“I'm scared to look. But I'm dying to know”: Information seeking and sharing on Pro-Ana weblogs

Authors


Abstract

As individuals' access to the Internet has grown, so has the diversity of lifestyles and interests represented on the web. On the Internet, members of any subculture can communicate and share information anonymously and directly on a variety of platforms. Although researchers from many disciplinary backgrounds have devoted considerable attention to the nature of information practices in online communities, there has been little investigation into the information practices of adherents to lifestyles that could be considered perilous or harmful. The members of such a group, referred to as Pro-Anorexia, or Pro-Ana, characterize themselves as believing that Anorexia is not a disease, but a lifestyle choice.

This paper presents findings from a textual analysis of posts and comments on three Pro-Anorexia (Pro-Ana) weblogs. Using a Grounded Theory approach, we found that both bloggers and commenters share a diverse array of types of information in a variety of formats. Because much of the information sought and shared on Pro-Ana blogs would be considered dangerous in another venue, Pro-Ana blogs present an interesting forum for considering how the context in which information is solicited, encountered, or presented actively shapes both the information itself and the information practices of community members.

INTRODUCTION

As individuals' physical and intellectual access to the Internet has grown, so has the diversity of lifestyles and interests represented on the web. Although early netizens were required to have a working knowledge of html and other web protocols in order to establish a web presence, newer platforms have become much more accessible to prospective web authors who lack once-necessary technical skills for Internet publishing. One of the faster-growing venues for web publishing is the weblog, or “blog,” a format that allows the creator (or group of creators) to create multiple sequential entries similar to an online diary. Would-be blog authors (or “bloggers”) can take advantage of ready-to-use templates that require little beyond web access and rudimentary keyboarding skills, most of which are attached to services that provide free web space. Due in part to the user-friendly nature of blog construction, the number of individual blogs and bloggers has grown significantly since the first blog-authoring software was introduced in 1999 (Jensen, 2003). In 2007 the founder of blog-indexer Technorati announced that the service was tracking over 70 million individual blogs (Sifry, 2007, unpaged); by the next year that number had grown to 133 million (Winn, 2008, unpaged).

The most recent data reported by the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicates that blogs are popular: 42% of regular Internet users have read a blog at some point, and 33% do so regularly (Smith, 2008). Young people are disproportionately represented among participants in the “blogosphere”: 49% of teenagers reported reading blogs regularly (Lenhart, et al., 2007). Individuals create blogs for diverse reasons. Although the numbers of bloggers attempting to profit by hosting paid advertisements on their blogs continues to grow, 72% of bloggers who responded to a recent survey identified themselves as hobbyists (McLean, 2009, unpaged) and 66% described “sharing…expertise and experience” as one of their main motivators for blogging (Sussman, 2009, unpaged). Baumer, et al. (2008) point out that blogging is, by nature, a collaborative activity; blog readers can receive email notifications of updates to the blog and make comments on blog entries. The genre's format presents an ideal venue for information exchange, and the potential for doing so relatively anonymously on blogs is an additional benefit to individuals whose beliefs and practices may be considered “out of the mainstream” or which are illegal or dangerous. For individuals whose loved ones actively seek to prevent their participation in their chosen community, blogs present one of very few viable options for information seeking and sharing in anything close to real time.

These reasons, among others, have made blogging particularly attractive to Pro-Anorexia or “Pro-Ana” enthusiasts. Pro-Ana adherents, or “Anas,” differ from those seeking recovery from eating disorders in that they consider anorexia “a legitimate alternative lifestyle” rather than an illness (Lyons, et al., 2006, p. 253). This viewpoint, while controversial, has made a toehold on the web. On webpages, discussion boards, blogs, and social networking sites, Anas share tips, diets, weight loss progress reports, photographs of thin models and celebrities (called “thinspiration” or “thinspo”), original artwork and poetry anonymously and in secret. While the significance of being Pro-Ana is unique to each Ana and blog content varies, one blogger's criteria for Pro-Ana web site content offers a concise description of the online Anas' online presence:

“To me, you are Pro-Ana if…

  • You post low weight goals (and are therefore actively pursuing them)

  • You post thinspo pictures

  • You post Ana-related quotes

  • You do anything else that is Pro-Ana related” (Blogger, 2010).11

Although Pro-Ana websites and discussion forums have received some scrutiny in the scholarly literature of communications, psychology, and health, little attention has been paid specifically to the Pro-Ana blogosphere (Mantella, 2007, p. 7), and no attempts have yet been made to understand the nature of information practices in the Pro-Ana web environment. This is a little surprising, considering that most of the concern about the Pro-Ana movement centers on Anas' sharing information on the web, or, in Gailey's (2009) words, “killing young girls by providing them with the knowledge necessary to develop a successful eating disorder” (p. 93).

PURPOSE AND DESIGN OF RESEARCH

Our main objectives for this project were to explore the types of information sought and shared on Pro-Ana blogs and gaining an understanding of Pro-Ana bloggers' and blog commenters' approaches to seeking and sharing information. We also felt that the nature of the community in question raised additional interesting research questions. Currently, most models of information practice or behavior seem to make the assumption that the information in question is of a positive, or at least neutral, nature. Because behavior associated with the Pro-Ana lifestyle is generally considered harmful by those outside it, Pro-Ana adherents would be unlikely to find guidance and resources for its pursuit in more mainstream venues. This led us to wonder if activities associated with harmful lifestyle choices might differ significantly from those presented in models of information practice of a more benign nature.

In order to explore these questions, we consulted the Pro-Ana Webring22 to identify Pro-Ana blogs that had consistent posts by both bloggers and commenters. Although Technorati's 2008 State of the Blogosphere report states that the site had indexed over 133 million blogs, only 7.4 million of those had been updated in the 120 days prior to the report. Even fewer—1.5 million—blogs had been updated in the previous week (Winn, 2008). Many Pro-Ana blogs follow this pattern; we selected three blogs in the webring with both significant longevity and frequent and copious posts by both the bloggers and commenters.

We transferred the blog posts and comments into a table to facilitate thematic coding then reviewed posts and comments with the priority of identifying instances of information seeking and sharing. Each of us read several weeks' posts and corresponding comments in order to develop preliminary thematic codes. After discussing preliminary themes and solidifying and condensing coding categories, we returned to the blogs and independently read and coded the remaining blog posts and corresponding comments. We then discussed findings and conclusions we had come to individually. We repeated this process until we had coded each of the blogs, then we finalized categorizing the information practices we observed on the blogs. We then returned to the blogs and comments in order to identify categorical exemplars for the information practices we observed to include in the text.

The practice of using blogs and discussion boards as a source of data is controversial, and some would argue that bloggers and commenters certainly do not post with the understanding that their words would serve as fodder for a research study. We feel, however, that the general lack of understanding of information practices in the Pro-Ana community—and concern about the potential dangers of said practices—is a significant enough concern to justify this study. Although none of the blogs or blog posts were password-protected and bloggers and commenters post under pseudonyms, we have removed identifying information for both blogs and posts from this paper in order to respect the privacy of posters. Quotations from the three blogs are referred to as “Blogger”; comments are identified as “Comment.” We have also not included URL's for the blogs we reviewed.

Theoretical Framework

We based our approach to data analysis in what Pettigrew, Fidel and Bruce (2001) describe as the social approach to understanding information practice.33 Distinct from cognitive models of Information Needs, Seeking and Use (INSU), which focus on the individual's behavior and motivations for seeking information, social models, specifically those in the constructionist tradition, take the view that information develops dynamically and collaboratively through dialogue (Tuominen, Talja & Savolainen, 2002). Proponents of this view also emphasize the importance of understanding the context, or “frame of reference” (Courtwright, 2007, p. 273), within which information practices take place. Considering that the type of information and knowledge valued in the Pro-Ana subculture—such as effective plans for conducting a saltwater cleanse or strategies for hiding disordered eating behavior from loved ones—is largely determined by the context in which it is presented, such an approach is ideal for examining its adherents' information practices. Pro-Ana can be considered to represent an extreme example of what Tuominen and Savolainen (1997) describe as the social reality created through language and interaction (p. 82). According to Talja, Suominen and Savolainen (2005), the focus of an analysis grounded in contructionism should be linguistic representations rather than “…concepts such as cognitive space, cognitive functions, mental models or knowledge structures” (p. 89). Because blog posts and comments are the source of data for this project, it was not possible to assess bloggers' and commenters' motivations for posting beyond what was stated on the blog. For discussion of bloggers' motivations, we refer the reader to Mantella's (2007) thesis, which reports on findings from a survey of Pro-Ana blog authors.

Pro-Ana blogs as a Small World

Elements of several socially-oriented theoretical approaches to information practice are applicable to the information practices evident on Pro-Ana blogs. Although Pro-Ana bloggers and commenters may never meet face to face or even speak in real time, their information practices exhibit several of the characteristics of Chatman's (1999) concept of “Small World,” which she described as “a community of like-minded individuals who share co-ownership of social reality” (213). Specifically, members of a small world construct Social norms, or “codes of behavior” and “customary patterns” unique to that small world; a worldview, or set of beliefs that govern small group members' perception of reality, and identify Social types, or individual participants possessing specific sets of characteristics, which are used to classify and discern them from other groups within their small world (213–4). While the Small Worlds that Chatman wrote about shared physical proximity, Burnett, et al. (2001) and others have applied the concept to online communities. However, Savolainen (2009) pointed out that Chatman's emphasis on “barriers, limited opportunities, and high risk” in the lives of small world members could present problems for applying the model to information practices among online community members, who presumably have access to more diverse sources of information than the populations Chatman studied (p. 44).

Chatman noted that members of a small world only trust information based on their own “personal experiences or on hearsay from someone who is accepted as having knowledge of things being discussed” (215). The lack of acceptance for Anas' beliefs and practices necessitates that they seek and share information related to their disordered eating practices only within that very specific community. The truly contextual—and small—nature of Anas' information environment is evident in this exchange between two blog commenters:

“hey guys. i could really use some opinions/ advice and was hoping i could find it by posting in the comments here. So here is my problem. so i ate today not because i was hungry but because i was dizzy and my chest hurt. im not exactly sure that i really know how to do this. its like when i do it i fast (well if 48 cal soup still counts as liquid fast???)” (Comment, 2009).

Another commenter answered the question the next day:

“your problem is not the liquid fast, your problem is that you're still addicted to food (just assuming that because you've only lost an average of about 8lbs from your highest weight so far with your methods) and since you've not yet trained your body to realize this, you binge immediately afterwards” (Comment, 2009).

One need not conduct an empirical analysis of the blogosphere to conclude that commenters on most blogs would not endorse continuing a fast in order to break an “addiction” to food. Sharing this piece of advice in the Pro-Ana blog community demonstrates the power of context to shape information.

In their phenomenological study of communication on Pro-Ana online discussion boards, Gavin, et al. (2008) observed that while posters frequently acknowledged that they were “different and abnormal compared to those outside the Pro-Ana community,” the forum reinforced users' self-identification as “normal” within the group (p. 328). Additionally, posters' need to conceal their eating behavior from friends and loved ones “offline” strengthened their reliance on the online community as the only source of support and understanding available to them. Demonization of Pro-Ana sites in mainstream discussion of disordered eating may further intensify posters' feelings of camaraderie with one another and isolation from the outside community.

While Chatman's Small World concept describes the Pro-Ana blog community in many aspects, one characteristic of Pro-Ana blogging behavior deviates from the parameters of the Small World conceptualization significantly. While Pro-Ana adherents may feel that outsiders should not judge them, blog posts and comments seem to demonstrate awareness that essentially everyone outside the movement sees their behavior as unhealthy and abnormal. In fact, Pro-Ana bloggers and posters themselves often express ambivalence about pursuing disordered eating behaviors. It is also not uncommon for Pro-Ana bloggers and commenters to suggest that readers exercise caution with eating behaviors and for one commenter to admonish another to “take care of yourself…” Pro-Ana bloggers also frequently post disclaimer statements, such as the following:

“If you have an eating disorder and are seeking help for recovery, I wish you success, but please find help elsewhere. This blog will not help you and may be triggering. A good place to start is Something-Fishy.org. I wish you the best of luck and health” (Blogger, n.d.).

This nod toward responsibility seems to indicate that those Pro-Ana bloggers have not completely excluded the rest of their world. In this way, some posts to Pro-Ana blogs do not fit the social norms concept associated with the Small World model's theory of normative behavior. Regarding social norms, Burnett, et al. (2008) said that “…information coming into a small world from beyond its borders that conflicts with such normative standards of propriety will seem ‘wrong’ to the members of that world. It will tend to be ignored—or dismissed outright—as fundamentally at odds with the values and mores of that world” (Burnett, 2008, p. 58).

It is possible that this divergence from Chatman's small world model can be attributed to the same characteristics that created the subculture; specifically, its clandestine nature and the perceived undesirability of the behavior “Anas” engage in. While it is common for Pro-Ana bloggers and commenters to express frustration at loved ones' admonitions to “eat something,” some participants do acknowledge the loved ones' concerns about their behavior in a sympathetic manner:

“Paul is proud of me when I eat and keep it down. But it's starting to feel like every time he is proud of me, I've failed” (Blogger, 2009).

Toleration of comments from non-Anas who are unsympathetic to the desire to engage in disordered eating is far less common. While we did not encounter any “haters” (people posting negative comments about the blog, blog participants, and Pro-Ana in general) in the blogs we reviewed, they are discussed in other studies of Pro-Ana web pages. In their study of Pro-Ana websites, Hammersley and Treseder (2007) observed that critical posts from non-Anas elicited “a militant pro-ana ideology, in which the ‘right to be anorexic’ is defended against societal disapproval and the medicalization of thinness” from Pro-Ana commenters (p. 293). Perhaps this inconsistent display of adherence to social norms is not sufficient to exclude the Pro-Ana blog community from identification as a Small World.

Participants in the Pro-Ana community are more difficult to identify in the face-to-face world than are some of the populations studied by Chatman such as female prisoners, low-income workers, and older women. Nevertheless, the constrained nature of information seeking, sharing, and availability in an underground community like the Pro-Ana movement suggests that the small world model may provide a relevant template for understanding information practices in groups that are less isolated than most involved in Small World research.

Pro-Ana blogs as an Information Ground

Like the small world concept, Fisher's “Information Grounds” focuses on the contextuality of information practices, specifically on the spontaneous information seeking and sharing that takes place when a group of people gathers for some purpose other than sharing information. Although Fisher's initial conceptualization of Information Grounds emphasized face-to-face interaction within a physically shared space such as a medical clinic, barbershop, or library, the model has more recently been applied to examining information practices in online communities, as in Counts and Fisher's (2008) discussion of social networking sites. Fisher, Durrance and Hinton (2004) identified the following characteristics of information grounds, several of which describe the Pro-Ana blog community:

  • 1People gather at ‘information grounds’ for a primary, instrumental purpose other than information sharing.
  • 2Information grounds are attended by different social types, most if not all of whom play expected and important, albeit different roles in information flow.
  • 3Social interaction is a primary activity at ‘information grounds’ such that information flow is a by-product.
  • 4People engage in formal and informal information sharing, and information flow occurs in many directions.
  • 5Information grounds can occur anywhere, in any type of temporal setting and are predicated on the presence of individuals.
  • 6People use information obtained at ‘information grounds’ in alternative ways, and benefit along physical, social, affective and cognitive dimensions.
  • 7Many sub-contexts exist within an ‘information ground’ and are based on people's perspectives and physical factors; together these sub-contexts form a grand context (p. 756–7).

The first characteristic of Information Grounds is particularly resonant in light of the research Mantella (2007) conducted for her dissertation. Because previous research had found that members of other online communities identified “sharing and receiving information” to be among their main motivators for participation (Ridings & Gefen, 2004), Mantella expected that her survey or Pro-Ana bloggers would reveal similar incentives. Instead, none of the Pro-Ana blog ring members who responded to her survey reported “provid[ing] information” as a motivator for joining the blog ring, and only 12.7% identified “obtain[ing] information” as a reason to for beginning a blog (p. 27). Regardless of intent, however, Pro-Ana bloggers do request and share information with some regularity.

The emphasis on contextuality of information in Information Grounds makes it an especially appropriate lens through which to observe the information practices on Pro-Ana blogs. It is difficult to imagine a context other than Pro-Ana in which one might seek and share strategies for visiting the gym several times a day without arousing the suspicions of staff members. Fisher, Durrance and Hinton also mention that many instances of information exchange to be observed in an information ground can be described as accidental or incidental information encountering as theorized by Erdelez (1997, 2005) and Williamson (1998); this is also seems to be true of information practices on Pro-Ana blogs, especially on the part of commenters. This is understandable; comments on blog posts are, by their nature, reactive—commenters frequently visit the blog without advance knowledge of the nature of that day's blog posts or earlier comments posted in response. On the other hand, authors of the Pro-Ana blogs we reviewed shared information in a variety of formats. Bloggers frequently post reviews of books and television programs (Blogger, 2009), critical assessments of diet plans (Blogger, 2010), and references to scholarly and other background materials on eating disorders (Blogger, 2010), as well as answering questions that have appeared in the blog's comments or emailed to the blogger directly.

The Pro-Ana blog community diverges from Information Grounds significantly in terms of the sixth qualifying characteristic described by Fisher, Durrance and Hinton (2004):

“People use information obtained at ‘information grounds’ in alternative ways, and benefit along physical, social, affective and cognitive dimensions” (emphasis mine) (p. 756).

While Pro-Ana bloggers and commenters may perceive the information they seek and share to be beneficial, directions for following the “ABC (Ana Boot Camp Diet,” which severely restricts calories for several weeks in a row, will not be used for a purpose that would be described as “physically beneficial” by a non-Ana. It is unclear, however, whether the authors meant to specify that the information derived from participation in an Information Ground must be beneficial by an objective standard or that the recipient only must perceive it to be so.

While the Small World and Information Grounds models of context for information practice are applicable to Pro-Ana blogs in most respects, the fact that participants are seeking and sharing information that most individuals outside consider harmful has a tremendous impact on the environment in which Pro-Ana bloggers and commenters engage in information practice. The effect of this shift in context is not large, but it is perceptible. Perhaps a theory of the information practices of those engaged in harmful behaviors would be a welcome contribution.

INFORMATION SEEKING AND SHARING ON PRO-ANA BLOGS

Our analysis of Pro-Ana blogs revealed that bloggers and commenters use the blog to share and receive information about the Pro-Ana phenomenon and lifestyle in distinct ways. In addition to sharing and requesting information in a direct or purposive manner, bloggers and commenters also regularly sought and shared information through personal narrative, or storytelling. Whether purposive or indirect, however, the majority of instances of information-related activity fell into the following categories:

Directions, Tips, and Advice

Many individuals—both bloggers and commenters—shared information by providing specific directions to facilitate goal achievement. This type of information was purposefully shared and often included concrete instructions for accomplishing a task or following a specific diet or exercise regimen, such as offering directions for restricting caloric consumption. One commenter said, “just [start] eating small meals add 50/100/200 kcals a day. And then see where it takes you” (Comment, 2008). Others detailed directions for making low calorie snacks. As one individual described:

“I make a cup of hot apple cinnamon tea with no sugar or creamer. SUPER PLAIN. Then, I add a little extra cinnamon (I read somewhere it helps speed up metabolism). Next, I chop a small apple into 16 super thin pieces and only put four inside of the tea. The rest go in a little baggy in the fridge. The apples get really hot in the TEA so it's harder to eat them and you eat them a lot slower so they last longer and seem more filling. Those four little slices are maybe 20 calories the most and if it bothers you that much, 10 minutes or so on an elliptical will knock them right off!!!” (Comment, 2008).

It is interesting to note that individuals commenting on blog entries engaged in this type of information sharing with some frequency. While bloggers are expected to share this type of information spontaneously as well as in response to direct querying, commenters also often provided this type of spontaneous input as well.

It is also common for bloggers to describe personal challenges associated with the Pro-Ana lifestyle and for commenters to suggest various means of resolution. One blogger's post about falling down with increasing frequency (“last week I fell off the playground bridge, a 6-foot drop. I just lost balance while sitting on the guardrail and landed with a thud on my back”) (Blogger, 2009) elicited a large number of concerned comments, some of which provided unprompted suggestions for alleviating the problem. One commenter mentioned, “I was vegan for a few years and I found that I needed a b-vitamin in addition to my iron supplement, or else I got dizzy and fell down a lot” (Comment, 2009). In response to post on a different blog, another commenter promoted the importance of maintaining optimal hydration as a means for improving one's appearance during a fast: “you have some pretty impressive goals set for yourself, but do drink water, it's calorie free and it keeps your skin looking beautiful” (Comment, 2009). Bloggers often reprint tips they have culled from other sources, such as one poster's “Random Tips I've found Online,” which included the reminder to “keep good posture. It burns 10% more calories,” followed by the self-identification of this as “MY PERSONAL issue-I always forget. So I write it on my hand and put it in my phone calender” (Blogger, 2010).

Other individuals shared information through advice-giving. This type of information practice often included statements of opinion about what should be done to resolve a situation or problem. One commenter, for example, offered the blog author her advice on dating and dieting: “you know what i think would be very beneficial to you and [blogger's boyfriend]. Maybe if you and him ate healthy together. AND went on work out dates. It would help you lose weight, but you would be eating” (Comment, 2009). Another commenter warned against the impediment to weight loss presented by complete abstention from food, suggesting the blogger

“try not to eat nothing. It just lowers your metabolism which is why you gained the weight back. Don't worry, I'm not a hater I completely understand where you're coming from. I've read just about every diet book on the planet and researched all the supplements” (Comment, 2009).

Resources

Sharing Pro-Ana resources was also common among bloggers and readers. Participants frequently discussed sources such as books, films, or music considered to have an informational or inspirational relationship to the Pro-Ana mindset. One blogger, for instance, discussed the “inspiration” she found in Wasted, Marya Hornbacher's (1998) memoir of her struggles with Anorexia and Bulimia:

“I've been reading Marya's book again. The last time I read it, it triggered me into a summer of long-term fasts (lost 20 pounds in 3 months), so I'm wondering what will happen to me now that I've been ‘rehabilitated.’ It's such a wonderful account of her journey. Those of you whO've commented that you enjoy reading my stuff, I HIGHLY recommend you read this book.” (Blogger, 2009).

Posts that share informational resources often elicited a significant number of comments. One commenter described her reaction to the aforementioned book:

“I just wanted to say that I've read Marya's book a thousand times if I've read it once. It is WONDERFUL!! I actually think I've read it thirteen times now; the first time when I was 14. I was in love. It motivated me to lose weight a year or so back and I lost almost 25 pounds” (Comment, 2009).

Discussion of Hornbacher's account of her decades-long struggle with disordered eating, during which her weight dropped to 52 pounds provides a succinct illustration of information's contextual nature. While a review of the book in School Library Journal praised Hornbacher for presenting “a real sense of the horror of anorexia and bulimia and their power to dominate an individual's life” (Noonan, 1998, p. 232), participants in its discussion on the Pro-Ana blog in question portrayed it as “a good book to read to keep motivated” (Comment, 2009).

Information Shared Through Narrative and Self-Disclosure

In addition to presenting information directly, many bloggers and commenters shared extensive information through personal narrative, including providing descriptive details in the form of storytelling to inform readers. One individual, for example, described challenges presented by a recent illness:

“well, here's my updates: i've been sick, which has made it harder to starve (because my body is craving the energy to fight off these stupid germs) and impossible to purge (sore throat + stomach acid = bad plan.). despite this, i've restricted enough this week (allowing myself only liquid calories to sooth my throat and veggies to fight the germs)” (Blogger, 2009).

Bloggers and commenters often discussed their struggles by sharing personal information about their eating habits and progress. One blogger, who identifies herself as “a full-time actress in film and television” (Blogger, 2007) devoted extensive commentary to the difficulty she experienced in concealing her disordered eating behaviors from employers as well as loved ones. In several posts, she describes feeling pressured to eat while on-set:

“On Wednesday I had a slice of pizza and about a cup of chicken caesar salad. On Thursday I had a 6” sub sandwich. Both days the director actually *checked on me* to make sure I had eaten. Who tipped him off? My agent? My manager? Another actor? WTF? Leave me the fuck alone!” (Blogger, 2008).

In a later post, she described the strategy she planned to employ in order to “keep eyebrows from raising” while she engaged in a “good old-fashioned FAST. Just a little one, to see if anyone notices.” Specifically, her strategy involved attempting to

“keep pushing the fluids, keeping a drink of some kind with me at all times, to give an illusion of intake. However, I will try to keep these calorie counts down as well. Mostly water, maybe a little bit of VitaminWater, a sip or two of soymilk for breakfast, and coke zero if I MUST have caffeination. But no food.” (Blogger, 2009).

In an overt display of the community connections generated by blogs such as this, the blogger concluded her post by seeking compatriots in the fast: “Who's fasting with me? 30 hours food-free! Let's do it! Think beautiful thoughts, girls! XOXO!” (Blogger, 2009). Dozens of commenters accepted the blogger's challenge, many reflecting the original post's confessional tone: “Hey, it's so great to know you're fasting, too! I've been waterfasting for three days now and will allow myself whatever liquids I want from now on - until the weekend will mess it all up again, I know… Hell, I hate weekends…” (Comment, 2009).

Individuals also used the blogs as a venue for disclosing specific information or factual details about themselves. These instances of information sharing were more specific and pointed than information shared through narratives. For example, bloggers and commenters frequently posted specific weight loss goals: “if you ask me my goal would be 95 lbs, but because of my family it's 103 lbs. I just don't want them to hurt. But I can't stop. Not now when I've come this far” (Comment, 2009). Others disclosed information related to their current weight loss progress, for example, “Woke up at 10:00. Weighed myself and I weigh two and a half pounds less than I did yesterday which means I'm 3 and a half pounds closer to my first goal” (Blogger, 2010). Still other individuals used the blog as a forum for sharing information related to life beyond dieting and food. As one individual mentioned, “I cut myself pretty much whenever I get pissed, so like every day” (Comment, 2009).

Requests for Information

In addition to sharing information about Pro-Ana, many individuals used the blogs to request specific information and resources: “Oh yeah. what are some other books youve read about eating disorders? I gotta get my hands on them” (Comment, 2009). Other individuals asked explicit questions about weight loss: “Also is it true that you have to burn 3500 cals before losing a pound? I love the empty feeling during a fast and normally last 3 days but the pounds do NOT shift, whyyyyy!!?” (Comment, 2009). Commenters also frequently asked bloggers specific questions relating to one's psychological state or self-motivation. As one individual mentioned.

“Hey, I've been reading for a while now and I have to say, you are a truly inspiring person. Not because of your eating disorder, more because of your sheer determination. I am actually in awe. But do you think you could ever be happy if you weren't thin?” (Comment, 2009).

Bloggers and commenters requested guidance or advice from other readers, often related to problems or difficulties with strict dieting regimens, as in the following:

“Hey, I know people have asked this before, but how do you keep parents from finding out that you don't eat? Because I'm 15 and I live with my parents, and my mom is paranoid that I'm going to go anorexic and die like my aunt did, so she always makes me eat” (Comment, 2009).

Other common requests included soliciting guidance for navigating daily life as a Pro-Ana individual:

“Random curiosity question… If you are restricting/fasting enough to have grey outs or black outs, how do you drive? Do you drive? Does that scare you, the possibility of blacking out behind the wheel? Just curious. I've never gotten that far myself and I'm not sure how to deal with it if/when I do. Thank you!” (Comment, 2009).

CONCLUSIONS AND DIRECTIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH

Despite Mantella's (2007) findings indicating that Pro-Ana bloggers do not consider seeking or sharing information to be notable motivators for blogging, it is clear that information is being sought and shared on Pro-Ana blogs both directly and indirectly. While much of the content—advice, recommendations for reading, listening, and viewing, tips, tricks, suggestions, and directions—is directly related to Pro-Ana and disordered eating, bloggers and commenters are also less frequently engaged in information practices that are unrelated to concerns about diet and weight. Perhaps because blogs are, essentially, online diaries, information practices on Pro-Ana blogs are frequently couched within presentation of personal narrative. While Pro-Ana bloggers' and commenters' information activity shares several elements with both the Small World and Information Grounds models, neither frames the subculture's information practices perfectly. Whether this is due to the blog format, the clandestine and conflicted nature of Pro-Ana information practices, or both, is unclear.

Our exploration of Anas' information practices in the blogosphere presents several potential directions for future research. A potential project might compare information practices on Pro-Ana blogs with those on blogs devoted to sharing health-related information that is accepted as beneficial, such as strategies for living with diabetes. While we did collect and analyze the information events in nearly 75,000 words' worth of Pro-Ana blogs, an effort at making connections between those blogs was beyond the scope of this project. There are some indications, however, that participants in some Pro-Ana blogs might constitute a tighter community than those in some other blogging groups. Hersberger, Rioux, and Cruitt's (2005) Framework for Analyzing Information Sharing and Exchange in Virtual Communities presents a promising model for understanding both the role of community and the “accidental” information practices evident in online networks such as Pro-Ana. The authors' approach draws on McMillan and Chavis' (1986) model of the elements of a community: membership, or the degree to which an individual has invested in a specific community; influence, both on the part of the individual to influence the overall behavior of the group as well as the ability of the group as a whole to encourage conformity on the part of its members; individual integration within the group and the demonstrated ability of the group and its members to fulfill the needs of the individual members, and shared emotional connection (Hersberger, Rioux, and Cruitt, 2005, p. 7–8). According to the authors, online communities differ little from their face-to-face counterparts; in both, shared interests or objectives lead to communication and, in turn, the development of relationships and trust among members. In addition to shared experience or interest, membership is determined by a complex web of emotional and social ties (p. 6–8).

Although not formally assessed as part of this paper, first impressions suggest that Pro-Ana bloggers and posters participate in multiple blogs and seem to conduct conversations on multiple sites. Individual bloggers frequently provide a “blog roll,” or list of links to other blogs—frequently related by topic—in a sidebar on the main blog page, and groups of blogs may be conglomerated into a “blog ring,” or a linked collection of thematically similar blogs (Pedersen & Macafee, 2007, p. 1482). Initial review of the Pro-Ana blogs analyzed for this project suggests significant “cross-pollination” between bloggers and commenters on Pro-Ana blogs. Applying Hersberger, Rioux, and Cruitt's framework to a deeper and broader representation of the Pro-Ana online community could enhance our understanding of the significance of information seeking and sharing in that context.

Outsiders such as loved ones, physicians, and counselors are concerned that Pro-Ana blogs provide information that promotes or aggravates disordered eating. Before these concerns can be addressed, the modes and significance of information practices on the Pro-Ana web must be better understood. In turn, online discussion devoted to other harmful behaviors, such as self-injury, or “cutting” should be explored. While we understand that conducting such research can be difficult emotionally, we feel that members of the information science community are uniquely positioned to contribute to our collective understanding of such phenomena.

As the viewpoints and interests given public face on the web become ever more diverse, information practices research will continue to adapt and develop theoretical models to address the activities reflected in these specific contexts. In this paper, we have attempted to introduce some of the attendant issues, perhaps helping to clarify an aspect of context in information practice.

Footnotes

  1. 1

    We have reproduced posts from Pro-Ana blogs verbatim, with grammatical and spelling errors intact.

  2. 2

    http://www.webring.org/hub?ring=proana

  3. 3

    We use the term “Information Practice” here rather than “Information Behavior” to reflect a focus on social, rather behavioral, approaches to analysis (McKenzie, 2002, p. 24).

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