Do online communities pretend to care?

I am fortunate enough to have been invited to attend IMSI, the Invitational Masters Student Invitational, to be held at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, the weekend of October 16-18. Given Rutgers received over 100 applications, to be one of the 25 students invited to discuss their current research and proposed dissertation topic with Rutgers faculty, existing doctoral candidates, and other invitees is a privelege and real highlight of my academic career.

In my application I had to submit an existing paper to demonstrate my research. The paper I chose to submit was on identity work performed on twitter through the use of language and sentence structure. This paper looked at how people create and present an identity of themselves on Twitter, primarily through the use of @ replies, hashtags and retweets. While it’s a decent paper, for Rutgers I’d like to extend it to look at this identity work, and how the Twitter community sees its need to create an identity of concern in crisis and tragedy. This is where I’m headed.

Online communities and crisis

We’ve all seen media stories of tragic events, and how people are affected by them – and how they’ve gathered together online as a result. While sites exist to create online memorials, sometimes it crosses over and a personal fun page is morphed into a place for others to gather when they’ve passed on. On Twitter, I have personally witnessed multiple occasions where someone has ended up tweeting their own tragic events. The death of a wife. The death of a child. I wonder what would have happened if Twitter had been so commonplace during larger tragedies such as the Virginia Tech shootings.

I have watched the online community gather to provide concern and support to individuals directly affected by tragedy. It is this kind of resonance that led me to undertake a small content analysis on the tweets associated with the Australian bushfires last year. I wanted to find out who was tweeting about it? How were they involved? What were they saying and why?

The paper was a very small, very specific analysis in which I was surprised to discover that two thirds of people who twittered during the high point of the bushfire-related tweets were located nowhere near the tragedy. In fact, they were overseas. None of them knew people directly affected. And what were they saying?

Apart from retweeting basic information, the majority of people wanted to know how could they help?

Seeking triangulation? I’m not quite there yet…

Last week I attended the presentation of Leysia Palen’s to-date work in crisis informatics at CU. And the data appears to be reflected in her unit’s research (in particular, on the American-located Red River floods) as well. Exactly the same percentage – two thirds of people tweeting during a disaster are not directly involved.

So, is this real?

I hear a lot of people who doubt the friendships experienced in online communities. They say “how do you know they’re real?”

Now, of course they’re not doubting that the person tweeting is human (sometimes now, however, that presents an entirely different issue), but they are definitely doubting their authenticity. How do you know someone is really concerned about you if you’ve never met them face to face before? And it’s a really good question.

The Karen Walker factor

Karen Walker was a special character who found life, and resonance with many in the hit sitcom, Will and Grace.  While the show has had its day, there are many Walker moments that still hit the nail on the head.It is what is swimming in my head as I plan my paper for the Rutgers Invitational.will and grace

One of these is in an episode when Will and Grace are not talking (after a massive argument in which Will tells Grace to move out, which I swear was one of the strongest bits of acting on television I’ve seen). In chatting with Jack about how to get Will and Grace to talk again, she firstly says, “pretend to think, pretend to think.” She then follows it with “Pretend to care, pretend to care.” Of course Karen does care. She’s just conscious of the need to appear to care as well. Plus it’s funny.

So here I am:

* Are people who offer support in online communities ‘pretending to care’?

* Is the expressed concern a demonstration of identity work that gains them favour and positions them as caring individuals you’d want to have as a friend?

* How does the caring from the community affect the person experiencing tragedy?

Do you have any experience of this? Would you be willing to undergo an interview for my research? What do you believe is true?

My sincere thanks goes to the SJMC at CU, without the support of which I wouldn’t be able to conduct any of my research and also in particular to Dean Paul Voakes who saw fit to support my application with a letter of recommendation that I never saw, but am convinced was highly influential in my acceptance.

2 responses to “Do online communities pretend to care?

  1. I’m a statistical outlier (LOL) because I do not “care” about things that happen to people I do not know. I mean, I care in an abstract, “Oh, that is not a good thing to happen to someone” way, but not in any kind of a direct way. This does not make me popular when tragedy strikes (i.e. Princess Diana, Sept. 11, etc.) it actually, sometimes, makes me look like an awful, unfeeling person…but I just don’t understand caring – deeply and personally – about someone I have *no* connection to. I see it as similar to going to a stranger’s funeral and crying very loudly – it’s like borrowing someone else’s grief, often without their permission.

    That being said I do believe most – if not all – people do truly care. Whether it is because they feel they are SUPPOSED to care (based on media coverage) and thus generate the emotion to care to match the input…or if it is a spontaneous and legitimate caring of spirit coming from that “we’re all one person” point of view – or if they just enjoy depth of feeling and a tragedy is the best trigger – is impossible to truly know without knowing the individual in question well enough to know if they know themselves well enough to be able to answer honestly where that caring stems from.

    I don’t know how to answer your specific questions, but I love that you’re researching this!

  2. I have offered condolences (and meant it) and expressed concern and congratulations for folks on twitter, but nothing too consuming. I consider myself a caring individual and suppose I like to keep the number of folks I follow low for this reason. I am still not sure of what my intention on Twitter is yet. So it may be more personal than what other folks use it for.
    I have had one intense online community experience. When I was prepping for my wedding I was on a wedding site and got to know several women from one board very well. One of them took a hiatus from the site to be with her fiance who was sick and had to travel for treatment. I kept in contact with her away from the online community. Her fiance passed during a surgery and I found myself stunned and crying real tears over her loss. Our online community rallied to form an account to help her or at least make a nice donation in her fiance’s name to a cancer research organization. I had never met her. May never meet her. And I am fine with that. I still think the world of her and am still sad over her loss two years later.
    I don’t know how caring affects the person going through the experience. I try to keep my personal situations offline and only for those I know in real life. I suppose I don’t trust online communities with things that are emotional for me because of the rampant web rage and ignorance I know that is out there.

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