Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Nicholas Pleace, Roger Burrows, Brian Loader, Steven Muncer and Sarah Nettleton (2000) 'On-Line with the Friends of Bill W: Social Support and the Net.'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 2, <>

To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

Received: 25/7/2000      Accepted: 25/8/2000      Published: 6/9/2000


The Internet is now being used as a mechanism for the delivery of social support on a global scale, chiefly through the formation of self-help groups. Most of the research that has been undertaken on these groups has focussed on Usenet and the use of newsgroups for social support. This paper examines the use of an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) 'room', by a self-help group composed of problem drinkers. The group had an international membership and advocated the use of social support, rather than intervention by professional services, to help its membership overcome problem drinking. The paper considers the roles that these new forms of Internet mediated self-help and social support might play in changing the relationships of those who participate in them towards traditional health and social care services. The paper also critically examines the extent to which such fora might function as virtual 'communities' of care.

Internet; Problem Drinking; Social Policy; Social Support


Many commentators have described a situation of increased social and economic uncertainty linked to the influences of globalization on developed societies (Castells, 1996; Giddens, 1994). Job security and economic stability have been undermined by a globalized market which has also brought the traditional social insurance arrangements of the welfare state under increased pressure. Globalization has also led to an increasing multiculturalism with alternative ways of looking at the world contributing to widespread social changes. Some commentators argue that this has created a situation in which traditional forms of social organisation and longstanding deference to the influential professional classes who run society have been profoundly undermined. In Giddens' runaway world, nobody 'knows their place' anymore (Giddens, 1999).

As the welfare state constricts, individuals with the capacity to do so are making their own arrangements when the welfare state either cannot help them quickly enough or cannot deliver what they need. In addition, within a context of reduced belief in professionals, people are sometimes seeking alternative information and alternative treatments or services even when health or social care agencies would be prepared to intervene. Of course, individuals need the finance and other resources to pursue either of these alternatives, so, for example it is the increasing use of the Internet by the middle classes as a source of alternative information on health has come to the attention of health professionals and academics (Hardy, 1999; Burrows and Nettleton, 2000).

Social and economic changes have altered the nature of community. Social networks drawn from people who live in the same location have become less important for some elements of the population. Wellman (2000) argues that many middle class people might not have any 'local' friends at all, but will instead rely on a self-built social network drawn from work, past experiences such as university, and relatives, many or most of whom will not be proximate. Use of transport, the telephone and the Internet allows maintenance of a dispersed social network in ways that were not possible until relatively recently. This can mean that an individual's 'community' can have little or nothing to do with where they live.

The assumption that a locality is also a 'community' cannot now necessarily be made and this has a range of implications when considering the delivery of health and social services to a given population. Clearly, a situation in which there is high social and geographical mobility, rapid economic change, a breakdown in family ties and a dispersion of family networks, if they are present to begin with, is not one in which individuals can draw upon a local 'community' as a social resource (Bulmer 1987). Individuals who develop health or social care needs might in past generations have had access to an extended family living locally, but now they may well not have any such network in place. Their own social network may be dispersed or could undergo at least partial collapse when their circumstances change, for example if they lose their job.

This paper examines the roles of an Internet-based self-help group that operated by Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) and considers how this group may have been altering the relationships between its participants and professionals providing services. It is also concerned with the extent to which the self-help group might have been functioning as a dispersed social network offering social support, or what might be termed a virtual 'community' of care. The focus is on a group for problem drinkers that was based in America but which had international participation. The group was aimed particularly at problem drinkers who were using, or considering using, the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12 step programme, which is perhaps the archetypical example of a 'self-help' response to a health and social care need. A cofounder of AA called himself Bill W and members of AA often refer to themselves as the friends of Bill W.

Self-help groups can potentially offer at least a partial alternative to professional services. This alternative relies on shared experience as a source of information and support. Individuals with the same health and social care needs can meet and draw on each other's experience and knowledge. The Internet offers an environment in which the establishment and maintenance of self-help groups has become easier than it ever was before. The logistics of organising a group, such as the need physically to be at a site with other participants at a fixed time, are not concerns, while the potential number of participants, even for a self-help group with an unusual focus, can be very considerable. Denzin (1998) has argued that the combination of an American tradition of self-help with a love of technology fuelled the development of on-line self help groups in America, examples of which cover almost every conceivable health and social care need (Miller and Gergen, 1998; Finn, 1999; Moursund, 1997). Some of these originally American groups now have participants from around the World, while self-help groups with a British focus are appearing rapidly (Burrows et al, 2000; Muncer et al, 2000). While these groups may have too few participants at present to make a significant contribution to the individualisation and de-professionalisation of health and social care, they nevertheless have the potential to contribute to these processes.

On-line self-help is also of interest because it can potentially provide elements of social support. Social support, as is well known, is usually discussed in terms of either the 'buffer' theory in which social supports are held to have a positive effect when individuals are confronted with illness and stress, or the 'main effect' model, in which social supports are held to have a constant and generally beneficial effect (Cohen and Wills, 1985; Callaghan and Morrissey, 1993). A range of social resources are held to act against stress and in turn both reduce the likelihood of the onset of health problems and aid recovery if health problems develop. Cohen and Wills (1985, p.313) list esteem support, information that a person is esteemed and accepted; informational support, help in defining, understanding and coping with problematic events; social companionship, spending time with others in leisure or recreational activities and instrumental support, the provision of financial aid, material resources and needed services, as the main forms of social support.

There is the possibility that participation in CMC self-help groups could provide esteem support, informational support and social companionship or at least augment these social resources where they are already present (Burrows et al, 2000; Finn, 1999). The extent to which interaction in CMC self-help groups might provide instrumental or practical support would seem to be limited however, because participants often have no actual face to face contact with one another (Muncer et al, 2000). Given a context in which community and social resources based on locality have been undermined, the potential importance of these on-line fora as a social resource providing social support is obvious. Indeed, Wellman has argued that the formation of relationships via CMC reflects actual communities to a greater extent than has been realised, because many people's 'communities' are the self-constructed dispersed social networks that some of these fora resemble (Wellman and Guila, 1999; Wellman, 2000).

The paper begins with a discussion of the methods used for the research and then moves on to describe the nature of the exchanges that took place within the IRC 'room'. The paper concludes with a speculative discussion about the role that the group was playing in the lives of those who participated in it and what this participation meant in terms of their relationship to traditional health and social care services and their access to social support.


Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is neither written communication nor a conversation, although it has features of both. It is perhaps best described as a 'typed conversation'. Individuals meet in a shared electronic space, usually called a room or a channel. Some IRC rooms, like the one in the current study, are regulated. Individuals referred to as hosts or wizards can eject individuals who break the rules of the room. The original host is the individual who creates the room, they can create other hosts, who in turn can create others. Studies of the similar Multi-User Domains (MUDs) indicate that host status is usually awarded according to duration of participation and conduct within the group ( Reid, 1996).

Standardised methodologies for the analysis of CMC exchanges have yet to be developed. Most early work took the view that exchanges within public fora were public and could thus be reported upon without the researcher revealing themselves to the participants in a given group (Sudweeks and Rafaeli, 1996). Ensuring anonymity of these groups and the participants was seen as the means by which ethical research standards could be maintained.

More recently, this view has been questioned. Reid (1996a) has argued that some research has had a tendency to objectify the individuals it is studying because they are obscured by the technology, exchanges that are actually conversations between individuals being treated as if they only exist in the ether, rather than being treated with the care with which conversations between people should be treated. Some now argue that research into CMC without the informed consent of the participants is unethical. Sometimes, this is taken rather further than it would be with ordinary research subjects, for example in advocating that people who take part in online research should be given the chance to comment on the written outputs (Sharif, 1999). In practice, as Paccagnella (1997) reports, some papers publish CMC exchanges without permission, others process the content of exchanges quantitatively without actually reading them (using software), while the majority of work conducted thus far simply does not report whether permission was sought or not (eg. Reid, 1994 and 1996b; Denzin, 1998; Danet et al, 1998; Finn, 1999).

In this instance, permission was not sought. The material was gathered through participation in the room by a researcher. The decision not to seek permission or reveal the identity of the researcher was taken on the basis that this was a public forum and that the exchanges within it were within that context as distinct from the private discourse that would be found in a letter, telephone call or email. It was also decided that revealing the presence of the researcher would result either in expulsion from the group or in a modification in normal behaviour, because individuals knew they were being 'watched', that would invalidate the study. The researchers were nevertheless very conscious that while these exchanges were public and easily recorded, the participants would not have normally expected to see them outside the context of the group. In addition, the extent to which the participants regarded the group as a public venue, even though it was very public, is perhaps debatable. Consequently, following the convention established by earlier research, no material that might identify an individual or the group is being presented in this paper.

For a period of five months, a researcher visited an IRC room for problem drinkers that was based in the US but which had an international set of participants including people from South Africa, Australia, Japan, Western Europe and England. In total, 54 visits were made to the room, with each visit lasting between one and two hours. The researcher informed other participants that they were 'curious' about the room, but did not claim to be a problem drinker and remained silent during those exchanges in which individuals sought advice about their problem drinking. The researcher had no experience of problem drinking in their personal life.

During the sessions in which the researcher participated, 121 individuals visited the room a total of 306 times. The most regular participants usually had host status. On average, the researcher met each of the 34 hosts they encountered six times, whereas the other participants were usually only encountered once. Only 13 of the participants (15 per cent) who were not hosts were encountered by the researcher more than once. The room was short lived, having been established only a couple of months before the researcher appeared and disappearing a few weeks after the research concluded. New rooms on the same subject seemed to have simply drawn all the participants away from the original room. These new rooms, visited briefly by the researcher, seemed to have similar features and often elements of the same membership as the room that was studied.

The Nature of the exchanges in the group

Previous research into self-help groups on the Internet has tended to focus on newsgroups on a network called Usenet ( It is not possible to have a 'typed conversation' in a newsgroup like it is in an IRC room, as newsgroups work asynchronously, with individuals writing notes to each other that are organised by subject by the software (Smith, 1999). From the researcher's point of view, newsgroups are attractive because most messages and responses, called posts, are relatively short and are already organised by subject, which allows systematic statistical and qualitative analysis of the exchanges (Finn, 1999; Muncer et al, 2000). In contrast, IRC is a synchronous conversation that can involve many people at once and like any conversation it can change direction rapidly (Danet et al, 1998), which can make describing the exchanges more difficult than it is in newsgroups.

To help frame the material that is presented here, a very broad description of 300 of the conversations that took place during the researcher's 54 visits to the room has been produced. The method used was to examine any exchange of any duration, which was arbitrarily defined as anything more than a few minutes, and then to determine, although only in very broad terms, the main focus of the conversation. Very short exchanges were excluded. Exchanges could be terminated suddenly when someone's connection to the room failed, when this occurred and they subsequently reappeared and restarted their conversation, it was treated as part of the same exchange rather than as a new conversation. No claims are made that this approach was rigorous analysis, but it was only intended to give the researchers a broad feeling for the pattern of exchanges that were taking place in the room. The description was too broad to categorise the exchanges for systematic analysis and it cannot be regarded as a coding frame. Indeed, Table One should not really be seen as part of the analysis in itself, as it is merely a broad description through which it is hoped a general feel for the nature of the exchanges in the room can be conveyed. To help organise and make sense of the material it is also being used as a simple framework within which the exchanges can be examined in more detail.

In 6 per cent of the exchanges monitored involving a stable set of participants, there was no consistent topic or theme of conversation and these were described accordingly. Technical discussions, about software and hardware were fairly commonplace and these were separated out from the other exchanges.

Table 1: Broad Description of the Exchanges in the IRC Room

Type of exchange

Number of conversations

As percentage (rounded)

Advice on problem drinking



General chatting



Playful and friendly exchanges



Regulatory exchanges



Technical discussions



No consistent theme



Advice on problem drinking

Exchanges that focussed entirely on advice to people who were problem drinkers represented a fifth of the exchanges analysed. These exchanges might be described as informational support (Cohen and Wills, 1985), in that they helped people define, understand and cope with their problem drinking. Typically, these exchanges concentrated on empathising with an individual who was in distress and on advocating the AA approach to dealing with problem drinking through the self-help meetings and sponsor system offered by AA.

Each participant used a nickname (usually called a 'nick') which was normally not related to their actual name, however to preserve confidentiality, these nicks have been altered and any information that might identify the participants has been omitted.

(Example 1)

Bigfish says:
i aint doing so well though....but i really gotta kick this or i'm never gonna finish college
Host Trees says:
bigfish, I remember starting by counting minutes.. and hours
Host Leaves says:
impossible to do otherwise

Host Leaves says:
Hang in bigfish
Host Leaves says:
it gets better

(Example 2)

Host ##daylight## says:
NUTS=Not Using The Steps
Host ##daylight## says:
STEPS=Solutions To Every Problem Sober
Host ##daylight## says:
SPONSOR=Sober Person Offering Newcomers Suggestions

There could be some degree of tension when advice based on the AA approach was questioned by people who were new to the group. In a handful of cases, individuals who would not accept the AA approach were eventually ejected from the room by a host.

Street says:
just because i don't jump up and run out the door for a 12-step meeting doesn't mean i don't need help.
Street says:
i'm TRYING to find it here.
Host Soysauce says:
thats the help we offer
~Aurora~ says:
we cant give you sobriety
Street says:
"Go to a program"
Street says:
great help.
~Aurora~ says:
can only tell you what works for us
Host Soysauce says:
Call AA and go to a meeting

General Chatting

General chatting was a regular feature of the room. It was usually confined to discussions of the weather in whichever part of the World someone was connecting to the room from and the participants also had a general fascination with the different time zones and countries that individuals were in. During one session, much of the discussion was dominated by the fact that individuals in Japan, Britain, South Africa and various parts of North America were all in the room simultaneously. Although it only represented, in broad terms, 10 per cent of the exchanges described, this interaction could, as in any other context, act as an icebreaker and lead to the development of relationships that were characterised by the playful and friendly exchanges that dominated the room.

Playful and friendly exchanges

A range of previous research has shown that CMC is often used in a playful way (Reid, 1996b; Danet et al, 1998). Friendly and playful exchanges, ranging from enquiries about partners or children to gossip between friends, could be broadly described as representing 41 per cent of the exchanges that took place when the researcher was present. Relationships within the group were also characterised by the use of elaborate greetings and by 'hugging' one another through the use of language and smileys (using punctuation like hieroglyphics to represent physical contact, Reid, 1996b).

Host DiaMond says:
hi all
Host Cleric says:
*snugglewugglessnurflewurfleshugglejustdownrightbear*HUGS* DiaMond
Host Cleric:
Host DiaMond says:
{{{{{{{ Cleric }}}}}}}

In this exchange, the host with the nickname 'Cleric' not only 'hugs' the host with the nickname 'DiaMond' when she enters the room, but also plays a sound file (called hugyou.wav) to make the greeting even more elaborate. DiaMond's reply is more modest, using bracket symbols on her keyboard to represent a hug back.

Play between participants was very common. Sometimes this was restricted to wordplay or flirting and sometimes it involved descriptions of physical actions or producing drawings using punctuation marks

(Example 1)

recovered throws water balloons at Stone !!! Duck!!!!_**splat** **splat** **splat** **splat**
**splat****splat****splat** **splat** **splat** **splat****splat** **splat** **splat**
**splat** **splat** **splat** **splat** I run away giggling as Stone drips all over the floor!!!

(Example 2)

Stone says:
There is not enough chocolate. Stone wants some at least 4 times a day.
Host Sunny says:
Host Flower says:
chocolate or sex Stone??
Host Sunny says:
Host Sunny says:
Host Fox says:
Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha
Host Sunny says:
Stone says:
Ideally both, Flower, I suppose you would need some sort of sauce for it to work properly.
Host Fox says:
now, girls!
Host Flower says:
Host Sunny says:

*LOL is a commonly used abbreviation for 'Laughing Out Loud'.

(Example three)

Host ##daylight## says:
bob wants to know if ya been flirting today
Host ##daylight## says:
Host diLberT says:
yep hehehehe
Host diLberT says:
on icq*
Host ##daylight## says:
Host diLberT says:
soooooo fun and sooooo safe!!!!
Host ##daylight## says:
you go girl
Host diLberT says:
at least I think it's flirting. Hehehehe
Host ##daylight## says:
Host ##daylight## says:
ya sure it aint cyber**
Host ##daylight## says:

* ICQ "I Seek You" is an application that allows one to one exchanges in a similar way to IRC. However, ICQ does not require individuals to visit a specific site or room and is available whenever they are connected to the Internet ( ** As in cybersex, a very common use of CMC is for sexual fantasy, play and stimulation (Wiley, 1995; Reid, 1996)

(Example four)

yahoo says:

     ^v^           ^v^
                      /| \
                     / |  \
Come Sail Away With AA ~~~~~~~~~~~~

Such exchanges might be described as potentially providing both social companionship, in that they involve leisure and recreational activity with other people and esteem support, in that they could provide an individual with a feeling that they are held in esteem and accepted (Cohen and Wills, 1985). Certainly, the frequency of such exchanges seemed to indicate that use of the group for this purpose was very popular among the participants.

It is also important to note that besides perhaps having a function in establishing relationships that could become supportive, such exchanges may have reflected the difficulty that certain individuals had in talking about their problem drinking. Some individuals may have found it difficult to get directly to the point when seeking information or help and these exchanges may have reflected this difficulty, as well as serving a role in building trust prior to more informational exchanges taking place.

Perhaps significantly, American individuals who participated within the group organised camping trips with other Americans who lived relatively nearby, while some of those who lived near to one another also sometimes saw each other socially. This suggested that the virtual relationships they established in the room were sometimes leading to more conventional relationships using the telephone and face to face contact. References to emails also sometimes occurred, suggesting that participants were perhaps having more involved contact with one another through a much more private form of CMC.

In addition, it is important to note that exchanges seemed to quite frequently refer to children, partners, friends and relations who were not participants in the room. Some of the regular participants were parents and most seemed to be in relationships because of their references to partners. None of the participants described the room as their sole source of social support or as their main source of social support during the exchanges that were observed. For example, no one said they had no friends other than the ones in the room or that no one cared about them apart from the people in the room. The room was just one form of interaction and one form of support among many.

Host ~carpark~ says:
Is ellis in here?
Host ##daylight## says:
our ellis is finally a daddy
Host ##daylight## says:
Host ##daylight## says:
hes on leave from work
Host ##daylight## says:
I got an emmail last night
Yogibear says:
If I dont see him , will someone tell him I said congrats!!! that is an awesome experience =)
Host ##daylight## says:
sure will
Host ~carpark~ says:
boy, ain't that a real deal! Dads gettin' time off for childbirth!
Host ##daylight## says:

Regulatory exchanges

While the group was often characterised by play, it nevertheless did try to maintain a broad focus on issues related to alcohol dependency. IRC is particularly favoured by teenagers and incursions into the room by young men who were insulting were frequent. The various hosts in the chatroom used the 'kick' command to remove individuals who were misbehaving. In this exchange someone using the nickname Goboy enters the Chatroom and immediately starts misbehaving. The host called Flower first warns him by 'shouting' (by using capitals) and then expels him with a kick command.

Host Flower says:
hello Goboy
Goboy says:
Hi You fucking Tart!!
Host Flower says:
Stone says: Where are you from Werewolf?
Host Flower says:
ill kick u next time
Werewolf says:
I'm from Canada
Goboy says:
i fuck at canada!
Host Flower kicked Goboy out of the chat room, saying "for being a big meanie =P~~~~~~~~neener neener neneer".

Many of the hosts also used automated messages, triggered whenever a new participant entered the room, which described the rules of the room. There appeared to be a considerable emphasis on keeping the room a 'safe' environment in which participants trying to discuss problems would not be abused. These exchanges cannot be categorised as social support in themselves, but they were important in maintaining an environment within which elements of social support could apparently be provided. In common with some other fora for CMC, the IRC room participants drew quite heavily on the Internet and Usenet conventions for acceptable behaviour and individuals could be sanctioned for not obeying what is generally referred to as 'Netiquette' (Smith et al, 1998).


The current study had a number of limitations. The first and most significant was that it did not incorporate interviews with the participants in the group, so the effect that their participation in the group had on their relationship to health and social care services in general and detoxification services in particular cannot be specified. Equally, the extent to which the group functioned as a social resource for the participants can only be hypothesized about, because there is not the direct evidence of face to face interviews to draw upon. Another important limitation needs to be noted with regard to the difficulty in analysing the exchanges themselves, which because of their highly dynamic nature could only be broadly described rather than systematically coded. It is also important to constantly bear in mind the ever growing scale and ever more heterogenous nature of CMC on the Internet and Usenet when considering the impact of these new technologies on social policy and social interaction more generally. As Paccagnella (1997) has argued in relation to CMC, no one study of any one group can represent the diversity that already exists, although it can contribute to the cumulative knowledge about these fora.

Nevertheless, a number of broad points about the role of on-line self-help groups can be made from the results of the current study. The first relates to the extent to which participation in the group affected attitudes towards conventional health and social care services. In this respect, the regular membership of the group, most of whom were hosts, had very clear ideas about the best way to deal with problem drinking, which was to employ the self-help and social support mechanisms developed by AA. No-one who entered the room and asked for help with their problem drinking was presented with suggestions that they visit their doctor or with a recommendation that they use a detoxification service or rehabilitation clinic. They were instead told about AA and told to attend meetings, read the 'big book' and get a sponsor (

The point here is that the room offered one route away from problem drinking. The extent to which this might have had an effect on the participants' attitudes towards health and social care professionals is uncertain, because their access to other sources of information and the extent of the room's influence on their lives is not something that it is possible to pronounce upon. It also has to be noted that AA represents a coherent and successful alternative approach to a particular health and social care need, whereas faith healing, aroma-therapy and a host of other approaches one can find being advocated on websites and via CMC do not have the status associated with proven effectiveness.

It is worth noting that participants in on- line self-help groups can advocate any particular approach or set of ideas. Anyone can go into a forum like the room, particularly if it is unregulated like many newsgroups and IRC rooms are (no hosts are present), and say anything. There is a danger that vulnerable individuals may be exposed to ideas and suggestions that might not prove beneficial and might even be harmful within these fora. There is also the concern that individuals can easily misrepresent themselves or use multiple identities to advocate a certain position. Within the room, playing with identity was quite commonplace, as is the case in CMC more generally (Reid, 1994 and 1996b).

Puppy is now known as Robin.
Host budget says:
Robin??? little sneak

These concerns are obviously lessened when individuals have a diverse range of information available and are well able to assess and process that information. However, in a context in which professional discourses and science are increasingly questioned, there is perhaps a danger that those who reject orthodox health or social care services on an ill-informed basis could encounter lots of information of dubious quality on the Internet. In advocating the AA approach, the room was advocating something that was likely to help people, but other groups could be advocating what Americans call snakeoil (the 'miracle cures' sold in the mythical wild west) and potentially divert people from professional responses that might well be more beneficial or effective.

It is also worth nothing the potential that such fora might be used for recreational purposes by those with only a voyeuristic interest in the other participants. Just as the researchers were able to observe the group for the purposes of the study without the consent of the participants, any individual might also observe the lives and experiences of the sometimes vulnerable people participating in such fora in exactly the same way as they watch television programmes like Oprah (humdog, 1996).

With regard to the social support that the room was able to offer, the study can again only hypothesize about what kind of social resource the room was for its participants. The first point to be made here is that only the regular participants were likely to gain social support from the room. Before the extent to which the room functioned as a source of social support can be discussed, it is first necessary to note that only 50 or so individuals out of a total of 121 people who visited when the researcher was present (41 per cent) were regular visitors. This suggests that for the majority of visitors, the room did not offer an environment to which they wanted to return, let alone one in which they might seek social support. This point might be further reinforced by noting that only a handful of the individuals who visited only once were what is described in CMC terms as 'trolls', that is individuals who enter CMC fora with no other intent than to be abusive.

While the ostensible purpose of the room was to provide advice and support to problem drinkers, much of the activity was social. Play and friendly exchanges formed a much larger part of what the room was used for than discussions about alcohol or exchanges in which individuals seeking support were given advice and information. Yet while the group did not have a particularly pronounced role in the delivery of informational support, it can perhaps be suggested that it had a role in providing both esteem support and social companionship, both of which could have had potentially beneficial effects on the regular participants. These benefits may have been reinforced by the one to one contact via email and the telephone that regular participants made reference to, as well as the face to face meetings that were apparently occurring. In addition, play and friendly exchanges may have allowed participants to give themselves time to build confidence in the room before they started to talk about more serious issues and may also have served an important function in developing relationships that could eventually involve informational support. In common with other CMC fora (Muncer et al, 2000), the nature of the technology and a geographically dispersed membership really prevented the possibility of instrumental or practical support being provided, although this may have happened to some extent when some of the regular participants who were proximate to one another met or communicated outside the room. It should perhaps be added that previous research that interviewed users of on-line support for problem drinkers has indicated that such groups can provide social support (King, 1994).

However, while the presence of so much play and friendly interaction might be construed as offering some degree of social support, it also has to be remembered that there was evidence that many of the regular participants were apparently living with partners or were living as part of a family. References to work, partners, social activities and life outside the room were frequent. Centrally, no-one claimed that the room was their main source of social support, nor did anyone really make statements suggesting the room was an important source of social support. This virtual community, in terms of the regular participants at least, did not seem to compare with either a community based on locality or Wellman's (2000) dispersed social networks in terms of the social resources it offered.

Again, it has to be remembered that this was one short-lived example among many such self-help groups (Burrows et al, 2000) and the possibility remains that groups offering much more intensive social support and playing a more central part in the lives of their participants exist. Yet how far such groups could approach becoming the virtual societies that some envisaged in the early days of CMC ( Rheingold 1993 and 1996) does remain uncertain. As Wellman and Guila (1999: 167) point out, the early assertions that CMC would either create 'wonderful' new forms of community or destroy it altogether, left little room for the mixed and moderate results of CMC that may well be the reality. Slevin (2000:4) also criticises the early literature on CMC for confining itself to 'so called virtual communities' while all but ignoring how the information and symbolic content are embedded in a social context 'within which and by virtue of which they are produced and received'. The idea that CMC creates a separate social space and a separate reality from the one in which people live has also been questioned by Parks and Floyd (1996):

Just like people who meet in other locales, those who meet in Cyberspace frequently move their relationships into settings beyond the one in which they met originally. They do not appear to draw a sharp boundary between relationships in Cyberspace and those in real life. Furthermore, if Cyberspace is becoming just another place to meet, we must rethink our image of the relationships formed there as being somehow removed and exotic. The ultimate social impact of Cyberspace will not be from its exotic capabilities, but rather from the fact that people are putting it to ordinary, even mundane, social uses.

The room might then be seen as providing elements of social support that augmented the other social resources to which individuals had access and clearly it offered enough esteem support and social companionship, and enough fun, to attract a small regular membership. The room was not however something that might be described as a virtual community of care.

Denzin's (1999) recent work on a newsgroup for 'co-dependent' people[1] (those who are members of families in which one or more people is a problem drinker), has raised important questions about the nature of the social support provided in on-line self-help groups. Denzin's analysis of the exchanges within this group noted the importance of 'rules' that were based on a certain model of co-dependency. These rules meant that problems and solutions had to be expressed in a particular way. Denzin describes the variations in acceptance of these rules between genders. His work suggests that these shared rules had very important impacts on the exchanges within the group. Deviation from the rules was frowned upon, in much the same way as a failure to accept the AA approach was in the room examined in the current study.

Just as such fora might only present one solution to a problem to their participants, any social support they might offer could also be conditional on acceptance of that one solution. The utility of these fora as a social resource, which may be questionable anyway, is perhaps further undermined if they operate on what might be described as a fundamentalist basis (Giddens, 1994). This is an important point, because Denzin goes on to argue that on-line groups with a loose social network can form themselves into coherent 'communities' or organisations by the adoption of a shared set of ideas. Although he does not use the term, one could speculate that at least some on-line self-help groups use an ideological protocol that sets the rules about how to behave and what is right and what is wrong in order to function. Such protocols might allow ethnically and socially diverse individuals to form something approaching a community based on shared ideas. Yet if this is true, then it is by definition exclusive and something which raises further questions about the utility of CMC fora as a source of social support.


1 The notion of co-dependency, while it has quite widespread acceptance in America, is not regarded as a discrete 'condition' or set of needs in the same way within the UK.


The work reported here is being funded by the ESRC (award number L132251029) under the auspices of its Virtual Society? Programme. Full details of the research programme can be found at <>


BULMER, M. (1987) The Social Basis of Community Care London: Unwin Hyman.

BURROWS, R., LOADER, B., PLEACE, N., NETTLETON, S. and MUNCER, S. (2000) 'Virtual Community Care? Social Policy and the Emergence of Wired Self Help' Information, Communication and Society, Vol.3, No. 1, pp. 95- 121.

BURROWS, R. and NETTLETON, S. (2000) 'Reflexive Modernisation and the Emergence of Wired Self Help' in K. Renniger and W. Shumar (eds) Building Virtual Communities: Learning and Change in Cyberspace New York: Cambridge University Press.

CALLAGHAN, P. and MORRISSEY, J. (1993) 'Social Support and Health: A Review' Journal of Advanced Nursing No.18, pp.203-213.

CASTELLS, M (1996) The Rise of the Network Society: the Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell.

COHEN, S. and WILLS, T. (1985) 'Stress, Social Support and the Buffering Hypothesis' Psychological Bulletin, 98, pp. 310-357.

DANET, B., RUEDENBERG, L., ROSENBAUM-TAMARI, Y. (1998) ' "Hmmm...Where's that Smoke Coming From?" Writing, Play and Performance on Internet Relay Chat' in F. Sudweeks, M. McLaughlin and R. Sheizaf (eds) Network and Netplay: Virtual Groups on the Internet Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press

DENZIN, N. (1998) 'In Search of the Inner Child: Co- Dependency and Gender in a Cyberspace Community' in G. Bendelow and S.Williams (eds) Emotions in Social Life Routledge: London.

Denzin, N. (1999) 'Cybertalk and the Method of Instances' in S. Jones (ed) Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net Sage: London. FINN, J. (1999) 'An Exploration of Helping Processes in an Online Self-Help Group Focussing on the Issues of Disability' Health and Social Work Vol.24, No. 3, pp. 220-231.

GIDDENS, A. (1994) Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics Cambridge: Policy Press.

GIDDENS, A. (1999) Runaway World - Reith Lectures, 1999.<>

HARDY, M. (1999) 'Doctor in the House: The Internet as a Source of Lay Health Knowledge and the Challenge to Expertise' Sociology of Health and Illness Vol.21, No.6, pp. 820-835.

HUMDOG (1996) 'pandora's vox: on community in cyberspace' in M. Goodwin (ed.) High Noon on the Electronic Frontier Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press

KING, S. (1994) 'Analysis of Electronic Support Groups for Recovering Addicts' Interpersonal Computing and Technology Vol.2, No.3, pp.47- 56.

MILLER, J.K and GERGEN, K.J. (1998) 'Life on the Line: The Therapeutic Potentials of Computer Mediated Conversation' Journal of Marital and Family Therapy Vol.24, No.2, pp.189-202.

MOURSUND, J. (1997) 'SANCTUARY: Social Support on the Internet' in Behar, J. E. (ed) Mapping Cyberspace: Social Research on the Electronic Frontier United States: Dowling College Press.

MUNCER, S., BURROWS, R., PLEACE, N., LOADER, B. and NETTLETON, S. (2000) 'Births, Deaths, Sex and Marriage..But Very Few Presents?: A Case Study of Social Support in Cyberspace'. Critical Public Health Vol.10, No.1, pp.1-18.,

PACCAGNELLA, L. (1997) 'Getting the Seat of Your Pants Dirty: Strategies for Ethnographic Research on Virtual Communities' Journal of Computer Mediated Communication 3, 1. <>

PARKS, M.R. and Floyd, K. (1996) 'Making Friends in Cyberspace' Journal of Computer Mediated Communication 1, 4. <>

REID, E.M. (1994) 'Virtual Worlds: Culture and Imagination' In S.G. Jones (Ed) CyberSociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community Sage: Thousand Oaks, California

REID, E.M. (1996a) 'Informed Consent in the Study of On-Line Communities: A Reflection on the Effects of Computer Mediated Social Research' Information Society, 12, 2, pp. 169-174.

REID, E.M. (1996b) 'Communication and Community on Internet Relay Chat: Constructing Communities' in Goodwin, M (ed.) High Noon on the Electronic Frontier Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

RHEINGOLD, H. (1993) The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier available online at <>

RHEINGOLD, H. (1996) 'My Slice of Life in My Virtual Community' in Goodwin, M (ed.) High Noon on the Electronic Frontier Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press.

SHARIF, B.F. (1999) 'Beyond Netiquette: The Ethics of doing Naturalistic Discourse Research on the Internet' in S. Jones (ed) Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net Sage: London.

SLEVIN, J. (2000) The Internet and Society Polity Press: London.

SMITH, C.B., McLAUGHLIN, M.L. and OSBORNE, K.K. (1998) 'From Terminal Ineptitude to Virtual Sociopathy: How Conduct is Regulated on Usenet' in F. Sudweeks, M. McLaughlin and S. Rafaeli (eds) Networks and Netplay: Virtual Groups on the Internet Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

SMITH, M. (1999) 'Invisible Crowds in Cyberspace: Mapping the Social Structure of the Usenet' in Smith, M.A. and Kollock, P. (eds) Communities in Cyberspace London: Routledge..

SUDWEEKS, F. and RAFAELI, S. (1996) 'How Do you Get a Hundred Strangers to Agree: Computer Mediated Communication and Collaboration' in T.M. Harrison and T.D. Stephen (eds) Computer Networking and Scholarship in the 21st Century University SUNY Press.

WELLMAN, B. and GULIA, M. (1999) 'Virtual communities as communities: Net surfers don't ride alone' in M.A. Smith and P. Kollock. (eds) Communities in Cyberspace London: Routledge.

WELLMAN, B. (forthcoming, 2000) 'Physical Place and Cyber Place: The Rise of Networked Individualism' International Journal of Urban and Regional Relations.

WILEY, J. (1995) 'No BODY is 'Doing It': Cybersexuality as a Postmodern Narrative' Body and Society Vol.1, No.1 pp.145-162.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000