2010 Dissertations II: Communities Online

For several years, communication scholars debated whether or not a community could exist online. Could something really be a community if there is no physically embodied interaction? What happens to elements we typically associate with community, like accountability, identity, and responsibility?  Communication dissertations defended in 2010 suggest that this question may be turning. These are less interested in the question of defining or characterizing “online community.”  Instead, the overall question seems to have shifted to understanding communities , when they are online.  This might signal a willingness to presume that a community may exist, independent of knowing if it is “virtual” or not.

Once we accept that online communities are simply communities online, this opens the field to a range of rehearsed research questions.  For example, does interacting with a community improves the effectiveness of an intervention? Hua Wang (PhD University of Southern California, faculty at SUNY-Buffalo)  examined the contribution of the social game Wellness Partners (think social media mixed with play) for improvement of participants’ overall wellness. Wang’s results are not conclusive, suggesting that there are different levels of effectiveness (as we might expect in any diverse community of users).

Another standard question is what are the interactional mechanisms that allow a community to sustain itself? Similarly, what communication is harmful to community? Li Wang (PhD Ohio University) uses a structurational perspective to try to explain the mechanisms that allow an dispersed online community- the Communication Initiative— to sustain itself as a community of practice.

A last example here is the question of how participation in a community can help to empower the individuals within it. Kittie Grace (PhD University of Nebraska, faculty at Hastings College) uses Habermas’ theory of the public sphere to trace how women in a health support group came to change their sense of their own authority and confidence in speaking with medical experts about their condition.

As our research continues to move in this direction, we should be careful so that we don’t go too far into taking online community as natural, because this may cause us to miss the opportunity to recognize and interrogate our basic assumptions of what community is, how we theorize it,  and what it might be.

  • Grace, Kittie E.  “Contesting sphere boundaries online: Private/technical/public discourses in polycystic ovarian syndrome discussion groups.” PhD Diss., University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2010. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/dissertations/AAI3412862
  • Wang, Li. “Online communities of practice: A case study of the CI network from a communicative perspective.” Ph.D. Diss., Ohio University, 2010. http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=ohiou1273170599
  • Wang, Hua. “Building personal wellness communities: Meaningful play in the everyday life of a network society.” PhD Diss., University of Southern California, 2010. http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~hwang23/Research/JournalArticles/HelenDissertationFinalPubDec2010.pdf

Case Study: Weight Loss and Online Social Support

A new study by Amy Aldredge Sanford (Northeastern University) highlights the role that that internet sites can have for social support for the morbidly obese working to lose weight. Weight  loss is a particularly interesting example for the study of communication and social support because of the stigma that can be attached to appearing overweight, and because obesity may be linked to other issues such as addiction or depression.

Possible questions to explore:

  • How do communication processes of online support and offline support compare?
  • Does using the internet for social support raise any new possibilities or new concerns compared to offline support?
  • What are the patterns or qualities of online communication for social support?


  • Sanford, A. A. (2010). “I Can Air My Feelings Instead of Eating Them”: Blogging as Social Support for the Morbidly Obese. Communication Studies, 61(5), 567-584. Routledge. doi: 10.1080/10510974.2010.514676.
  • Black, L. W., Bute, J. J., & Russell, L. D. (2010). “The secret is out!”: Supporting weight loss through online interaction. In L. Shedletsky & J. Aiken (Eds.), Cases on online discussion and interaction: Experiences and outcomes (pp. 351-368). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
  • Suggs, L. S. (2006). A 10-year retrospective of research in new technologies for health communication. Journal of Health Communication, 11(1), 61-74. doi: 10.1080/10810730500461083.
  • Tanis, M. (2008). Health-related on-line forums: what’s the big attraction?. Journal of Health Communication, 13(7), 698-714. doi: 10.1080/10810730802415316.
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsive_overeating
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_support