Dooce, Sensemaking, and Community

Well, that has been an interesting ride since my last post.


First, who knew how many people would be searching the web to try to find out why Dooce is getting divorced? According to my site stats, about 700 have stopped by this site after conducting a web search looking for some more understanding about why Dooce/Heather Armstrong has separated and appears to be divorcing Jon.


I couldn’t have asked for more obvious data to land in my lap to support my argument that people want to understand what is going on.  And even though Dooce gets 100,000 readers a day, most of the 311,000,000  inhabitants of the US do not read her blog.  So what happens when you need someone to discuss her separation with? There are probably not enough people in your face-to-face world to figure it out with. I don’t think any of the people who ended up on my blog read the news and then immediately googled for information about Dooce.


Instead, I think her readers pondered her situation, worried about health, and were curious about why.  I would say it caused enough internal tension that that folks said “What the heck?” and googled.  Did they think they’d find an answer?  No.  Does Dooce or Jon keep a secret blog they could find and read?  No!  But did they think they might find someone else discussing what is going on?  Yes. 700 folks, and that is not counting the 1000 or so hits I got from Slate and Sheknows.  Wow.


I have no data to support my google-as-sensemaking argument, but it’s a plausible explanation.  Your plausible explanations are welcome, too, including the tendency to seek information from the same medium by which we are used to receiving it.   (And I need to blog about the “hate readers” because it suggests to me a couple of  a really interesting study should some psychologist or comm scholar want to study it)


I planned on blogging about this two weeks ago, soon after my last post.  But then my son got sick–apparently, really sick–and had to be hospitalized.  That has relevance here because of the socio-emotional and material support I received through posting about it on Facebook.  I hate to self-cite, but that article I wrote with Tom Horan ages ago proposed that online groups can increase social capital (through networks, norms, and trust) when online networks overlap with face-to-face networks.


That paper did not anticipate social networking technologies like Facebook, and the egocentric communities that develop from them, like Barry Wellman did.   But I think our paper did anticipate how online interactions move offline and provide real, material support–like the meals, snacks and activities quietly delivered to our house and our hospital room.  That was important to us and similar to the sorts of support Rheingold first talked about on the WELL.


I think, however, our paper underestimated the importance of the online support to folks in a needy state.  Hampton et al’s (2012) new report says that people get more than they give on Facebook.  A “like” is a pretty simple button to click on someone’s status update.  But when 45 people like my status update that we are getting out of the hospital?  That has real and significant meaning to me.  I think there are plenty of research opportunities out there for us to figure out why that is so powerful.


And I don’t think anyone has fully theorized or studied about when those offline and online communication media start to overlap.  When a colleague says “Thank you for status updates.  I really wanted to know how it was going and it was important to me.”  And when multiple friends say “HEY! That idea for a bar in a hospital? You are definitely on to something!”  The conversation seems to start up quickly and get deep in my experiences when the offline and online overlap.  It would be worth seeing how online/offline communication processes merge and when they don’t.


Lots of studies I can see here.  Lots of sense to be made.  Lots of gratitude and connection to be felt.

About Anita Blanchard

Associate Professor, Department of Psychology
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