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Virtual community care? An analysis of the experience of computer mediated social support

Principal Researcher

Mr Roger Burrows
Centre for Housing Policy
Department of Social Policy and Social Work
University of York
Heslington
York YO1 5DD
+44 (0)1904 432317
rjb7@york.ac.uk

Co-Workers

Mr Brian Loader
University of Teesside
b.d.loader@tees.ac.uk

Dr Steven Muncer
University of Teesside
s.muncer@tees.ac.uk

Dr Sarah Nettleton
University of York
sjn2@york.ac.uk

Mr Nicholas Pleace
University of York
np3@york.ac.uk
 
Research Period
1 January 1998 to
31 December 1999
Background/Context
Aims and Objectives
Project Design
Implications

Background/Context

The concept of a virtual community refers to the use of the new information and communication technologies to link together otherwise disparate individuals by means of various forms of computer-mediated communication. These virtual communities are based not around spatial proximity but around common interests. There has been a huge proliferation of such virtual communities as the use of the Internet has spread. This project examines the functioning of virtual communities from the perspective of some of the central concerns of contemporary social policy. In particular the study focuses on the functioning of virtual communities organised with the express intention of providing some form of social support to its members.

Aims and Objectives

The research aims to examine the experience of users of computer mediated social support (CMSS) and the perceptions they have of its effectiveness, and to place these experiences within a broader theoretical and policy context. In order to meet these aims, the project has five main objectives: to audit and classify the range of CMSS available on the Internet; to examine in detail the functioning of a small number of CMSS fora; to examine the experiences of users of CMSS and their perceptions of the effectiveness of the CMSS systems they are involved in; to critically evaluate the quality of the advice and social support provided by CMSS from the perspective of health and welfare professionals; and, to situate the above within the context of a range of contemporary theoretical and policy debates.

Project Design

The project design has four elements. First, a systematic audit of available Internet resources which relate to issues of social support and self-help is undertaken and a typology of sites constructed. Second, a small number of 'sites' is selected for case study analysis using a range of quantitative and qualitative methods. Third, semi-structured interviews with CMSS participants are carried out. Fourth, the quality of the predominately 'lay' advice and information provided by our case study sites is critically evaluated by professional 'expert panels' recruited to undertake this task. These evaluations form the basis of a systematic attempt to evaluate the 'distance' between 'professional' and 'user' views of the same phenomena.

Implications

First, the research provides a concrete example of technologically driven changes, in both the delivery and the provision of social welfare, which are likely to become increasingly ubiquitous. Second, the research contributes to debates about the decline of the perceived legitimacy of the discourses of welfare professionals and the correlative foregrounding of lay perspectives and consumer views. Third, the study contributes to the analysis of the impact of self-help on processes of welfare deprofessionalisation. Fourth, the study provides a critical case analysis of the efficacy of social support on health, wellbeing and rehabilitation. This is an important undertaking in a world where sources of social support which can be accessed from within the private sphere are likely to become increasingly important.

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Contents current at 15th October 1998