Multimodal Computer-Mediated Communication and Social Support among Older Chinese Internet Users

Authors

  • Bo Xie

    1. College of Information Studies
      University of Maryland
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    • Bo Xie is an assistant professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research focuses on the intersection of older age, information and communication technologies, and health.

      Address: 2117G Hornbake Building, South Wing, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, USA


Abstract

Using the grounded theory approach, this ethnographic study examines the relationship between the use of three different modes of computer-mediated communication (CMC) and the types of social support exchanged within an online community of older Chinese (age 50 or older). The findings indicate that the voice chat room is best suited for companionship while the online forum is used primarily for informational support. The exchange of emotional and instrumental support is most likely to occur via instant messaging (IM). These findings suggest that each of these particular modes of CMC, due to its inherent features, may be specialized to sustain certain interactions and relationships. Yet, because older Chinese in this study employ multiple modes of CMC to interact and develop relationships, the overall relationships developed through CMC are multidimensional.

Résumé

Multimodal Computer-Mediated Communication and Social Support among Older Chinese Internet Users

Using the grounded theory approach, this ethnographic study examines the relationship between the use of three different modes of computer-mediated communication (CMC) and the types of social support exchanged within an online community of older Chinese (age 50 or older). The findings indicate that the voice chat room is best suited for companionship while the online forum is used primarily for informational support. The exchange of emotional and instrumental support is most likely to occur via instant messaging (IM). These findings suggest that each of these particular modes of CMC, due to its inherent features, may be specialized to sustain certain interactions and relationships. Yet, because older Chinese in this study employ multiple modes of CMC to interact and develop relationships, the overall relationships developed through CMC are multidimensional.

Abstract

Multimodale computervermittelte Kommunikation und soziale Unterstützung unter älteren chinesischen Internet-Nutzern

Unter Benutzung des Grounded Theory-Ansatzes untersucht diese ethnographische Studie die Beziehung zwischen der Nutzung drei verschiedener Arten von computervermittelter Kommunikation und den Typen von sozialer Unterstützung die innerhalb einer Online-Gemeinschaft von älteren Chinesen (Alter 50+) ausgetauscht werden. Die Ergebnisse zeigen, dass der stimmbasierte Chatroom am besten für das Gemeinschaftliche geeignet ist, während das Onlineforum meist für Informationszwecke genutzt wird. Der Austausch von emotionaler und instrumenteller Unterstützung tritt am häufigsten beim Instant Messaging (IM) auf. Diese Ergebnisse verdeutlichen, dass jede dieser besonderen Arten von computervermittelter Kommunikation aufgrund ihrer Eigenschaften spezifisch geeignet ist, bestimmte Interaktionen und Beziehungen zu stützen. Auch wenn die älteren Chinesen in dieser Studie verschiedene Arten von computervermittelter Kommunikation zur Interaktion und zur Entwicklung von Beziehungen genutzt haben, sind Beziehungen, die durch computervermittelte Kommunikation hergestellt werden, im Allgemeinen multidimensional.

Resumen

La Comunicación Multimodal Mediada por la Computadora y el Apoyo Social entre los Ancianos Chinos Usuarios del Internet

Usando un enfoque de la teoría emergente, este estudio etnográfico examina la relación entre el uso de 3 modos diferentes de comunicación mediada por la computadora (CMC) y los tipos de apoyo social intercambiados dentro de una comunidad online de ancianos Chinos (de 50 años ó más). Los resultados indican que la voz del salón de charlas es más apropiado para el compañerismo mientras que el forum online es usado primariamente para apoyo informacional. El intercambio de apoyo emocional e instrumental ocurre más probablemente a través de mensajes instantáneos (IM). Estos hallazgos sugieren que cada uno de estos modos particulares de CMC, debido a sus características inherentes, puede ser especializado para sostener ciertas interacciones y relaciones. Hasta ahora, debido a que en este estudio los ancianos Chinos emplearon múltiples modos de CMC para interactuar y desarrollar relaciones, en general las relaciones que se desarrollaron a través CMC fueron multidimensionales.

Palabras claves: grupo de apoyo online, comunidad virtual, ancianidad, CMC basadas en texto, voz y video basados en CMC.

ZhaiYao

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Introduction

Computer-mediated social support (CMSS) or social support exchanged through computer-mediated communication (CMC) has been a major topic of recent research on the social implications of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Earlier research on CMSS focused on online support groups that were formed via “older” modes of CMC such as Usenet newsgroups, electronic bulletin boards, and listserv/mailing lists that are characterized by text-based, asynchronous, and anonymous interactions (Herring, 2002; White & Dorman, 2001). Newer modes of CMC or “multimodal CMC” (Herring, 2002; Soukup, 2000) that combine text-, voice- and/or video-based interactions (e.g., instant messaging or IM) are beginning to receive attention in the literature (e.g., Bryant, Sanders-Jackson, & Smallwood, 2006; Hu, Wood, Smith, & Westbrook, 2004; Nastri, Peña, & Hancock, 2006).

Compared with the vast amount of CMC and CMSS research on many social groups, to date there is relatively little research on CMC and CMSS among the older population (with a few exceptions that focused on text-based CMC, which will be discussed below). Further, at least in the English literature, even less, if anything, is known about CMC and CMSS among the older population in developing countries. Yet, as many scholars have pointed out, the impact of ICTs greatly depends on individual motives, goals, lifestyles, and life stages (Bargh & McKenna, 2004; Haythornthwaite, 2001) and existing social and power structures and relations (DiMaggio, Hargittai, Neuman, & Robinson, 2001; Holloway & Valentine, 2003; S. Jones, 1999; Wilson & Peterson, 2002). Without empirical evidence, one cannot know for sure if the findings generated from one particular age group (e.g., college students or teenagers) in a particular setting (e.g., developed countries) can be generalized to other age groups (e.g., older adults) in another setting (e.g., developing countries).

As one of the first attempts to address these limitations of the literature, this study examines CMSS in an Internet community of older Chinese and explores the types of social support exchanged in three different modes of CMC: voice chat, forums, and IM.

The Aging and Internet Trends in China

Similar to many other countries around the world, the Chinese population is aging. The 2000 Chinese census data showed that in November 2000, 6.96 percent of the Chinese population (88 million) were age 65 or older (National Bureau of Statistics of the People’s Republic of China, 2001). It is estimated that in 2007, approximately 7.9 percent of the Chinese population (104 million) were age 65 or older (Central Intelligence Agency, 2007). Another important recent development in China has been the wide spread adoption of the Internet. Between October 1997 and December 2006, the number of Chinese Internet users increased from 620,000 to 137 million (China Internet Network Information Center, 2007).

Although the percentage of Chinese Internet users above age 50 has been consistently lower than 5% of the total Chinese Internet population, because the size of the total Internet population has increased so much, the total number of older Chinese Internet users has also increased significantly. In June 1998, there were only 14,400 Chinese Internet users aged 50 or above. Yet by the end of 2006, more than 4.25 million older Chinese were using the Internet (China Internet Network Information Center, 2007).

Despite the rapid development of ICTs in China, studies of Internet use in China have primarily focused on the political and economic aspects of ICT adoption (Kluver & Chen, 2005; McMillan & Hwant, 2002). Many important areas (e.g., how ICTs can be used by older Chinese to form and sustain supportive social relationships) are significantly under studied. Yet studying the impact of ICTs on the social relationships and social support of older Chinese has unique importance in the context of contemporary China. This is because during the past several decades, the forces of industrialization, capitalization, and globalization have resulted in dramatic social changes in Chinese society, including the everyday lives of older Chinese (Bian, 2002; Ikels, 1996; Mjelde-Mossey, Chi, & Lou, 2006; Mjelde-Mossey & Walz, 2006; Perry & Selden, 2000; Sun, 2004; Tang & Parish, 2000; Walder, 1989; Warner, 2001; Yoon & Hendricks, 2006; Zhou & Hou, 1999). Research shows that recent social changes in China have had negative effects on the social support networks and relationships of older Chinese (Cheng & Chan, 2006; Chong, 2007; Joseph & Phillips, 1999; Lam, 2006; Lee & Hong-kin, 2005; Ng, Phillips, & Lee, 2002; Price & Fang, 2002). Within this context, an important question is: Can ICTs help older Chinese overcome these social changes to maintain supportive social relationships in later life?

Modes of Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC)

Earlier CMC theories argue that, compared with face-to-face communication, CMC has a number of limitations resulting from its inherent characteristics (for a recent review and critiques, see Walther, Gay, & Hancock, 2005). The information richness/media richness model (Daft & Lengel, 1984, 1986; Daft, Lengel, & Trevino, 1987) holds that text-based CMC is “lean” media that is more suitable for simple, straightforward tasks such as scheduling, while “rich” media such as face-to-face communication is better suited for complicated tasks that require intensive interactions and negotiations. Similarly, the social presence theory (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976; Spears & Lea, 1992) and the social context cues theory (Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984; Kiesler & Sproull, 1992; Sproull & Kiesler, 1991) suggest that the text-based CMC environment reduces or filters out physical and contextual social cues and, as such, makes it difficult, if not impossible, to develop close, intimate relationships. Other researchers, however, argue that the relative lack of visual, aural, and contextual cues in CMC (as compared with face-to-face interactions) could only slow down, rather than completely prevent, the development of intimate online relationships; over time, users would be able to overcome the relative lack of social contextual cues and develop supportive online social networks (Walther, 1992, 1995; Walther, Anderson, & Parks, 1994).

These earlier CMC theories targeted predominantly text-based modes of CMC (e.g., Usenet newsgroups, electronic bulletin boards, or listserv/mailing lists). With the development of ICTs, newer modes of CMC (e.g., voice chat, IM, 3D online games, and, more recently, social networking sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Blogs) that allow the exchange of not only textual but also audio, visual, and/or graphical information are increasingly challenging earlier theories (boyd & Ellison, 2007; Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007; Hu et al., 2004; Kim, Kim, Park, & Rice, 2007; Lange, 2007; Stefanone & Jang, 2007; Valkenburg & Peter, 2007). Compared with older modes of CMC that are generally anonymous, asynchronous, publicly accessible, group-based, and persistent (interactions are automatically documented unless users choose to delete), newer modes of CMC are more likely to be identifiable, synchronous, private, dyadic, and ephemeral (evidence of interaction vanishes by default unless users choose to save) (Herring, 2002). These different features of different modes of CMC might have different effects on online interactions and relationships and thus should be examined thoroughly (Herring, 2002; Soukup, 2000). Based on their empirical findings, Swickert and colleagues (2002) caution that the findings based on one particular mode of CMC may not be generalizable to interactions that occur using other modes of CMC.

Furthermore, CMC is by no means limited to one particular mode. In fact, several earlier studies reported that users employed additional modes (e.g., private email, postal mail, telephone, and face-to-face meeting) to communicate and develop relationships with those whom they first met via one particular mode of CMC (Kollock & Smith, 1996; Ogan, 1993; Parks & Floyd, 1996; Rheingold, 1993; Salem, Bogat, & Reid, 1997; Turner, Grube, & Meyers, 2001). More recent research on newer modes of CMC such as IM also suggests that frequent CMC promotes the desire to interact face-to-face (e.g., Hu et al., 2004). Therefore, it is important to pay attention to not only the individual but also the collective effects of different modes of CMC.

Computer-Mediated Social Support (CMSS)

Although the precise definition of social support varies from study to study, it is widely acknowledged that social support has multiple dimensions: emotional, instrumental, appraisal, and informational (Barrera, 1986; House, 1981; Vaux, 1988). Some researchers have cautioned that Internet use could decrease social ties and social support and increase social isolation (Kiesler & Kraut, 1999; Kraut et al., 1998; Nie, 2001; Sanders, Field, Diego, & Kalplan, 2000). Yet, a growing number of studies provide concrete evidence that CMC can indeed help form and maintain online relationships that can facilitate the exchange of social support (Constant, Sproull, & Kiesler, 1996; Eastin & LaRose, 2005; Ellison et al., 2007; Hu et al., 2004; Kim et al., 2007; Lange, 2007; Parks & Floyd, 1996; Ridings & Gefen, 2004; Salem et al., 1997; Shaw & Gant, 2002; Stefanone & Jang, 2007; Tichon & Shapiro, 2003; Turner et al., 2001; Valkenburg & Peter, 2007; Walther & Boyd, 2002; Wellman et al., 1996).

There is preliminary evidence that different modes of CMC may have different effects on perceived social support. For instance, a survey study by Swickert and colleagues (2002) found a “marginally significant” (p = 0.08) relationship between social support and interaction via IM and online game-playing. Yet the same study found no significant correlations between social support and interaction via other modes of CMC including electronic bulletin boards, chat rooms, MUDs, and email. Morgan and Cotton (2003) found that increased use of email, chat rooms, and IM – all of which serve communicative functions – was associated with decreased depressive symptoms, while increased use of online shopping, game-playing, and doing research – all of which serve non-communicative functions – was associated with increased depressive symptoms. In a study that explored CMSS in support-oriented Usenet newsgroups, researchers failed to find any significant association between online support seeking activity and perceived social support (Eastin & LaRose, 2005). However, the “online support seeking activity” in this study was measured in a way that lumped together various types of Internet activities (e.g., email, group listings, chat rooms, and discussion boards) and thus could not distinguish whether or how users exchange different types of social support through different types of Internet activities. In a study that compared the impact of IM and that of chat in public chat rooms on adolescent well-being, researchers found that IM was primarily used to interact with existing friends and facilitated the development of existing friendships. In comparison, chat in public chat rooms was more often used to form new relationships, and had no effect on the quality of existing friendships (Valkenburg & Peter, 2007). The findings of these studies suggest that, in studying CMSS, it is necessary to differentiate different modes of CMC because the latter may have different effects on CMSS.

CMSS in the Older Population

Currently, the majority of social research on the intersection of older adults and ICTs is limited to the individual level, and many important issues, including how CMC affects older adults’ interpersonal relationships and social support networks, are significantly understudied (Xie, 2006a). The few available studies on this subject, however, have shown promising results. In an early study that was originally designed to explore older adults’ interactions with computer games, researchers unexpectedly found that participants favored interacting with other people via computer networks, an unplanned activity, more than playing single-user computer games (Danowski & Sacks, 1980). A survey conducted among new members of the SeniorNet online community – hosted by American Online at the time – revealed that, although the most frequently reported reason for becoming involved with the online community was to gain “information access,” the most popular activity in this online community was actually communicating with others via email, forums, and conferencing (Furlong, 1989). Another SeniorNet online community study reported that participants engaged in more online companionship, or interaction that is sought for purely social, enjoyable purposes, than supportive relationships that are often oriented toward solving a particular problem or achieving a specific goal (Wright, 2000). An ethnographic study of older Japanese’s online interactions in a senior-oriented electronic mailing list community found that members of the online community were willing, and indeed encouraged by other members, to disclose personal information about their past experiences and present situations via CMC. Such self-disclosure greatly facilitated their development of both companionship and supportive relationships in the online community (Kanayama, 2003).

The Present Study

The handful of previous studies on – text-based – CMSS among older adults in developed countries provides preliminary knowledge about CMC among these older adults. Yet little is known about how older adults in developing countries may employ CMC for CMSS, which presents a pressing need for research. Due to the scarcity of available data on this subject, the researcher chose to use ethnographic methods – including semi-structured, open-ended interviewing and participant observation – to collect data. These methods can help to generate data that would be difficult to obtain through quantitative methods such as survey (Bernard, 1998). Grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1998), a powerful tool widely used to analyze qualitative data and build theory that is grounded in data, was used to guide data analysis and theory building of this study.

Method

Research Site: The OldKids (lao xiaohai, a Chinese phrase that refers to active seniors and can be literally translated as “Old Kids”) online community is maintained by a Shanghai-based organization that provides face-to-face computer training to older Chinese. First launched in early 2000, this online community now has over 10,000 registered members. It provides free CMC services including voice chat rooms, online forums, and IM (for a detailed description of the history and development of the OldKids organization and community, see Xie, 2005).

Interviewees: Interviewees were recruited from members of the OldKids community. A total of thirty-three older Chinese – all were retirees – were interviewed. Interviewee ages ranged from 50 to 79. Nineteen of them were female, and fourteen were male.

Interview Topics: Semi-structured open-ended interviews were conducted in May and October of 2004 (for a methodological discussion on the interview techniques used in this study, see Kazmer & Xie, in press). Based on the concepts and findings present in the existing literature, the initial interview guide, which was used to guide the first several interviews, covered a number of key topics; among them, the ones most relevant to the focus of this article included: participation and activities in the OldKids online community; experience of age-related stigma in the online community; subjects that are typically addressed – and not addressed or deliberately avoided – when interacting in the OldKids online community; and feelings about online relationships. Later interviews incorporated new topics emerged from the first several interviews. See the Data Analysis section below.

Participant Observation: Participant observation was conducted in the OldKids voice chat room and online forum during the period from May of 2004 to December of 2004. A non-active participant approach (i.e., “lurking”) was taken to ensure that the normal patterns of online interactions would not be interrupted or changed by the presence of the researcher. This approach overcomes the major limitation of active participation: i.e., observer bias that may lead to a loss of validity (Fox & Roberts, 1999). Following Jones’ (1994) guidelines, all information that may disclose participants’ (online and offline) identities and locations has been removed to protect participants’ privacy.

Data Analysis: Data analysis for this research project was guided by grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1998), such that data collection and analysis occurred simultaneously to ensure the co-evolution of data and theory. Following the constant comparative method provided by Glaser and Strauss (1967), immediately after each interview, the first step was to write a short descriptive and analytic summary to record general impressions of the interview process and the interviewee. After each interview, audio data was transcribed into text and then translated into English as soon as possible. The text interview data were then coded and memoed on a computer using the qualitative data analysis software Atlas/Ti.

Microanalysis or “detailed line-by-line analysis” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p. 57) was conducted on the first several interviews to generate initial concepts, categories (higher level, more abstract concepts), and possible relationships among categories. Specifically, open coding was conducted to identify salient concepts and their properties (i.e., characteristics) and dimensions (i.e., “the range along which general properties of a category vary, giving specification to a category and variation to the theory”; Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p. 101). Once the identified concepts were beginning to merge into categories, axial coding was conducted to systematically explore the properties and dimensions of those categories, which led to the formation and further development of dense, related categories. Results of the microanalysis of the initial interviews guided the selection of remaining interviewees, a process called theoretical sampling or “sampling on the basis of emerging concepts, with the aim being to explore the dimensional range or varied conditions along which the properties of concepts vary” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p. 73).

In keeping with the grounded theory approach, results of this initial stage microanalysis were also used to improve the interview guide for the remaining interviews. Some topics that did not appear to be salient were dropped (e.g., stigma) and new, emerging salient themes added (e.g., seeking, providing, and receiving emotional and instrumental support via the voice chat room, and switching from one mode of CMC to another to continue the interaction). In this way, the researcher was able to detect, examine, and focus on emerging and important concepts and categories, which were further examined and tested during participant observation of the chat room and online forum. New concepts identified through participant observation were added and integrated into the interview guide for the remaining interviews (e.g., sharing personal feelings in the online forum).

While the microanalysis of the first several interviews focused on detecting new concepts and thus relied more on open coding than axial coding, the latter was used more heavily during the middle stage of this project. Open coding, however, was still conducted during the middle stage of this study to detect new concepts and categories. Thus during this stage the researcher was able to focus on developing and enriching existing categories and their properties, dimensions, and relationships while at the same time continuing to be sensitive to emerging concepts and categories.

The remaining stage of data analysis relied primarily on selective coding to integrate and refine categories to form theory. At this stage, commonalities and differences in categories were further sought, core or central categories were identified, and then explanations were formulated. This procedure allowed the researcher to cut down the original list of categories and to be more focused on categories that could better explain the underlying phenomena. Finally, after developing these explanations and refining the categories, the theory that could best interpret the data was written.

Key Concepts and Categories

Open coding of the interview data identified two sets of concepts: a) voice chat room use, IM use, and online forum use; and b) companionship, emotional support, and informational support. These concepts quickly merged into two categories: while the first set of concepts clearly fit into the category of modes of CMC, the second set of concepts was categorized as types of social support. Further analysis revealed interesting relationships among the concepts of these categories: while the voice chat room was primarily associated with the exchange of companionship, IM and the online forum featured the exchange of emotional and informational support, respectively. Thus three new categories were generated: voice chat room-companionship, IM-emotional support, and online forum-informational support.

Through axial coding, the properties, dimensions, and relationships of these three new categories were systematically explored. The voice chat room-companionship category was shown to characterize singing/talking, “nothing personal,” and “having fun”/enjoyment, while the IM-emotional support category featured communication of intimate subjects, exchange of deep, personal feelings, and emotional support. Characteristics or properties of the online forum-informational support category included communication of computer-related subjects, “very general level” interactions, and learning/education.

Variations of these categories were also discovered: personal, sensitive subjects were occasionally discussed in both the voice chat room and online forum, in which cases emotional support was sought and provided. The exceptional cases thus suggest that these categories vary along the dimensions of general-sensitive talks and no-emotional-emotional support. Further, the overall relationship between the categories of modes of CMC and types of social support was by no means restricted by the boundaries (along the properties and dimensions) of the three new categories. Rather, because older Chinese in this study employed multiple modes of CMC to interact and develop relationships, the overall relationships developed and social support exchanged through CMC were multidimensional.

The following three sub-sections provide more details about these new categories.

Voice Chat-Companionship

Voice chat is especially popular among OldKids members because it does not require typing (the OldKids chat room also provides a text-based chat function; so members can type if they would like to, but they don’t have to) and thus helps older Chinese bypass one of the main barriers of older Chinese’s use of computers: inputting Chinese characters (for a detailed discussion about the major factors that inhibit older Chinese’s computer typing/inputting, see Xie, 2005, p. 192). Most interestingly, a number of OldKids members have been creatively using the voice chat room to display their musical talent by singing in the voice chat room. By using special software, registered users can even play Karaoke and sing along with music. In fact, singing instead of talking has become the most common activity in the OldKids voice chat room. Although not everyone enjoys singing, for those who do the voice chat room has become the most frequently visited part of the OldKids website.

The data indicate that the primary reason for users to visit the OldKids chat room is to spend time together and have fun. Topics not directly related to singing or music are rarely addressed in the chat room. For instance, an active user of the voice chat room states:

In general, we go to the [voice] chat room to sing, to hear others to sing, or just to greet each other. Nothing personal. We don’t normally talk about personal issues. We like to talk about happy things –having fun is the primary purpose for us to visit this chat room.

Although OldKids members in general perceive and use the voice chat room primarily as a place for singing and having fun, there are exceptional cases where the voice chat room can be used to express deeper feelings or concerns for others. For instance, a member recalls how, one time, when a net-friend (wang you) whom he met online got sick, he used the online voice chat room in a unique way to show his caring and support:

One time, one net-friend had to go to a hospital to have a surgery, because the doctor suspected that she had cancer. Before she went to the hospital, she came to our voice chat room to say goodbye to us. It sounded like she was saying farewell to us. So I told her that I truly believed that she would be back [to the OldKids chat room] very soon. I also promised her that I would sing a song –“missing you so much” in the chat room for her everyday. I believe that if you are truly sincere, it will happen as you wish. So I had been singing that song for her in the chat room everyday, as I promised… As it turned out, she came back within a month! I was very happy.

This story suggests that, when necessary, OldKids users are not hesitant or shy to use the voice chat room to provide emotional support to one another. Even if that support was not immediately received by the targeted receiver, it could still have positive effects on the support provider and other members of the chat room and therefore help create a friendly and supportive atmosphere in the chat room.

This member also tells a story about how the voice chat room has even facilitated the exchange of tangible aid between two OldKids members:

One net-friend, who lives in Wuhan, has a son working in Beijing. One time the son of this net-friend got really sick and had to be hospitalized. Because he was there alone, his mother was really worried that nobody would take care of him. So she asked a net-friend who lived in Beijing to take care of her son for her. The Beijing net-friend was very nice; she took care of the son just like taking care of her own child. When the son recovered, the Beijing net-friend took him to her house and logged into our OldKids voice chat room so that the son could talk to his mother and tell her that he recovered. It was so touching… That was really something. Even now when I think about it I can still feel it…

In this case, although the exchange of instrumental support did not actually take place in the online world, the online chat room nevertheless clearly contributed to the exchange of instrumental support in the physical world, which generated emotional support in both the online and offline settings. However, it is important to point out that the cases where online voice chat room facilitates the exchange of emotional and instrumental support are likely to be the exception rather than the rule for the following reasons. First, during the 8-month period of participant observation in the voice chat room, no similar cases were observed. Rather, what was observed in the chat room was simply the seeking, providing, and receiving of companionship and enjoyment. Second, the exchange of emotional and especially instrumental support in the chat room was only detected in a few interviews. Although the stories reported by those interviewees evidently had involved a larger number of participants, without further evidence, it is difficult to draw conclusions on how many or who had actually involved in the exchange of emotional or instrumental support and why. To answer these questions, it is necessary to conduct further research, which will be addressed in the Conclusion.

Online Forum-informational support

When interacting in the online forum, the most common subjects that members talk about are computer-related ones. In particular, members have found that the online forum is a great place to learn about computers and the Internet from peers – in other words, the online forum is used primarily to seek, provide, and receive informational support. As a member states:

There are many people online who are willing and eager to help you. If you don’t know how to do something [on the computer], you can simply post your question in the online forum. Almost immediately, someone will come and teach you how to do it.

Although it is not unusual for some people to discuss other subjects (e.g., family) in the online forum, those subjects are usually limited to “a very general level.” As one OldKids member states:

Learning about computers is the primary subject we talk about in the online forums. We talk about computer knowledge, skills, and tips; we ask questions about computers and the Internet; and we share news about recent advances in Internet technology. We also greet each other during the holidays, including posting greeting cards in the forums. Sometimes we talk about our families too, but only at a very general level.

Further exploration suggests that there are two main reasons for not talking about personal or sensitive subjects in the online forum: first, members realize that the discussions posted in the online forum are available to the public. Therefore, they generally avoid discussing personal or sensitive issues in the public forum. Second, most members of the OldKids online community are students or former students of one or several OldKids computer classes. Not surprisingly, they perceive the online forum as an extension of the (offline) OldKids computer classes where they can continue to learn about new ICTs (Xie, 2006a, 2006b, 2007a). The OldKids online forum, therefore, is used primarily for educational purposes.

Interestingly, although in general OldKids members discuss only computer-related subjects in the online forum, the observation in the OldKids online forum did identify one case where a very personal and sensitive subject was brought up and many older Chinese actively participated in the discussion: In August 9, 2004, a message was posted in an OldKids forum telling the story of a 75-year old man who has been the primary caregiver for his wife – who is now in a vegetative state – for 13 years. This man said in the post that he had been very lonely and depressed, and had been thinking about divorcing his wife and finding another woman to remarry. In the post, he asked: would this be legal? Would it be ethical? What should I do? What if my children have objections?

The man asked other older people for advice on an extremely complicated issue. And others responded actively: in the following four days, sixteen deliberately written messages were posted to the forum addressing various aspects of the situation. The discussion came to a halt when the discussion leader announced that, at the end of the month, OldKids and eastday.com (a Shanghai-based Internet service company) were going to co-organize an online discussion in an eastday.com maintained online chat room with the old man himself. On August 30, the online (text-based) discussion was held in an eastday.com online chat room as scheduled, and the old man – who was then introduced as “Old Q”– discussed his deep, personal feelings and concerns with other older adults over the Internet. After the two-hour online discussion with Old Q in this eastday.com chat room, OldKids members continued the discussion on the OldKids online forum until the end of 2004. Various aspects – legal, ethical, cross-generational conflicts, altruism versus selfishness, etc. – were brought up, discussed, and debated.

This “Old Q” case suggests that, although the OldKids online forum is primarily used to exchange computer-related informational support, it can also help participants seek, provide, and receive advice and support on extremely personal, sensitive, and complicated issues.

Instant Messaging (IM)-emotional support

Interviews with OldKids members revealed that older Chinese Internet users were much more likely to share deep, personal, and sensitive feelings and thoughts via IM than via voice chat or the online forum. An important reason is that, unlike the public voice chat room and online forum, IM allows private interaction, thus ensuring privacy. One member of the OldKids online community, who insists that net-friends are “just like brothers and sisters,” gives this example:

We talk about personal and sensitive topics [online]. For example, one net-friend told me that her mother was very ill and that she was really depressed, because she’s concerned about her mother’s health, and because she had to spend most of her time taking care of her mother. She told me all about her situation and feelings.

When further asked how he and his net-friends talked about those issues online, and if it was in the online forum or something else, he responded immediately:

No, no, no, no. Not posting messages in the forum. How could we do that in the forum? Everybody could see it. It was via IM, where we could type, voice chat, send pictures, and see each other through our digital video cameras.

Another member agrees that the online forum is used for public discussions while IM is used for private conversations. Further, she points out that IM can be an effective tool to continue a conversation that was initiated in the online forum:

Sometimes we do talk about personal or sensitive subjects, but not in the online forums – we usually talk about those subjects via IM where we can have one-to- one private conversations… If, when we interact in an online forum, it looks like the conversation might go into a more personal direction, we would switch to IM to continue.

This member gives an example of how, after a signal to have a private conversation was given and received in a public online forum, she and her net-friend immediately switched to IM to have a very personal conversation:

One year, on Mother’s Day, a good net-friend of mine posted a message in an OldKids online forum to wish me happy Mother’s Day. I posted a message to reply, in which I said, thanks for your greetings; but my own daughter didn’t send me anything on this day. I’m unhappy. That net-friend then posted another message and suggested that, if I would like, we could have a conversation via IM, which we did… We had a really deep and personal conversation via IM. I would never discuss things like this in the online forums.

These OldKids members’ stories convincingly suggest that older Chinese Internet users not only have good understandings of the strengths and limitations of different modes of CMC but also are quite capable of taking advantage of the opportunities the technology provides while avoiding the weaknesses of the technology.

Discussion

This study reveals that companionship, information, and emotional support are the most common supportive activities among the older Chinese Internet users who participated in this study. The findings of this study seem to provide preliminary evidence that the positive association between social support and CMC as reported in many previous studies (that were conducted mostly among younger age groups in developed countries) could be generalized to the older population in developing countries such as China. Different from previous research that focused on text-based CMC, however, this study shows that different modes of CMC (voice chat room, online forum, and IM) are used by these older Chinese Internet users for different purposes and activities. As a result, the main types of social support exchanged within those online settings are also different.

Specifically, the voice chat room is primarily a place where participants spend time together and have fun chatting and especially singing. Older Chinese usually participate in the voice chat room to obtain a sense of belonging, social connectedness, and enjoyment. The voice chat room, therefore, facilitates the development of companionship relationships. Occasionally, however, the voice chat room is also used to provide emotional support for those experiencing life stresses. In other words, similar to findings reported in previous studies on older adults’ relationship development via text-based modes of CMC (e.g., Kanayama, 2003; Wright, 2000), the voice chat room also facilitates the development of online companionship as well as supportive relationships among older adults. These findings suggest that CMC modes that are characterized by synchronous, group interaction, and public access, whether they are text- or voice-based and whether or not they allow anonymity, are well suited for social interaction and relational communication. However, because voice-based CMC helps overcome the typing/inputting barrier to older adults’ but especially older Chinese’s use of new ICTs (Xie, 2005), it may be a more efficient way for older adults to communicate and construct online relationships than text-based CMC.

While the voice chat room serves the purpose of constructing online companionship as well as supportive relationships, the online forum primarily provides informational support to aid participants to solve computer problems. This is due in large part to the inherent features of text-based CMC, especially asynchronous interaction, which allows deliberate thinking and writing that are required for solving complex problems. This feature is especially advantageous for older adults in that it allows older adults to respond to others’ posts at their own pace (Kanayama, 2003). Furthermore, text-based CMC ensures that problem-solving-related information is generated by a group of individuals with complimentary expertise and experience, and is persistent and publicly accessible. Although previous research has reported that the relatively low level of social accountability associated with anonymity – which is possible via text-based CMC – might result in untrustworthy or junk information (Herring, 2002), this is not the case in the OldKids online forums, where members generally enjoy and value providing useful information for others.

Problem-solving-oriented support facilitated by text-based CMC is important in that it helps older adults overcome major barriers to their adoption of new ICTs. Research shows that a lack of knowledge about the technology and inadequate training prevent older adults from using computer technology (Xie, 2003). The online forum provides rich opportunities for older adults to get necessary information and knowledge from peers, and therefore greatly facilitates their adoption of new ICTs.

However, this does not mean that the education-oriented online forum cannot be used to address non-computer-related subjects or exchange other types of social support. As demonstrated in the “Old Q” case, the OldKids online forum was also used to seek, provide, and receive advice on personal, sensitive, and potentially embarrassing issues. Here anonymity resulting from text-based modes of CMC is a crucial factor that explains why “Old Q” was willing to disclose such information in the public online forum. This finding echoes earlier research which suggested that a purported disadvantage of text-based CMC – i.e., the relative anonymity associated with the limited social presence or cues – could actually facilitate the sharing of personal, sensitive, embarrassing, or potentially risky information, feelings, and thoughts and, consequently, increase self-disclosure and intimacy of interpersonal relationships (Ferguson, 1997; Galinsky, Schopler, & Abell, 1997; Klemm & Nolan, 1998; Madara, 1997).

Although both the voice chat room and the online forum are only occasionally used to share deep and personal feelings and thoughts and exchange emotional support, this is not the case for the IM mode. In fact, it is common for OldKids members to disclose private and sensitive information and exchange emotional support via IM. This use of IM is consistent with the findings reported in other IM studies which also showed that IM use facilitated positive relationships and fostered intimacy (Gross, Juvonen, & Gable, 2002; Hu et al., 2004; Valkenburg & Peter, 2007). An important reason for these similar findings is that IM ensures private, dyadic, and ephemeral interactions and thus protects privacy. Interestingly, this study also finds that OldKids members consciously use the IM mode to continue conversations that they have started (but do not wish to continue) in the online forum. This finding supports other research that also shows that online relationships are not confined to one particular mode of CMC; rather, individuals often use multiple channels/modes to communicate, interact, and develop relationships (Hu et al., 2004; Kim et al., 2007; Kollock & Smith, 1996; Ogan, 1993; Parks & Floyd, 1996; Rheingold, 1993; Salem et al., 1997; Turner et al., 2001; Valkenburg & Peter, 2007).

Parks and Floyd (1996) suggested that, with advances in ICTs that would enable the exchange of not only text-based but also audio- and video-based information, the reduced-cues belief that was widely circulated in the CMC literature might “simply become a theoretic antique” (p. 93). This study provides empirical evidence contributing to the finding that CMC is indeed no longer limited to the text-based mode that features asynchrony and anonymity. Rather, voice- and video-based modes have enabled more synchronous and less anonymous communication and interaction. In this sense, the argument that CMC is purely based on the limited social presence or contextual cues is not valid any more. However, it is important to keep in mind that advances in technology do not eliminate the advantages of conventional text-based CMC. In situations where anonymous and asynchronous interactions are more desirable (e.g., in the “Old Q” case), individuals can still choose to use conventional mode of CMC. In other words, technological advances have only provided more options from which users can choose.

Wellman and Gulia (1999) speculated that “while people can find almost any kind of support on the Net, most of the support available through one relationship is rather specialized” (p. 171). The findings of this study support the first half of Wellman and Gulia’s speculation: as reported above, older Chinese Internet users exchange companionship and various types of social support through CMC. However, the findings of this study do not seem to agree with the second half of Wellman and Gulia’s speculation because online relationships as reported by older Chinese participants are generally not specialized to the exchange of one or another particular type of social support. Rather, the relationship between two individuals of the OldKids online community usually provides multiple types of social support – except that some types of support are exchanged in one specialized mode of CMC, while other types of support are exchanged in another specialized mode of CMC. Because individuals use multiple modes of CMC to communicate and interact, they can develop relationships that are capable of providing multiple types of social support. Thus, although the major type of support sustained in one mode of CMC may be rather specialized, the overall relationships can be multidimentional because relationship development can cross multiple modes of CMC.

These findings suggest an important factor that had been previously ignored: i.e., the particular mode of CMC through which an online relationship is formed and sustained. Each CMC mode has its unique, inherent functions that may be used to facilitate one instead of another particular type of online interaction and social support. More importantly, it is common that individuals use multiple modes of CMC to interact and develop relationships. Yet research on CMSS so far has largely lagged behind advances in Internet technology. Future research needs to pay more attention to different modes of CMC and explore thoroughly the implications of modes of CMC on interpersonal relationships and social support.

Studying the impact of ICTs on older Chinese’s social relationships and social support has unique importance in the context of contemporary China. Due to recent social changes, in contemporary Chinese society filial piety may be changing, perhaps eroding; although the family has traditionally been and is still an important source of support for senior parents and grandparents, perhaps it is no longer the primary source of support for elderly Chinese (Joseph & Phillips, 1999; Ng et al., 2002). In the meantime, the social networks and relationships that older Chinese have developed during their work years are increasingly threatened by recent social changes: in recent years many older Chinese are forced to take early retirement because their work units have not been doing well since recent economic reforms (Price & Fang, 2002). As a result, more and more older Chinese retire – and cut off from their work-related social networks and relationships – in their early 50s or even late 40s. In the context of these social changes, the findings of this study present promising signs for using ICTs to help overcome negative impact of social changes on the lives of older Chinese. Facilitating older adults’ relationship development through new ICTs is important to all nations experiencing a graying of the population but especially important to nations like China, where recent social changes, in addition to age-related ones, have increasingly weakened the social networks and relationships of older Chinese, including those who participated in this study (Xie, 2005, 2006a, 2006b, 2007a, 2007b, in press-a, in press-b; Xie & Jaeger, 2008). Within this context, it is necessary to try to make use of the full potential of new ICTs – although technology cannot be the sole solution, it certainly can be a solution to the problems and issues faced by aging societies and individuals.

Implications

The findings of this study have important theoretical implications for online social support. First, with the development of computer technology, CMC is no longer limited to text-based approaches that – arguably – reduce or filter out physical and contextual social cues and thus impede the development of close, intimate relationships. CMC nowadays takes place more and more often in voice- and video-based modes that enable richer social presence and contextual cues and thus facilitates the formation and development of close, intimate relationships. Earlier CMC theories that argue CMC is not as “rich” as face-to-face communication are no longer valid. Second, each mode of CMC, due to its inherent technological features, may be specialized to sustain one particular type of social interaction and relationship. As such, it will be important to find the right match between each mode of CMC (and its technological features) and each type of social relationship and support. Finally, although the type of social relationship and support sustained by one particular mode of CMC is quite specialized, because individuals use multiple modes of CMC and can freely – and often deliberately – switch from one to another when interaction online, the overall relationships developed through CMC can be multidimensional.

The findings of this study also have implications for policy-making agencies and non- government organizations that serve older adults. In a time when the population is aging rapidly (not only in developing countries like China but also in developed countries like the U.S.), it is imperative that government and non-government agencies develop effective and efficient interventions that may help both society and individuals better cope with aging-related changes (e.g., retirement, relocation, deteriorating health condition, loss of loved ones, and the resulting diminishing social relationships and interactions). Because the aging of the population is coincident with the dramatic development of new ICTs worldwide, it is only logical to envision that, in an increasingly technological world, at least some of those interventions would involve new ICTs.

The findings of this study expand the literature on older adults’ use of ICTs by detecting and reporting the specific ways that older adults use newer and more complicated technical applications to construct and develop supportive relationships. As such, policy-makers and administrators of senior-oriented organizations should be further convinced of older adults’ potential and be more compelled to design interventions that may facilitate older adults’ relationship development through new ICTs. This is important to all nations experiencing a graying of the population but especially important to nations like China where recent social changes, in addition to age-related ones, have increasingly weakened the social networks and relationships of older Chinese (Xie, 2006a, 2006b, 2007a, 2007b, in press-a; Xie & Jaeger, 2008). Within this context, it is necessary to make use of the potential of new ICTs – although technology cannot be the sole solution, it certainly can be a solution to the problems and issues faced by aging societies and individuals.

Limitations and Future Directions

This study detected interesting relationships among the three new categories, including the phenomena that both public modes of CMC – the chat room and online forum – were occasionally used to talk about personal, sensitive subjects and exchange emotional support, and that older Chinese participants switched from one mode of CMC to another in order to exchange a different type of subjects and social support. Yet, due to the qualitative nature of this study, it was not possible to determine how often those phenomena occurred in the chat room and online forum, and how often the switch between different modes of CMC took place. Future research will benefit from examining, comparing, and contrasting the frequencies of both exchanging emotional support in each of these modes of CMC and switching from one mode to another. It will also be necessary to examine how different frequencies of occurrences and switches affect the development of overall social relationships and in what ways.

This study was only able to investigate three modes of CMC because those were the only ones available in the selected research site, the OldKids online community. In future research it will be interesting to examine how other modes of CMC (e.g., multi-user online games, email) sustain relationship development and social support in ways that may be different from (or similar to) those examined in this study. Perhaps more importantly, it will be necessary to examine how different combinations of particular modes of CMC might have different effects on the construction and maintenance of social relationships and the types of social support that arise from those relationships.

Another limitation of this study was that it did not specifically look at the relationship between individual characteristics (e.g., computer skills, gender) and choices to use which modes of CMC. For instance, did older Chinese who used the voice-based mode of CMC differ significantly in terms of typing skills from their age peers who used text-based modes of CMC such as the online forum or IM? Were older Chinese who used the public modes of CMC for the exchange of personal, sensitive subjects and emotional support more likely to be older men or women? These questions deserve systematic examination in future research.

Acknowledgements

The findings reported in this article were part of a large research project that examined the civic engagement, social relationships, and psychological well-being of older Chinese and older American Internet users. The larger research project was supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0431373. The author would like to thank Ken Fleischmann for his insightful editorial assistance.

About the Author

  1. Bo Xie is an assistant professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research focuses on the intersection of older age, information and communication technologies, and health.Address: 2117G Hornbake Building, South Wing, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, USA

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