Vive Les Roses!: The Architecture of Commitment in an Online Pregnancy and Mothering Group
This article presents an ethnographic analysis of an often-overlooked element of social capital—commitment—on Coming up Roses, an online pregnancy and mothering support group. Specifically, it examines the architecture of commitment: the ways in which the site’s social and technical design influences the commitment that members feel toward the site and one another. In so doing, this account illuminates how social life and technical life mutually construct one another in online support environments. It also demonstrates that a site’s social and technical features can produce multiple and even contradictory effects, depending on the social and historical contexts in which users engage it.
Where we’ll be years from now? I was lying in bed last night thinking, and wondering if in 20 years we will still have a forum…Do you think we’ll all stick together through our children’s teenage years? Do you think we’ll come to a point where we’re too “old” for this? Or do you think we’ll still be on bragging about our grandbabies…? I soooo hope so ♡!!!! (Celina, June 23, 2006)
In November 2005, some 100 women left a pregnancy and mothering support group named Stork Talk to form a new one, Coming up Roses.1 Many of the women did so because they could no longer tolerate the moderating style of Susan, Stork Talk’s sole administrator. Others left not so much because of Susan but because they wanted to stay connected to those who started the new site. A number of other women who joined Coming up Roses had no intention of leaving Stork Talk; they wanted to remain in contact with their friends on both sites or to watch the social drama that unfolded because of the split. Within the week, however, Susan banned the majority of women who had joined Coming up Roses from Stork Talk, including those who had not wanted to leave for good. As a result, the founding members of Coming up Roses had to regroup permanently within this new social and technical space, whether that was their initial intent or not.
The sense of we-ness (Cooks, Paredes, & Scharrer, 2002) that the women initially forged at Stork Talk grew stronger on the new site. At first, they bonded over their shared dislike of Susan and her en masse bans. Over time, however, this we-ness became less about their shared past on Stork Talk and more about their developing sense of collective identity as “The Roses,” the term that members affectionately called themselves. Leaving Stork Talk behind, the women made the new website a place of their own, complete with its own identity, culture, social norms, and group boundaries. Most of the women valued the site and many expressed hopes that it would continue long after their children had grown up. “Vive Les Roses!,” proclaimed Ali when the site first started. Soon, others embraced this statement. Eventually, it became the group’s slogan.
A growing body of research has considered the Internet’s capacity to foster social capital, with a number of studies focusing on its presence in online support groups. I contribute to this research by examining the presence of commitment in Coming up Roses. Specifically, I examine the architecture of commitment in Coming up Roses—that is, the ways in which the site’s social and technical design both fosters and hinders the development of members’ commitment toward the group. To be sure, members say that they joined and remain on the site because of the information and support they have received, as well as the friends they have made. At the same time, the site’s design has also influenced members’ commitment. For the most part, it has enhanced members’ abilities to garner information, seek and give support, form social ties, and develop a sense of safety and security regarding the site. Yet it also has the potential to hinder members’ commitment in the long run.
This ethnographic analysis provides a close look at the complex ways in which social life and technical life mutually construct one another in an active and evolving online pregnancy and mothering support group. As I discuss, social and therapeutic benefits from support group participation depend partly on members’ commitment to their groups. Thus, it is important to examine how site design can influence such commitment. Furthermore, my analysis demonstrates that a site’s social and technical features can have multiple and even contradictory effects, depending on the social and historical contexts in which users engage it.
The Architecture of Commitment
Coming up Roses is one of thousands of support groups that have formed online for countless types of health and life issues. Most groups are predominantly geared toward affected persons, their families, or both. Some of these groups exist on website discussion boards; others exist on email listservs, chat rooms, and synthetic virtual worlds. An increasing number rely on multiple Internet media. Coming up Roses, for instance, is a website discussion board that also provides members with opportunities to meet in a chat room, as well as to communicate via email and personal messaging.
Functioning as biosocialities (Rabinow, 1996) and technosocialities (Esbocar, 1994), online support groups are simultaneously social, cultural, technical, and therapeutic spaces. Biosociality refers to the cultural values, discourses, practices, communities, and identities that form among affected persons, their loved ones, health professionals, and other relevant persons and organizations in relation to a health condition or life issue. A technosociality, in contrast, is a technologically-mediated social group or network. This study addresses the intersections between the biosocial and technosocial dimensions of Coming up Roses by focusing on the presence of social capital within it. Social capital consists of “resources embedded in a social structure that are accessed and/or mobilized in purposive actions” (Lin, 2001, p. 29). It is the “material” that keeps social structures such as support groups together and determines their strength; the more social capital a group possesses, the stronger and healthier the group is (Bourdieu, 1978; Malaby, 2006). Key elements of social capital include strong ties, norms of reciprocity, interpersonal trust, shared values, group membership, and collective identity (Putnam, 2000).
Scholars have traditionally viewed social capital as important to offline groups. Increasingly, however, they have also applied the concept to the study of the Internet. Although some observers disagree (Putnam, 2000), many have argued that the Internet has the potential to foster social capital, particularly among those who use it for social, interpersonal, and community-building purposes (Haythornthwaite & Wellman, 2002; Quan-Haase, Wellman, Witte, & Hampton, 2002; Wellman, Quan-Haase, & Hampton, 2001). When it comes to online support groups, researchers have highlighted the presence of social capital in sites for pregnancy and mothering (Drentea & Moren-Cross, 2005; Miyata, 2002) and for breast cancer (Radin, 2006). Moreover, studies that do not discuss social capital per se have found high levels of trust, reciprocity, and interpersonal ties in online support sites (Cooks et al., 2001; O’Connor & Madge, 2004; Orgad, 2005a; Rogers & Chen, 2005).
The study of social capital in online support groups is important in its own right, as such groups signify one type of Internet space in which individuals meet and socialize with others. Just as importantly, the study of social capital in these groups can illuminate their therapeutic potential. Recent studies (Kawachi & Berkman, 1999; Kawachi, Kennedy, & Glass, 1999; Putnam, 2000) have demonstrated that social capital in offline communities and social networks is associated with greater individual health. Similarly, studies have found that social capital in online support groups provides emotional and psychological benefits to participants (Drentea & Moren-Cross, 2005; Miyata, 2002; Radin, 2006).
Coming up Roses’ members have provided one another with emotional and instrumental support (Drentea & Moren-Cross, 2005) when it comes to their efforts to conceive, their pregnancies, and their transitions into motherhood. They have cultivated a sense of thick trust (Radin, 2006) in one another and the group. They have developed a collective identity and worked to protect the group’s boundaries in ways that have promoted support and trust. Moreover, they have forged interpersonal bonds on the site that extend not only to the offline lives of members but also to the offline existence of the group itself. Members have met for lunch, mailed one another books and CDs, and organized regional “Rose Parties.” These offline encounters, in turn, have enhanced the production of social capital on the site itself.
My account builds on previous research in two ways. First, I focus on a relatively neglected element of social capital—commitment. By commitment, I mean the feelings of liking, attachment, loyalty, and obligation that members hold toward one another and the site (Kollock, 1994; Yamagishi, Cook, & Watanabe, 1998). I also refer to members’“consistent lines of activity” (Becker, 1960, p. 32) on the site and toward one another. Although it receives less scholarly attention than other elements, commitment is an important element of social capital (Wellman, Quan-Haase, Witte, & Hampton, 2001). Group members must make consistent and ongoing efforts to cultivate and sustain other aspects of social capital. In turn, these other aspects of social capital foster members’ commitment to the long term well-being of the group and one another. In the context of support groups, commitment can also give rise to the interpersonal qualities that members need in order to give and receive support effectively (Turner & Saunders, 1990; Wolkomir, 2001).
This study also builds on previous research by analyzing the significance of Coming up Roses’ architecture for members’ commitment to the group. By architecture, I mean the site’s social and technical design. Social design refers to the site’s official and unofficial guidelines for group participation. In particular, it refers to the site’s governance structure, division of labor, membership criteria, and discussion parameters. Technical design, in contrast, refers to the site’s structure and organization, as well as the software and hardware that support it.2 It includes features such as spatial and temporal organization, size, identification and registration procedures, administrator and moderator capabilities, graphics capabilities, server location, navigability, and user options. Social design and technical design illuminate different facets of the site’s architecture, but are often inextricably linked. On Coming up Roses, the rules and guidelines for participation are not simply discursive constructs; they are also embedded within the site’s structure. Conversely, the site’s technical features have not only shaped the ways in which members interact with the site and with one another, they have also influenced members’ beliefs about the type of social and therapeutic space they want Coming up Roses to be, as well as their efforts to create such a space.
A number of studies have discussed the relationships between site design and the social dynamics of online support groups, including those for asthma (Kirshner, 2003), breast cancer (Orgad, 2005a, 2005b; Radin, 2006), personal growth (Cooks et al., 2001), alcoholism (Van Lear, Sheenan, Withers, & Walker, 2005), and pregnancy, mothering, and family (Koerber, 2001; Rashley, 2005; Valaitis & Sword, 2005; Worthington, 2005). Few studies, however, have discussed the topic of online architecture in the context of social capital, particularly commitment.
In conducting this analysis, I take a constructionist approach. Online spaces both enable and constrain forms of thought, behavior, and interaction due to their in built values and ideologies (Boczkowski, 2005; Lessig, 1999; Taylor, 2006). At the same time, the significance of these technologies depends on the social contexts in which users incorporate them into their daily lives (Boczkowski, 2005; Hine, 2003; Holloway &Valentine, 2003). Moreover, online group norms, needs, and identities develop and evolve over time (Postmes, Spears, & Lea 2000). Thus, I highlight not only why members created Coming up Roses and designed it in particular ways but also what meanings members have given to its architecture as a result of their everyday and ongoing interactions with it.
This study is based on research that I conducted on Coming up Roses from January 2006 to September 2006, with brief follow-up research in January 2007. My familiarity with the site, however, goes back to January 2005, when I joined Stork Talk to meet women like me who were trying to conceive. After participating on Stork Talk, leaving it to join Coming up Roses, and remaining a member of the latter site, I became interested in why other members felt committed to the site. To facilitate my research, the site’s head moderator created a forum devoted to my project. In the forum, I posted a project description, interview questions, an informed consent document, updates about the project’s status, and discussion questions for the entire group. I also answered questions about the study that members posted. Given that I was a longtime member of the group, the site administrators were happy to assist me. Furthermore, many members expressed enthusiasm for the project, with only one woman expressing concern to me about it. Once I and others explained the study to her, she felt more comfortable with it.
My primary research method was ethnography. By providing an in-depth look at how site architecture has influenced members’ commitment within a particular support group, this approach allows me demonstrate why such architecture matters to the study of online commitment. In taking this approach, I analyzed Coming up Roses as both a culture and a cultural artifact (Hine, 2003). I examined the group as its own social space, complete with its own history, culture, boundaries, identity, and social norms, but I also studied the group as an entity that functions within broader contexts relating to contemporary cultures of pregnancy and motherhood and the increasing digitization of everyday life.
The bulk of my ethnographic research consisted of studying the social and technical structure of the site, reading over 14,000 messages, analyzing members’ personal profiles and signatures, and participating on the site by posting messages and responding to others. Some of my ethnographic research also took place “offsite,” however, as I participated in activities such as exchanging emails and books with members, and meeting members in person for lunch, dinner, and family events.3 Such participation strengthened my research by helping me to understand better the group’s online and offline dimensions, the types of interpersonal bonds that women form online, and the ways in which women’s online and offline experiences intertwine.
I also conducted 16 email interviews with site administrators, moderators, and participants. These interviews supplemented the findings obtained through ethnographic observation. Additionally, I posted five open-ended questions on the website. Twenty-four members—seven of whom participated in the email interviews—answered one or more of the questions, leading to several online discussions about the site’s social dynamics. Finally, I collected demographic information on the site’s registered users and tabulated the number of forums, discussion threads, posts, and new members on the site at semi-weekly intervals.
Expressions of Commitment on Coming up Roses
Chelsea, a 24 year-old stay-at-home mother of a two-year old son, created Coming up Roses on November 8, 2005. She started the site because she felt that she “could do what Susan did, only better.” Due to various technical problems, the site switched server locations (and, consequently, website addresses) three more times during its first six months. Starting with the site’s third version, another member, Tina, and her husband, Robert, became co-administrators with Chelsea.
As of September 7, 2006, the site had 176 registered members. Although most are from the United States, they also hail from Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom, France, and New Zealand. The vast majority of members are white, middle class to upper-middle class, and in heterosexual marriages. Members’ ages range from 22 to 45, with most falling into the 25 to 35 bracket. The group includes women who work full-time outside of the home, stay-at-home mothers who hold part-time jobs, and full-time stay-at-home mothers. Members who hold positions outside the home work in professions such as teaching, nursing, academia, graphic design, art, and bookkeeping.
Women have come to the site at various stages: when trying to conceive, when pregnant, and when caring for babies, toddlers, young children, and teens. The site also includes members who are trying to adopt or who have already adopted, members who are struggling with infertility, women who are taking a break from trying to conceive, and mothers who have no intention of getting pregnant again. To accommodate the diverse needs of these women, the site offers 20 discussion forums on topics such as conception, pregnancy, adoption, and parenting. It offers just as many forums devoted to topics such as relationships, pets, and hobbies.
Coming up Roses provides a useful case in studying the significance of site architecture for members’ commitment to their online support groups. In many ways, the site is typical of such groups. Members turn to it for information and support; they come to rely on one another for their needs; and they form close ties with one another that sometimes extend into their offline lives. At the same time, the site’s specific history makes it particularly useful to examine. The members of Coming up Roses came together to form the site as an alternative to another site that had social and technical features they disliked. Thus, the site not only provides a dramatic illustration of online commitment, it also provides an example of the importance of site design to such commitment. In addition, the unusual history of the site offers a window into examining how a support group’s evolving social contexts help to shape the relationship between site design and commitment.
During their time on Coming up Roses, members have expressed their commitment in various ways. Most obviously, it is reflected in their posts when they express their hope that the site will be around for years to come and when they joke that at some point they will need to start a forum to discuss their grandchildren. These feelings of commitment are also exemplified by the site’s slogan, “Vive Les Roses!,” which is prominently located on the site’s home page, as well as in members’ signatures and posts.
Members’ commitment is evident in their usage patterns, as well. Consider their posting rates on the fourth version of Coming up Roses, which began on May 5, 2006.4 By September 7, its 176 members had set up 46 forums, started 3,071 threads, and written 30,476 posts. On average, members had collectively started 191 new discussion threads and written 1,905 new posts per week. Individual members’ posting figures from the site’s first four months range from 0 messages to 1,426 messages, with an average of 173 posts per member (or 10.8 posts per member per week). Even the members who had written few, if any, messages often participated by logging on and reading what others posted. Of the 50 members who posted fewer than 10 messages in the site’s first four months, 20 had logged onto the site during the last two weeks of my data collection, and 30 had logged in during the last month of collection. Many members have joked that they are “Rose addicts;” when unable to log in for even a couple of days due to computer breakdowns, server malfunctions, or busy schedules, they have lamented their “Rose withdrawal.”
Members have further demonstrated their commitment through their technical efforts. The creation and maintenance of Coming up Roses have not been easy. When Chelsea developed the site, she envisioned it as an alternative space for Stork Talk members. Informing these women about Coming up Roses proved difficult, however, as Susan banned most members who joined Coming up Roses and prohibited discussion about the group on her site. Consequently, Chelsea and other women worked to ensure that as many Stork Talk members as possible knew about each of the site’s moves, even if that meant that they had to email the less active participants, call them on the telephone, and search for their contact information on the Internet. After making the transition to Coming up Roses, the majority of members followed the new site as it switched locations three additional times. In making each of these moves, members had to re-register, learn to navigate a new site, and develop the site-specific skills needed to create “signatures,” post photos, and insert hyperlinks to other websites.5 They also had to cultivate patience while the administrators fixed technical glitches in the new sites that caused members’ computers to slow down and occasionally crash.
Several social, cultural, and economic factors provide a framework for understanding why members of Coming up Roses are so committed to the group. The majority of members fit the demographic profile of the types of individuals—female, white, and economically advantaged—most likely to rely on the Internet for health information and support, particularly pertaining to pregnancy and family (Fallows, 2005; Fox, 2006). The relatively high socioeconomic status of most members has also provided them with the means to participate actively and consistently in the group. The administrators have the time, money, and skills to set up the site, manage its activity, host it, and build new site components. Furthermore, members participate on the site via their home computers and the computers that they use at work and school. Those who own laptops log onto the site while relaxing in coffee shops, traveling, and recuperating in the hospital after giving birth. Most members own the digital cameras and scanners needed to take and download photos of themselves and their family onto the site.
The contemporary culture of pregnancy and motherhood also shapes members’ commitment to the group. In the United States and other industrialized nations, women who are trying to conceive, pregnant women, and new mothers have less time and fewer opportunities to receive support from offline friends, family members, and neighbors than did women from previous generations. The breakdown of women’s offline social networks reflected factors such as the growing proportion of women who work outside of the home and the increasing number of adult women who live far from their parents and other family members (Drentea & Moren-Cross, 2005; Taylor, Layne, & Wozniak, 2004). Additionally, women who receive information from their mothers may see their advice as out of date or irrelevant given that cultural beliefs, as well as biomedical knowledge and practices, regarding pregnancy, infertility, and mothering have changed dramatically over the past 30 years (Floyd-Davis & Dumit, 1998; O’Connor & Madge, 2004; Taylor et al., 2004).
Members of Coming up Roses mentioned these factors when explaining their motivation for joining and remaining on the site. Laney explains:
This forum…fills a very clear void in my life, in terms of female interaction. I work during the week, and on the weekends usually see some friend with kids for maybe 2 hours total, not even every weekend. I am not a person who spends hours on the phone talking to girlfriends. So only on Coming up Roses do I get to discuss things like potty training and teething and crawling and food intake.
Ilene, who found the group helpful when she and her husband experienced fertility problems, states:
I needed real-life information based on others’ experiences…and not experience from all my friends who got knocked up without even trying…as you know, most people don’t have a clue about infertility and all the possible things that could be wrong…Offline people say things like, “Oh, just relax, it’ll happen. You’re just thinking too much” which does not help AT ALL. At least here I can be free and open with all of my hopes, fears, frustrations and questions, and not feel judged or looked down upon for “being too anal about it.”
Members’ commitment to Coming up Roses, however, cannot be attributed entirely to these aforementioned conditions. Numerous studies (Baym, 2000; Herring 1994, 1996; Orgad, 2005a; Tiernan, 2002) have argued that women in predominantly female or women-only online spaces tend to forge emotional connections with other participants and engage in styles of interaction that emphasize mutual support and interpersonal harmony. To foster these dynamics, participants often work to create a safe space in which they feel that they can share their thoughts and feelings without judgment or reprisal. Additionally, many women worry about untrustworthy people obtaining the personal information that they share online (Fallows, 2005; White, Shade, & Brayton, 2001). Indeed, the relative absence of a supportive, respectful, and secure environment on Stork Talk led members to create Coming up Roses in the first place. Thus, it is important to consider how Coming up Roses’ social and technical design has enhanced members’ commitment by embodying a genderscript (Rommes, Van Oost, & Oudshoorn, 2001) reflecting these female-oriented values.
In my research, I identified numerous site features that have shaped and been shaped by members’ commitment to the group. I focus on two sets of features: moderation style and discussion parameters, and membership policies.
Moderation Style and Discussion Parameters
In a study of online asthma support groups, Kirshner (2003) found that whether a group was moderated influenced the content of messages, as well as the types of support sought and provided. Building on this account, my research indicates that how a group is moderated also influences the ways in which members participate in it. More specifically, the discussion parameters laid out by Coming up Roses’ co-administrators, as well as their approach toward managing the content of members’ posts, play an important role in the creation and maintenance of commitment on the site. This role is best understood when viewed in comparison to the moderation style and discussion parameters on Stork Talk.
The issue of site moderation is one of the main reasons why Chelsea and others decided to leave Stork Talk and establish Coming up Roses. On Stork Talk, Susan was the site’s sole administrator and moderator. Due to her religious and personal beliefs, she prohibited members from discussing certain topics and promoting views with which she disagreed. Women coping with postpartum depression, for example, could not discuss their use of anti-depressants or psychotherapy as means for coping with their illness. Nor could women dealing with depression and anxiety discuss the potential benefits from staying on anti-depressants during their pregnancy. Furthermore, Susan prohibited women from discussing non-procreative sexual practices and sex toys, even when women had questions about whether the use of such devices was safe during pregnancy. At the same time, she often posted articles that espoused her views on these subjects, sometimes locking the posts so that people could not reply. When members critiqued Susan’s policies, she warned them not to post such criticisms again, deleted their posts, and, in some cases, banned them from the site.
Despite their dislike of Susan’s moderation style, many women stayed on because of one another. Jane notes, “I was on the edge of leaving Stork Talk due to the administrator, but stayed on only because I quickly connected to all of the women currently tying to conceive and a handful of other active members throughout the site.” On that morning in early November, however, a series of contentious exchanges between Susan and several longtime participants led to the former banning the latter. For some members, this was the final straw. Chelsea and a dozen others—including those who had been banned—discussed via email their desire to start a new site. Later that same day, Chelsea located a commercial server that would host the group for free, set up a skeleton site, and, with the help of those who already knew about the new site, began contacting Stork Talk members to invite them to join Coming up Roses. In the first week, over 100 women from Stork Talk had registered on the new site.
One of the first things that Chelsea did in creating Coming up Roses was establish participation guidelines. To avoid the type of restrictive discussion climate on Stork Talk, Chelsea emphasized that members were free to discuss any topic they pleased and that she would only intervene as moderator in highly specific situations: “We are all adults so common sense is really all that’s required. Debates are welcome as long as the language stays under control and we remain civil. Everyone has a right to post how they feel about ANY subject. As long as we are not degrading any other Members…I will not edit someone else’s posts, unless they violate one of these rules. I will not delete or lock a post without a very good reason and full explanation.”
The participation guidelines that Chelsea established enabled members to discuss topics and share opinions prohibited on Stork Talk. Within a week members had compared their sexual preferences and practices and had disclosed their past or current use of psychiatric medications. This latter topic led to a particularly spirited conversation, with some members joking that they were “coming out of the closet” regarding their use of these medications. Others shared their positive experiences with psychotherapy.
These new guidelines also expanded the types of discourses (Orgad, 2005a) in which members could engage. On Stork Talk, Susan encouraged members to provide support and advice to one another. At the same time, she discouraged members from expressing too much negativity about their life circumstances. She believed that “venting” led members to wallow in self-pity. Consequently, members often felt uncomfortable—and sometimes avoided—discussing difficult feelings. When one member struggling with infertility posted that she felt jealousy toward a pregnant friend, Susan responded by congratulating her friend. Soon after Coming up Roses launched, several members suggested that the site offer a “pity party” forum in which women could express their everyday frustrations. The resulting Venting/Pity Party Forum is the third most active non-pregnancy and non-mothering forum on the site (behind Random Topics and Cleaning/Organization).
Coming up Roses’ participation guidelines have also facilitated a sense of tolerance and respect that members felt did not exist on Stork Talk. On the latter site, women disliked how Susan criticized them if she disagreed with their parenting techniques, lifestyle, dietary choices, or health practices. Many members also felt that Susan tried to push her own beliefs about health and medicine onto them. As the site’s primary moderator, Chelsea has made an active effort not to replicate what she perceived as Susan’s heavy-handed style: “As a site participant, I do answer posts exactly how I feel. Then, before I submit that post, I often have to re-read and edit it as site administrator. I don’t feel like I have to censor myself, but there are things that are acceptable for me to say, and some that aren’t.” Tina, the site’s co-administrator, has similar thoughts: “I just can’t speak my mind anymore. When I talk, I am talking as the administrator. I have had a couple of incidents where I wanted to scream but did not.”
Chelsea and Tina are not the only ones who have perpetuated a culture of respect on Coming up Roses; so, too, have the site’s other members. One way in which they have cultivated this respect is by showing support for one another’s beliefs and actions. During the “coming out” discussion regarding psychiatric drugs, for instance, many women chimed in to say that although they had never used such drugs, they supported those who did. Another way in which members have cultivated respect relates to how they have handled differences and disagreements. Despite the group’s demographic similarities, participants on Coming up Roses constitute a socially, politically, professionally, and religiously diverse group. Thus, it should come as no surprise that they hold diverse opinions about subjects such as pregnancy, parenting, politics, and society. Given that members did not feel that they could disagree with Susan when she posted her own views on such topics without facing censorship or banning, they have worked to create a space where members can state their opinions without reprisal.
Members started to participate in debates frequently enough that Chelsea established a separate Debates/Discussions Forum, which has existed on all four versions of the site. In this forum, members have debated topics related to breastfeeding, abortion, the war in Iraq, and stem cell research. One reason why Chelsea created this forum—as opposed to letting members continue to debate controversial topics in other forums—was to build a culture of respect into the site’s structure. The creation of this forum reflected the belief held by Chelsea and other members that it was acceptable to discuss controversial topics on the site and that members had enough maturity to debate in a supportive manner. At the same time, the building of a separate debate forum also legitimized respect for members who dislike such debates and prefer to avoid them.
Coming up Roses’ moderation style and discussion parameters have promoted members’ commitment to the group in various ways. The less restrictive discussion culture has created a space where people feel that they can talk about anything, be themselves, and learn to trust one another. Additionally, many of the topics that members can now freely discuss—including their frustrations with infertility and options to combat post-partum depression—are ones that they do not raise with just anybody. Thus, members have found the act of sharing such experiences with one another cathartic, particularly when they have received support, empathy, and encouragement. In other words, these site features make the women feel safe (Mitra, 2006). As Jill describes, “I remember when I would post at Stork Talk, I would have to sit and re-read what I typed, and re-word what I felt for fear that I would be judged, or my post deleted…When I found Coming up Roses…I could finally say what was on my mind, or ask ridiculous questions and be with the same caring people that I basically raised my daughter with from her earliest days.”
The site’s culture of respect has further enhanced members’ commitment by enabling them to form bonds with people who are different from themselves.6 Moira, who lost her twins in-utero at 20 weeks due to a rare medical condition, explains this perspective:
One day I dropped by Stork Talk and learned that some people were leaving. Out of curiosity I followed. I hadn’t intended to stick around…I was just there for the scandal. Anyway, someone noticed me on Coming up Roses and asked who I was…As soon as I explained myself I got the best welcome ever…So I stuck around - at least until I lost my girls. Then I thought I’d leave (I was sure no one understood what I was going through). But I quickly realized that there’s something more important than having the exact same experience as some, and that’s having people around you that care. So that’s why I stuck it out, it just seems like people actually care about each other regardless of how different our lives are.
A second facet of the site’s architecture that has promoted commitment relates to its membership policies. Compared to many other pregnancy and mothering sites, Coming up Roses is small. Its size is a function of its newness, as it has not had much time to increase its membership. At the same time, however, members have done little to make the site bigger or better known. In fact, they have worked to keep the group small, private, and unknown to the general public. The majority of members who have joined the site since its inception were referred to it by established participants who possessed prior familial or social ties to them.
Coming up Roses’ small size and ability to avoid the public spotlight partly reflect the architectural choices that Chelsea, Tina, and Robert made when designing the site. In particular, they have structured the site in ways that have made it difficult for people to learn about it through Internet search engines. Unless individuals already know the site’s name, they will not find a link to it in the results of their Internet searches. Depending on the search term used, a link to the site will either not appear anywhere in the search results or appear so far down in the results that the searcher will most likely never see it. In contrast, many of the larger and better known sites consistently show up on the first page of Internet search results.
Numerous factors cause a site to rank high in the results of Internet searches. First, websites can bolster their rankings by using titles, site descriptions, and text keywords that match common search phrases. For a website’s text to be searchable, however, it must also be accessible to all site visitors and not solely to registered users. Second, websites can buy advertising space above or next to the official results of relevant searches. Third, a site can move higher in the search rankings with increased visits. Unlike some of the larger and better-known pregnancy sites, Coming up Roses uses few of these strategies. Although the site’s description mentions pregnancy and mothering, its title does not. Additionally, the site has little searchable text outside the discussion forums. Moreover, such forums are inaccessible to search engines because only registered members can view them. Nor have site’s administrators purchased advertising space. Consequently, the site is not visited by enough people to produce appreciable increases in its search rankings.
Part of the reason why Chelsea, Tina, and Robert have not made a bigger effort to bolster the visibility of Coming up Roses is their lack of a financial incentive to do so. Coming up Roses serves no commercial function, and its administrators receive no financial gain from running it. One cannot sell and buy products on the site, and membership is free. If anything, Robert and Tina lose money from running the site. To minimize the technical problems that occurred on the site’s earlier versions, they decided to move it to a private server. Robert has already spent over $300 on software and Tina pays $240 a year to the company that hosts the site. Additionally, Chelsea and Tina have personal stakes in creating a small, intimate, and private group. Tina explains, “I am very dedicated to keeping this site as private as possible. I know that you can’t find our personal posts on Google because I questioned that a long time ago with Robert.” Chelsea adds, “We have all formed such a tight knit community…I’d like to see Coming Up Roses remain relatively small, and I think it will given that we don’t have an ‘open door policy’.”
Chelsea and Tina’s views on the site’s membership policies are shared by other participants. Various women have stated that the site’s small size influenced their decision to join and remain on it. They believe that its size has allowed them to get to know other members, form close bonds with them, and feel like an integral part of the group in ways that a larger site would not allow. Michelle explains, “For me, I don’t think I can handle too large…I’m afraid if it gets too large, I will get lost. I also like being able to know who I am replying to and who is replying to me…I like the idea of building relationships and the sense of community. I am doubtful that I can feel that with a large mass group.”
Another reason why members feel comfortable with the group’s membership policy is that it gives them a sense of control regarding who joins. Although some members have invited their offline friends and family members, others have not. Indeed, the sense of commitment that these latter members feel toward the group stems partly from their ability to keep the site separate from aspects of their offline lives. Such women do not like the idea of discussing issues such as the impact of pregnancy on their bodily functions and their conflicts with their spouses over parenting responsibilities with their offline friends and family. Pam explains, “I have not ever, and don’t plan to, recruited people from ‘outside’ to come to the site…To me, this community is sacred…As much as I love them and value their relationship, I want this to be separate. I don’t want them to be part of it. In some cases, I talk about things on the site that are so personal that I might not discuss them with my ‘offline’ friends.”
The site’s membership policies have further enhanced members’ commitment because they have given them a sense of security (Mitra, 2006) by minimizing the presence of potentially untrustworthy individuals in the group. When Coming up Roses launches, Chelsea allowed anyone who came by the site to join. This soon changed, however, after members came to believe that Susan had joined under a different user name to observe the activities on it. Given that many members left Stork Talk to get away from Susan, the prospect of her visiting the new site under a different name made them uncomfortable. Their discomfort grew stronger when it became clear that Susan had used knowledge of who had joined Coming up Roses in deciding whom to ban from Stork Talk. Members also worried about the possible presence of unfamiliar people or random people from their offline lives.
Members have shared not only personal information about themselves and their bodies but also photos of their families, their homes, and their sonograms—the latter of which often include their first and last name, as well as the name and location of their physician. Some members have even provided links to their websites, online photos, and blogs. Knowing that most women on the site have a personal connection to at least one other person has helped many members feel more comfortable with sharing such information. Ultimately, the site’s closed membership policies have made members value it over other ones, including Stork Talk, that offer more open membership processes. Jane notes:
I always felt uncomfortable posting on Stork Talk in some sense…because it was so open and easy to find. I worried random people…would see me on there where I was speaking about really vulnerable things. Here, I think the reason I am here and stay – other than the amazing fabulous women who bring so much to the board – is that it’s mostly “closed” or by referral only. The web is a big bad scary place sometimes with weird people out there, and knowing everyone so well here and knowing new people are not coming in from the woodworks…make this a very comfortable place to be.
The Downside of Coming up Roses’ Architecture
For the most part, the social and technical design of Coming up Roses has enhanced members’ commitment to the group. Some of the site’s features, however, also have the potential to disrupt commitment in the long run. To illustrate this point, I return to the membership policies that I previously discussed. The fact that these features can have multiple—and even contradictory—effects further demonstrates that the impact of architecture on members’ commitment depends partly on the particular social contexts in which members interact with the site. It further highlights how the meaning and significance of site features for members’ commitment can change as the group’s dynamics and needs evolve.
Due to changes in their life circumstances or support needs, many members will probably leave the site at some point. In order to keep participation at its current level, members will need to join at the same rate as women leave. If more women leave than join, the group’s membership and momentum may eventually decline. Given that members put their efforts into bonding with one another rather than bridging to others outside the group (Putnam, 2000), this scenario is plausible and, in fact, has already started to play out in the Trying to Conceive (TTC) Forum. When Coming up Roses began, about 20 women participated in this forum. Over the next nine months, many of them became pregnant and moved to the Pregnancy Forum. Although several of these women returned to the group after they miscarried—and several others joined after deciding to have another child—there were only 10 women participating in the TTC forum by August 2006. The group’s dwindling numbers took a toll on the remaining women. For some, the forum’s diminishing size served as a daily reminder that other women had become pregnant while they did not. For those experiencing infertility, the smaller group meant that few women in the forum could relate to their situation. Consequently, some of these women began to rely increasingly on other sites.
Another side effect of the site’s small, private, and close-knit community has been to make new members sometimes feel like outsiders, as if they were “crashing a party” or disturbing a “clique.” Moreover, some established members had a difficult time accepting the presence of “newbies.” The tensions between new members and longtime ones grew particularly strong when a second wave of Stork Talk “refugees” joined the site in late August 2006. Some longtime members felt overwhelmed by the sudden influx of over a dozen new women; they wondered whether they could trust these women and whether their presence would disrupt the site’s existing dynamics.7 As I completed my research, both groups were discussing the situation and participating in “getting to know you” exercises. Thus far, it appears that these efforts are paying off; long-time members and newer members have begun to accept, trust, and bond with one another.
This study of Coming up Roses illuminates an important but often overlooked element of online support groups—commitment. Commitment not only functions as an important feature of online social capital, it also plays a vital role in the therapeutic efficacy of such groups. In regards to pregnancy and mothering sites, this research indicates that members’ commitment can have particular importance. Trying to conceive, being pregnant, and transitioning into motherhood are physical, mental, and emotional processes that can last for many months, if not years. To receive the information and support that they need as they make their way through these various life stages, many members have found it necessary to participate in the group for extended periods of time.
Wolkomir (2001) notes that scholars have conducted little research on the conditions that foster commitment in support groups. The present account provides new insights into these conditions by examining the role that Coming of Roses’ social and technical design has played in the development and maintenance of members’ commitment. For the most part, these architectural features have facilitated commitment by providing members with a small and intimate community, as well as a safe and secure space. Moreover, many members have suggested that participating in the group has enhanced their emotional and physical well-being. In other ways, however, the site features that have fostered commitment may backfire in long run.
Site design does not necessarily possess meaning and significance in itself. Rather, the impact that it has on commitment depends partly on the social and historical contexts in which members produce and use a site. My study extends Postmes, Spears, and Lea’s research (2000) on the evolution of group norms within particular online spaces by illustrating how this process goes hand in hand with the evolution of the site’s architectural norms. At first, the formation of commitment on Coming up Roses related directly to members’ prior experiences on Stork Talk. These experiences influenced both their decision to establish the new site and their decisions about what type of technosocial space to create. As the needs, norms, and identity of the group have evolved, however, the site’s established features have not always supported these changes. Thus, members may need to rethink some of their expectations regarding the site’s social values, social dynamics, and structural design if they wish to maintain the group’s current level of membership, vitality, and therapeutic benefits.
My research also suggests that site architecture may influence the presence of social capital more generally, as commitment in online support groups is often intertwined with other elements of social capital. Thus, future studies should examine the significance of site design for such commitment, as such research may provide insights into how the social, technical, and therapeutic dimensions of these groups co-exist and often co-construct one another. Similarly, those who run online support groups should consider the role of site design as they work to maximize members’ commitment and the therapeutic benefits that such commitment may foster.
Just as importantly, the present research demonstrates the need to study the impact of site architecture on members’ commitment to their online support groups contextually. To be sure, the architectural features that have encouraged members’ commitment to Coming up Roses may promote commitment in other groups. After all, the social and emotional qualities (i.e., connection, mutual respect, and safety) that these features have facilitated on Coming up Roses are necessary for the efficacy of such groups in general. Yet it is likely that online pregnancy and mothering groups with different site designs may also foster such qualities among their members. For example, one popular site has several thousand members, many of whom attend the group’s annual offline gathering. Another popular site that emphasizes natural approaches to pregnancy and childrearing prohibits members from discussing certain viewpoints (e.g., pro-formula feeding) deemed unhealthy by administrators. In this group of likeminded members, the prohibition functions as a socio-spatial strategy for legitimatizing mothering practices that participants believe are marginalized by mainstream society.
On the one hand, individuals establish and join specific support groups due to their own past experiences, as well as their needs and desires at particular moments in time. On the other, the meanings that members give to site features often evolve in response to changing needs, dynamics, and experiences. Thus, both researchers and site professionals should consider the multiple contexts that shape the production and everyday use of online support groups in examining the significance of site architecture for members’ commitment to these groups.
I thank Susan Herring and the anonymous reviewers for providing useful suggestions. I also thank Thomas Malaby, Paul Brodwin, Sandra Braman, Laura Fingerson, A. Aneesh, Tanya Tiffany, Jon McKenzie, Matt Rappaport, Gillian Rodger, Anne Hansen, Robert Wolensky, Kristin Pitt, Merry Wiesner-Hanks, Ruud Van Dijk, and Paul Brewer for helpful comments. The Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee granted me a fellowship for the 2006-2007 academic year that enabled me to complete this article. I am especially grateful to the women from Coming up Roses who allowed me to write about the group and participated in this project.
“Coming up Roses” is a pseudonym that members of the site helped to choose. We chose this pseudonym because its sentiment resonates with the uplifting nature of the group’s real name. We also chose it because it, like the group’s real name, does not include pregnancy, mothering, or baby-related terms. “Stork Talk” and the women’s names in this article are also pseudonyms.
The information technology community uses the term architecture to mean the physical structure and organization of an information technology system and the software underlying this system (Barker, 2005). My use of the term embraces this definition but expands it to include the social design of the site, as the site’s social design often goes hand in hand with its technical design.
By “offsite,” I mean the online and offline spaces other than Coming up Roses’ website in which members interact.
I only analyze posting statistics from the fourth version of Coming up Roses, because I did not start collecting such data until this version was created.
A signature is a block of identifying information that shows up at the end of every post a member writes. In Coming up Roses, signatures consist of information about members’ family and pregnancy history.
My finding that members of Coming up Roses feel more committed to the group as a result of its relative heterogeneity may complicate the research of Lieberman, Wizlenburg, Golant, and Di Minno (2005), who found that members of homogeneous support groups feel more commitment than members of heterogeneous groups.
My observation that members’ commitment sometimes leads to distrust of new members resonates with the findings of Honeycutt (2005) and Kiyonari and Yamagishi (1996).
About the Author
Barbara L. Ley is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research interests include health-based social movements, online health cultures, and depictions of science in entertainment television.Address: P.O. Box 413, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI 53201 USA