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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Community participation and internet use
  5. Community participation on the internet
  6. Crisis communication and community
  7. Theory of channel complementarity
  8. Method
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References

Crises spark off a wide variety of communicative activities; extant research documents the critical role of the community during crises. The terrorist attacks of September 11 fundamentally challenged the very fabric of American society. How did Americans respond to the crisis posed by the terrorist attacks of September 11 in their communicative choices? Based on the theory of channel complementarity, this article argues that individuals who participated in online communities to post and read thoughts about the attacks were also more likely to participate in real communities. An analysis of the data gathered by the Pew Center immediately after the 9/11 attacks demonstrates support for the theory of channel complementarity in the realm of community participation.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Community participation and internet use
  5. Community participation on the internet
  6. Crisis communication and community
  7. Theory of channel complementarity
  8. Method
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References

Good evening. Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes, or in their offices; secretaries, businessmen and women, military and federal workers; moms and dads, friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror. (Bush, 2001)

United States President George W. Bush’s speech in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (henceforth 9/11) underscores the magnitude of this event in American history. More than the two world wars in the 20th century, the impact of the fall of the twin towers in New York City, accompanied by the attacks on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., threatened the core of American society. In his speech, the President declared that the very freedom of the United States was under attack. How did Americans respond to the terrorist attacks of 9/11? Did they turn to their communities for support and collective action?

Noted American scholar Robert Putnam (1995) discusses falling community involvement in the United States in the period preceding the attacks in his celebrated book Bowling Alone. He notes that Americans are no longer active in their communities and locates current communicative choices of the American citizen at the heart of this decreasing community participation. Specifically, Putnam posits that the surge in media consumption has contributed to the decline in the amount of time individuals spend in their offline social networks. Putnam’s work on the offline community has stimulated renewed interest in the link between communication and community, leading to debates in communication circles about the role of new media in the context of participation in the offline community (Ball-Rokeach & Hoyt, 2001; Shepherd & Rothenbuhler, 2001). In another line of work, scholars have argued that the Internet is a panacea for the falling social capital in the United States, pointing out that the Internet opens up new doors for forming relationships and sharing in the public sphere (Ball-Rokeach & Hoyt). Social capital is defined here as the degree of cohesiveness in a community and taps into the interconnected linkages within a community (Putnam; Shah, Kwak, & Holbert, 2001).

Both schools of thought, the one that conceptualizes the Internet as the nemesis of the community and the one that conceptualizes it as its savior, are limited by a parochial framework that attributes centrality to the technology; technology is held to shape the communicative activities in which humans engage (cf. Wellman, 2002). In an introduction to an issue of Communication Research devoted to studying the relationship between technology and community, communication researchers Ball-Rokeach and Hoyt (2001) problematize the techno-deterministic simplicity of extant approaches and call for alternative and more complex explorations of the linkages between communication and offline community; they highlight the critical role of context in shaping the relationship between communication and offline community.

This article responds to the call issued by Ball-Rokeach and Hoyt (2001) by studying the relationship between new media use and community participation in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It uses the theory of channel complementarity (Dutta-Bergman, 2004a, 2004b, 2005) to develop a nomological network that informs the relationship between community participation on the Internet and face-to-face participation in the local community. Based on an analysis of data gathered by the Pew Center for the People and the Press (2001) in the period following the attacks, this project provides evidence for the argument that individuals who participate in community networks on the Internet are also more likely to participate in their local communities, demonstrating complementary patterns of online and local community participation. In the following sections, I review the literature on community participation and Internet use, community participation on the Internet, communication during crisis, and the theory of channel complementarity. Based on the theory of channel complementarity, I propose hypotheses regarding the relationship between offline and online community participation in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. These hypotheses are tested through an analysis of nationally representative data gathered by the Pew Center for the People and the Press.

Community participation and internet use

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Community participation and internet use
  5. Community participation on the internet
  6. Crisis communication and community
  7. Theory of channel complementarity
  8. Method
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References

The initial work by Putnam (1995) on the relationship between media consumption and community participation sparked a great deal of research within the field of communication, including several articles published in Communication Research on the topic (Ball-Rokeach & Hoyt, 2001; Ball-Rokeach, Kim, & Matei, 2001). Traditionally, two different theoretical frameworks have been applied to argue for the depleting effect of new media on community participation. Displacement theorists point out that individuals have a limited amount of leisure time available to them, and that this sets constraints for the different communicative activities in which the individuals can engage (Finhoult & Sproull, 1990; James, Wotring, & Forrest, 1995; Robinson, Barth, & Kohut, 1997). When a person chooses to participate in one particular communicative activity, this essentially takes him/her away from his/her possible engagement in other communicative activities. As a result, people who spend a lot of time consuming media in their private spaces are unable and unlikely to participate in their communities (Putnam, 1995; Shah, McLeod, & Yoon, 2001). Similarly, according to displacement theory, individuals who spend a lot of time on the Internet spend less time participating in their offline communities. In the displacement framework, the Internet competes with community participation.

Another theory that is used to construct a competing framework for defining the relationship between media consumption and community participation is cultivation theory. Cultivation theorists argue that heavy readers or heavy viewers of media are guided by the media in their constructions of the world that surrounds them (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1980). The depiction of social reality through mass media cultivates a perception of the world as a mean place, where no one can be trusted; in the mass-mediated world of murder and violence, individuals do not participate in their communities and do not trust one another. As a consequence, heavy viewers of mass media are less likely to trust others in their social networks and are less likely to participate in their local communities (Gerbner et al.). Social capital, therefore, is depleted by heavy viewership of mass media.

Putnam’s line of research on the effect of the media on community involvement has been extended to the Internet. Scholars investigating the effect of the Internet on social capital have demonstrated significant effects of the Internet on community involvement (Nie & Erbring, 2000). They have argued that use of the Internet depletes social capital. In other words, as Internet use increases, both social trust and community participation decrease.

Both displacement theory and cultivation theory take a homogeneous approach to conceptualizing the relationship between media consumption and community participation, however, failing to note the diversity in the different uses of mass media. The consumption of media types is not a homogeneous experience across individuals; different individuals consume different media to satisfy different functional needs. In articles documenting the linkages between media use and community participation, media scholars have questioned the simplistic equation of time spent as an indicator of media use (Shah, Kwak, & Holbert, 2001). They have argued that the reduction of media experience to the number of hours spent on particular media does not capture the diversity of media experiences available to individuals within specific media types (Shah, Kwak, & Holbert; Shah, McLeod, & Yoon, 2001). Different media use patterns serve different functions for the individual consumer (Scheufele & Shah, 2000; Shah, Kwak, & Holbert; Shah, McLeod, & Yoon).

According to this line of thinking, the functions served by a specific medium are stronger predictors of civic engagement than time spent on the medium. Following the functional perspective of media use, Shah, Kwak, & Holbert (2001) argued that informational uses of the Internet are positively associated with the production of social capital, while social capital is depleted by entertainment uses of the Internet. In summary, then, what is central to the relationship between Internet use and community participation in recent conceptualizations of media-community linkage is the function or purpose for which the Internet is used.

Community participation on the internet

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Community participation and internet use
  5. Community participation on the internet
  6. Crisis communication and community
  7. Theory of channel complementarity
  8. Method
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References

The idea that community could potentially be created in a mediated environment through some sort of network was first popularly recognized in “The Well” project (Matei, 2005; Sypher & Collins, 2001). Subsequent research has explored different characteristics of online communities (Sypher & Collins, 2001). Researchers have documented the characteristics of online communities and compared them with those of offline communities. In some instances, scholars of virtual communities have applied a social constructionist approach to understand the meanings and relationships created in online spaces (Ball-Rokeach, 1998). Researchers have demonstrated that communication in online communities through real-time chat modes often reflects an oral dimension (Reid, 1994; Ross, 1994).

Evident in much of the scholarly work on virtual communities is the displacement-based framework that situates virtual communities in direct competition with “real” communities (Mitchell, 1995; Rheingold, 1993; Slouka, 1995; Stoll, 1995). This has resulted in comparative studies pitting virtual communities against real communities, arguing that the emotions of real communities often cannot be communicated through virtual communities (Etzioni & Etzioni, 1997). The techno-deterministic frame manifested in this line of work conceptualizes the Internet as the ultimate transformer, either as a benefactor of humanity by building new community ties or as the nemesis of traditional community life. Criticizing the simplistic and decontextualized approach to virtual communities evident in much of the scholarship in this domain, Wellman (2002) writes:

All the books are parochial, seeing the Net as the ultimate transformer. They treat life online as an isolated social phenomenon, without taking into account how interactions on it fit with other aspects of people’s lives. They usually ignore the fact that people bring to their online interactions such baggage as their gender, stage in the life cycle, cultural milieu, socioeconomic status, and offline connections with others. (p. 446)

Missing from the dominant scholarly frame is a conceptualization of the context that surrounds human life, the ways in which individuals assimilate virtual and real communities in their lives. While the competitive framework looks for differences and explores those spaces where virtual and real communities exist in a state of tension, little research has examined those spaces where virtual and real communities share their audience and their functional needs.

The possibility of community participation in an online environment counters the traditional displacement-based argument about the relationship between community and technology. That community and technology can potentially share mutually satisfying roles is demonstrated by the existence of online communities and the networks formed around these communities (Baym, 1995, 1999; Healy, 1997; Sypher & Collins, 2001). Technology can provide the infrastructure for building communities, and virtual communities have the potential to reinforce offline communities, and vice versa.

The interpenetration and interdependence of technology and community is embodied in the Metamorphosis project, which explores the communication infrastructure of Los Angeles (Ball-Rokeach, 1985, 1998; Ball-Rokeach, Kim, & Matei, 2001). Based on media system dependency theory and the construction of a communication infrastructure at the core of the community, Ball-Rokeach examined the impact of mediated storytelling environments in an urban environment on the linkages among meanings at the interpersonal, micro, meso, and macro levels (Ball-Rokeach, 1985, 1998; Ball-Rokeach, Kim, & Matei). Ball-Rokeach and colleagues demonstrate that media infrastructure is a key component that binds communities together and thus offer us an alternative lens for examining the link between community and technology. In this article, I seek to examine the spaces of commonality between virtual and real communities that were shared during the period after the crisis of September 11. The theory of channel complementarity contributes to the infrastructure-based media relationships in media system dependency theory by examining congruencies in the consumption patterns of functionally similar media types.

Crisis communication and community

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Community participation and internet use
  5. Community participation on the internet
  6. Crisis communication and community
  7. Theory of channel complementarity
  8. Method
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References

A crisis that fundamentally threatens the fabric of the community creates intrinsically complex situations for community participation because the traditional avenues of participation need to be reconfigured and alternative avenues need to be developed in the midst of chaos (Cohen & Wills, 1985; Shavit, Fisher, & Koresh, 1994). Community members are thrust into the midst of events that shake the roots of their community. It is worth investigating what citizens do when faced with a crisis, particularly with respect to contributing to their community and seeking help from it, because the ability or inability to provide and receive support within a community determines the health of its citizens (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Especially important to interrogate is the activation of social networks and community ties in the wake of the crisis. In a society (the United States) where interpersonal trust and community participation were already on a steady decline (Putnam, 1995), did the events of 9/11 catalyze active community participation? More generally, how did a society with weakening social ties respond to the terrorist attacks and subsequent threats for further attacks?

The social support provided by members of a community to each other during a crisis is the subject of a growing body of research (Shavit, Fisher, & Koresh, 1994). Describing the relational networks that community participants draw on during situations of crisis, this work addresses important questions such as “Whom would you ask for money during an emergency?”“Whom would you ask for advice?” and “Whom would you talk to?” By locating sources of interpersonal support, researchers have constructed a diagrammatic profile of the networks in the community during a crisis (Shavit, Fisher, & Koresh, 1994). The depiction provides a representation of the social support networks that envelop individuals who find themselves in the midst of crisis situations.

Researchers have also explored the role of social support and personal relationships in sustaining the mental and physical health of the victims of a crisis (Cohen & Wills, 1985; Kaniasty & Norris, 1993). During disasters such as wars, tornadoes, and floods, social support plays a critical role in victims’ abilities to cope with and recover from disaster. An increase in social support or the perception of social support improves the morale of the victim and also generates better practical aid for the victim (Figley, 1985). The fact that community disasters often do not lead to large outbreaks of mental illness is a product of the ability of personal networks to mobilize spiritual, mental, and physical support for victims of the disaster (Cohen & Wills, 1985). During crises, victims most often turn to relatives, although having nonkin friends in one’s social support network is critical for both the immediate and long-term well-being of the individual (Kaniasty & Norris, 1993).

Not every member of a population receives and provides social support during a crisis to the same extent. Systematic differences have been reported within populations in the sources and forms of social support received by community members (Kaniasty & Norris, 1993; Shavit, Fisher, & Koresh, 1994). Socioeconomics emerges as a key factor in explaining population variance in social support, with individuals from higher socioeconomic backgrounds being more likely to enlist support from nonkin, and individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds begin more likely to enlist social support from family members and relatives (Cohen & Wills, 1985).

In summary, the literature on community participation during crises attests to the existence of systematic individual-level differences in the ways in which community members give and receive social support. At the crux of the individual differences line of research is the notion that individuals are likely to differ in their participation in social support networks in the face of a crisis. Some community members are more clearly oriented toward participating actively in their social support networks in response to a crisis than are other members in the community. While some individuals actively call upon their interpersonal networks when hit by a crisis, others do not actively seek out or participate in their interpersonal networks.

The next section reviews the theory of channel complementarity in discussing individual-level differences in participant choice of community activities.

Theory of channel complementarity

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Community participation and internet use
  5. Community participation on the internet
  6. Crisis communication and community
  7. Theory of channel complementarity
  8. Method
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References

The theory of channel complementarity provides a framework for understanding the relationship between the consumption of different channel types that share similar functions (Dutta-Bergman, 2004a, 2004b, 2005). The theory draws its conceptual foundation from selective exposure and uses and gratifications theories. Selective exposure theory points out that audience members selectively orient themselves toward particular types of media content (Zillmann & Bryant, 1985). Essential to the conceptualization of selective exposure theory is the role of the active audience. Audience members actively participate in the consumption of media types, choosing media forms that are most likely to serve the functions that are personally relevant to them. That individuals differ systematically in their orientations toward media types has been demonstrated in a plethora of communication contexts. Selective exposure theorists have shown that individuals with particular predispositions are driven toward the consumption of certain media types (Zillman & Bryant, 1985). Those media types that are consumed match the existing predispositions of the audience members and reinforce their predispositions. Selective exposure effects have been demonstrated in the realm of violent television viewership and value congruent media consumption.

Similar to the active audience focus of selective exposure theory, uses and gratifications theory states that individuals consume media types to fulfill their existing communicative needs (Rubin, 1994). Media consumption is conceptualized as the gratification of the felt needs of the consumer. In other words, audience initiative and activity drive media choice (Rubin). By arguing that “communication is goal-directed and purposive” (Rubin, p. 420), proponents of uses and gratifications theory locate the locus of media choice in consumer intentionality. Individual expectations about media types and the felt needs of the individuals drive them toward the consumption of specific media types (Rubin). Uses and gratifications researchers have demonstrated systematic population variances in different uses of media types.

Extrapolating the motivation-driven framework put forth in selective exposure and uses and gratification theories, the theory of channel complementarity focuses on the relationships among different communicative channels (Dutta-Bergman, 2004a, 2004b, 2005). It argues that channels that perform similar functions are likely to demonstrate congruency with one another (Dutta-Bergman, 2004a, 2004b, 2005). This manifests in congruency in the consumption of channel types based on the functions performed by these channels. In other words, the individual who feels the functional need to consume a specific channel also consumes other channels that perform the same function.

Since systematic individual-level differences exist within populations in the consumption of communicative channels, individuals who consume multiple channels that serve a specific functional need are likely to differ systematically from individuals who do not consume the package of communicative channels that do not offer the same specific function. For instance, individuals interested in politics are likely to read political sections of newspapers, follow political news on television, consume political radio, and visit politics-related websites.

In the realm of community participation, then, the theory of channel complementarity may be put forth to suggest systematic congruency in face-to-face and virtual participation of members of a community. It may be argued that those individuals who participated actively in online communities to communicate with others about the 9/11 attacks will also be more likely to participate actively in their face-to-face communities in response to the attacks, driven by their internal motivation to reach out to the community during crises. On the other hand, individuals not participating in online communities in response to the attacks will also be less likely to participate in offline community activities in response to the attacks. This results in a match in audience participation in both offline and online communities.

The difference between community participants and non-participants is based on a systematic difference within the population with respect to the overall orientation of members toward their communities. This notion of complementarity locates the Internet more as a tool in the communication among community members rather than attributing to it a competitive role as conceptualized in the techno-deterministic approaches embodied in displacement and cultivation theories. The following hypotheses are proposed to capture the complementarity in participation in offline and online communities:

H1a: Individuals who participated in online communities to post their thoughts about the September 11 attacks were more likely to be involved in local church groups after the attacks as compared to individuals who did not post their thoughts in online communities after the September 11 attacks.

H1b: Individuals who participated in online communities to post their thoughts about the September 11 attacks were more likely to attend a meeting to discuss the attacks as compared to individuals who did not post their thoughts in online communities after the September 11 attacks.

H1c: Individuals who participated in online communities to post their thoughts about the September 11 attacks were more likely to volunteer in response to the attacks as compared to individuals who did not post their thoughts in online communities after the September 11 attacks.

H1d: Individuals who participated in online communities to post their thoughts about the September 11 attacks were more likely to write a letter to the newspaper as compared to individuals who did not post their thoughts in online communities after the September 11 attacks.

H1e: Individuals who participated in online communities to post their thoughts about the September 11 attacks were more likely to sign a petition in response to the attacks as compared to individuals who did not post their thoughts in online communities after the September 11 attacks.

H1f: Individuals who participated in online communities to post their thoughts about the September 11 attacks were more likely to donate blood after the attacks as compared to individuals who did not post their thoughts in online communities after the September 11 attacks.

Similar hypotheses may be drawn as regards reading messages in online communities. The following hypotheses are proposed:

H2a: Individuals who participated in online communities to read the thoughts posted by others about the September 11 attacks were more likely to be involved in local church groups after the attacks as compared to individuals who did not read the thoughts posted by others in online communities after the September 11 attacks.

H2b: Individuals who participated in online communities to read the thoughts posted by others about the September 11 attacks were more likely to attend a meeting to discuss the attacks as compared to individuals who did not read the thoughts posted by others in online communities after the September 11 attacks.

H2c: Individuals who participated in online communities to read the thoughts posted by others about the September 11 attacks were more likely to volunteer in response to the attacks as compared to individuals who did not read the thoughts posted by others in online communities after the September 11 attacks.

H2d: Individuals who participated in online communities to read the thoughts posted by others about the September 11 attacks were more likely to write a letter to the newspaper as compared to individuals who did not read the thoughts posted by others in online communities after the September 11 attacks.

H2e: Individuals who participated in online communities to read the thoughts posted by others about the September 11 attacks were more likely to sign a petition in response to the attacks as compared to individuals who did not read the thoughts posted by others in online communities after the September 11 attacks.

H2f: Individuals who participated in online communities to read the thoughts posted by others about the September 11 attacks were more likely to donate blood after the attacks as compared to individuals who did not read the thoughts posted by others in online communities after the September 11 attacks.

Method

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Community participation and internet use
  5. Community participation on the internet
  6. Crisis communication and community
  7. Theory of channel complementarity
  8. Method
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References

The data used for testing the hypotheses were originally gathered by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and are publicly available for secondary analysis. The Pew Center conducts national surveys of the media and technology consumption of individuals. To avoid “listing” bias and provide representation of both listed and unlisted numbers, samples for the surveys are random digit samples of telephone numbers selected from telephone exchanges in the continental United States. The design of the samples ensures this representation by random generation of the last two digits of telephone numbers selected on the basis of their area code, telephone exchange, and number. Also, the number of telephone numbers randomly sampled from within a given county is proportional to that county’s share of telephone numbers in the U.S. The survey used in this study was conducted in October, 2001, following the attacks of 9/11.

Participation in telephone-based surveys tends to vary for different subgroups of the population, leading to nonresponse biases. In other words, some groups within the population, owing to their orientation, are particularly likely to participate in such surveys as compared to other groups. In order to compensate for these known biases, the Pew Research Center uses a weighing technique: The sample data are weighted in the analysis and the demographic weighting parameters are derived from a special analysis of the most recently available Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. An iterative technique that simultaneously balances the distributions of all weighting parameters is used to derive the weights. The entire sample was weighted on age, sex, race/ethnicity, income, and household size to reflect the U.S. Census population. Usable data were obtained from 1301 individuals. After weighting the data, the mean age of the respondents of the study was 46.36 (S.D.= 18.86). The sample was comprised of 49% men and 51% women.

Measurement

In order to measure the use of the Internet for online community communication in response to the 9/11 attacks, the Pew survey told the respondents, “Now I’d like to ask some questions related to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and on the Pentagon in Washington and the aftermath of the attacks on September 11. What about bulletin boards, chat rooms, or email listservs? Thinking about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, have you …” The following items measured online community participation in response to the attacks: (a) “posted your own thoughts and comments about the attacks on a web site bulletin board, in a chat room or on an email listserv?” and (b) “read others’ thoughts and comments about the attacks on a web site bulletin board, in a chat room or on an email listserv?” Responses were measured in a dichotomous yes/no format.

To measure community participation in response to the attacks, the following questions were asked of the respondents, “Thinking about other things that you personally have done in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, have you …” Specific items measuring community participation were (a) “attended a religious service,” (b) “attended a meeting to discuss the attacks and their aftermath,” (c) “signed a petition,” (d) “written about your views to a newspaper or other news organization,” and (e) “volunteered to help in some way in the relief effort?” Responses were measured in a dichotomous yes/no format.

Results

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Community participation and internet use
  5. Community participation on the internet
  6. Crisis communication and community
  7. Theory of channel complementarity
  8. Method
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References

The hypotheses compared online community participants with nonparticipants in the context of face-to-face community participation. Therefore, cross-tabulations were conducted to test the hypotheses (see Table 1). The cross-tabulations revealed that online community participants indeed differed from nonparticipants in their face-to-face community participation.

Table 1.  Comparison of online and real community participation
Online Community Posted thoughtsReal Community ParticipationX2
YesNo
  1. * p < .05; ** p < .001.

 Attended Religious Service 
Yes15 (36.6%)26 (63.4%).92
No285 (44.3%)359 (55.7%)
 Attended Meeting 
Yes14 (34.1%)27 (65.9%)15.01**
No81 (12.6%)563 (87.4%)
 Volunteered 
Yes20 (48.8%)21 (51.2%)21.54**
No120 (18.6%)524 (81.4%)
 Written to Newspaper 
Yes10 (23.8%)32 (76.2%)38.59**
No21 (3.3%)623 (96.7%)
 Signed Petition 
Yes4 (9.8%)37 (3.1%)5.04*
No20 (3.1%)624 (96.9%)
 Donated Blood 
Yes14 (34.1%)27 (65.9%)3.16
No143 (22.2%)500 (77.6%)

H1a stated that individuals who posted their thoughts about the attacks on online communities would be more likely to attend religious services as compared to individuals who did not post their thoughts about the attacks on online communities. The hypothesis was not supported by the data; no significant differences were observed between individuals who posted their thoughts and individuals who did not post their thoughts on online communities with respect to attendance of religious services. The results supported hypothesis 1b, however, with those who posted their thoughts on web site bulletin boards, chat rooms, and email listservs being significantly more likely to attend a meeting to discuss the attacks as compared to those who did not post their thoughts in online communities.

According to hypothesis 1c, online participants who posted their thoughts on the Internet are more likely to volunteer in relief efforts as compared to their counterparts. The cross-tabulation generated support for the hypothesis, with online community participants being significantly more likely to volunteer as compared to nonparticipants. In support of hypothesis 1d, individuals who posted their thoughts on bulletin boards, chat rooms, and listservs were significantly more likely to write about their views to a newspaper or other news organization as compared to individuals who did not post their thoughts on online venues. While hypothesis 1e differentiating between online community participants and nonparticipants in the domain of signing a petition was supported by the data, hypothesis 1f, articulating a difference between participants and nonparticipants in the realm of blood donation, was not supported.

H2a through H2f posited that there would be differences between individuals who read others’ thoughts about the attacks on a web site bulletin board, chat room, or email listserv, and individuals who did not read thoughts posted by others in online venues such as bulletin boards, chat rooms, or listservs. Hypothesis 2a was not supported, with no significant difference being detected between online community participants and nonparticipants in the realm of participation in religious services (see Table 2). The results did, however, support hypothesis 2b, with individuals who read others’ thoughts about the attacks being more likely to attend a meeting to discuss the attacks as compared to individuals who did not read the thoughts posted by others in online communities. Hypothesis 2c was also supported, showing complementarity between the readership of the thoughts posted by others in online communities and volunteerism.

Table 2.  Comparison of online and real community participation
Online Community Posted thoughtsReal Community ParticipationX2
YesNo
  1. *p < .05; **p < .001.

 Attended Religious Service 
Yes79 (40.9%)114 (59.1%).85
No220 (44.8%)271 (55.2%)
 Attended Meeting* 
Yes46 (23.8%)147 (76.2%)22.34**
No49 (10%)443 (90%)
 Volunteered* 
Yes58 (29.9%)136 (70.1%)14.99**
No82 (16.7%)410 (83.3%)
 Written to Newspaper* 
Yes24 (12.4%)169 (87.6%)38.91**
No7 (1.4%)485 (98.6%)
 Signed Petition* 
Yes11 (5.7%)183 (94.3%)3.78
No13 (2.6%)479 (97.4%)
 Donated Blood* 
Yes54 (28%)139 (72%)4.43
No10 2(20.8%)388 (79%)

H2d posited that those consumers who read the thoughts posted by others in online communities will be more likely to write about their views to a newspaper or news organization. The cross-tabulations revealed support for the hypothesis, with the readers of online thoughts being significantly more likely to write to newspapers and other news organizations than their counterparts. Differentiating between online community participants and nonparticipants as regards signing a petition, H2e stated that participants will be significantly more likely to sign a petition; this was supported by the data. Hypothesis 2f posited a difference between participants and nonparticipants in the realm of blood donation; this was not supported by the data.

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Community participation and internet use
  5. Community participation on the internet
  6. Crisis communication and community
  7. Theory of channel complementarity
  8. Method
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References

What role does the Internet play in participation in online and offline communities for the purpose of sharing thoughts and opinions in response to a crisis? This article set out to examine the role of the Internet in the way individuals participated in their offline communities in response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11. It specifically looked at the relationship between individual participation in online and offline communities, and proposed a match in online and offline community participation based on the theory of channel complementarity (Dutta-Bergman, 2004a, 2004b, 2005). The results demonstrated support for the theory; individuals who participated in online communities by posting their thoughts about the attacks and by reading the thoughts posted by others about the attacks were also typically more likely to share their thoughts and ideas with the members of their local communities. Online community participation was complementary with face-to-face community participation (Dutta-Bergman, 2004a, 2004b, 2005).

Supporting the idea of individual differences that drives channel complementarity, it was observed that individuals within populations indeed systematically differ in their orientation toward participating in their communities in the wake of 9/11. More specifically, individuals who posted their thoughts in online communities were significantly more likely to attend a meeting to discuss the attacks, to volunteer in relief efforts, to write about their views to a newspaper or other news organization, and to sign a petition regarding the attacks as compared to those other individuals who did not post their thoughts in online communities. No significant differences were found in the realm of attending religious services or donating blood. This may be a reflection of the noncommunicative nature of these activities.

The results demonstrated similar complementarity in the realm of reading the thoughts of other people posted on online communities. Whereas a match between online and offline community participation was observed in the realm of attending meetings to discuss the attacks, writing about views to a newspaper or other news organization, signing a petition regarding the attacks, and volunteering, no significant differences were detected between participants of online communities and nonparticipants as regards attending religious services or donating blood.

The common theme that joins online and offline community participation is the individual’s orientation toward participating in the community with respect to an important crisis. The results bring to the surface a systematic individual-level difference in community participation; highly participatory individuals use a wide variety of channels to satisfy their needs for participating in the community, as compared to less participatory individuals. Hence, congruence is observed in the consumption of the different channels that serve the function of community participation. The results ultimately provide support for individual-level differences within the population with respect to how individuals respond to crises. Those individuals who reach out to their real communities when struck by a crisis also reach out to their online networks for garnering social support and gathering information, and vice versa.

These findings and the support they provide for the theory of channel complementarity emphasize the importance of studying the context that links technology and community (Ball-Rokeach, 1985, 1998; Dutta-Bergman, 2004a, 2004b, 2005). Technology serves as a facilitator, as an infrastructural tool that gets used by actively engaged individuals. The same individuals who participate in their offline communities also incorporate technology as a means for community participation. It is by emphasizing those community contexts within which technological infrastructures participate in community building and those community resources that are essential to build infrastructures that we can begin to capture the complexity of the Internet and its relationship to society (Ball-Rokeach, 1985, 1998). Future research should explore the role of the Internet in the construction of meaning within offline communities that are threatened by crises.

One of the limitations of this study is in its reliance on secondary data. While secondary data often provide an exploratory starting point for theory building and testing, they also suffer from the limitation of not providing a comprehensive framework for theory testing. Important questions, critical to the theory, get left out. The data drive the research questions and theoretical foundations instead of being driven by the theory. In this vein, it is important to acknowledge that this article evokes additional questions that are not answered in these pages. Additional research is needed to narrate the complementary relationship between new and traditional media in specific functional domains. Finally, future research needs to document the role played by the nature of the crisis in shaping the relationship between offline community and technology.

About the Author
  1. Mohan J. Dutta-Bergman is Associate Professor of Communication at Purdue University. His research focuses on the socioeconomic correlates of technology access and use, the relationship between technology and community, and the uses of technologies in healthcare contexts.

    Address: Department of Communication, Purdue University, 100 N. University Street, West Lafayette, IN 47907 USA

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Community participation and internet use
  5. Community participation on the internet
  6. Crisis communication and community
  7. Theory of channel complementarity
  8. Method
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References
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