitative coding and text mining techniques helped identify the five topics of (1) Weakness, (2) Fear, (3) Emotional support, (4) Concrete strategies and (5) Empowerment. Furthermore, the participants in the DVForum were divided into categories based on the level and continuity of their participation.

Results: We identified two parallel processes in this support forum: One at the individual level, and the other at the collective level. We show how help-seeking individuals enter the forum expressing weakness and fear, but unable to themselves provide emotional support to others, or to formulate concrete strategies for taking control of their situation. Their discourse is then fed into the larger social system of the forum where they get help from moderate, and especially the core, participants to move towards a discourse characterized by less weakness and fear and a stronger orientation towards finding strategies to change their situations as well as supporting other individuals entering the forum. It is in this way that the forum, as a superindividual entity, develops into a functioning system for gathering experiences, advancing knowledge and providing support. The power of the forum to help participants break cycles of normalization, and to identify warning signals in their violent relationships, is a product of ‘collective intelligence’ as it harnesses, advances and archives stories and knowledge from individuals that together become something more than the mere sum of the parts.

Conclusions: The main conclusion of this paper is that one of the key mechanisms that can make online support forums work has to do with how the setting is made into a community of practice, and a vehicle for collective intelligence, rather than a mere aggregation of posts or isolated exchanges within a common topic. It appears that forums of the type analyzed may function in relatively self-regulating ways as a process of informal socialization and learning may create engagement and contribute to the creation of an abstract, but still joint, enterprise keeping participants together by mutual engagements and shared histories. Much like there is talk in other fields about ‘early adopters’, ‘opinion leaders’ and ‘lead users’, online support forums clearly seem to be in need of ‘givers’ who have acquired the necessary social capital to function as prime definers that hold the forum together and secures its functioning.


Simon Lindgren

Umeå University

Ragnar Lundström

Umeå University

Sunday September 28, 2014 14:16 - 14:35
TRS 1-147 Ted Rogers School of Management

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