Users say participation in news sites’ online forums helps them understand their communities better

[June 16, 2010]

Joining in online newspapers’ message forums increases participants’ perception that they understand their local communities better, according to a new research study in the Spring 2010 edition of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. However, that participation and accompanying sense of community understanding is not related to their getting out and taking part in real-world community activities.

These findings are based on a survey of 538 participants in message forums at the online sites associated with 80 U.S. newspapers. Such forums generally consist of a portion of the website where visitors can post comments organized into common message “threads,” and can be found at about a third of all U.S. online newspapers.

One of the goals newspapers frequently have in hosting such forums is to build a virtual community that overlaps the geographic one. The study titled “Virtual Community Support for Offline Communities Through Online Newspaper Message Forums” done by Jack Rosenberry, a researcher at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., found that this overlap does develop. Forum users tended to be longtime community residents, with 57 percent of them living in community served by the newspaper for more than 20 years. About a third of forum participants said they know one or more of their online correspondents personally offline as well, and a quarter said they have become friends offline with someone they first met online.

Participation in the forums gives users a perception that they relate better to their communities. More than three quarters of respondents agreed with a statement that taking part in forums leads to better understanding of community issues while about 60 percent said the forums offered useful ideas for solving community problems. About half also said that their thinking about community issues had sometimes been changed by information from the forum. A further statistical analysis indicated that greater participation in the forums led to stronger agreement with each of these ideas.

However, forum participation was not related to actual community involvement or social-capital-building activities that might extend from this greater understanding. This was the case even though more than half of survey respondents reported that they had contacted someone offline about a community issue in response to online discussion about it, or had attended a meeting or event based on information from a forum discussion.

Taken at face value, these numbers seem to imply a mobilizing influence on the part of the forums. But statistical analysis showed that other variables were better predictors of this behavior, especially whether or not respondents’ offline relationships overlap their online ones. This means such “civic engagement” behavior is related more closely to existing social relationships and community involvement than it is to association with the online community. As it was colorfully described by another set of researchers who investigated virtual communities, “there is little reason to presume that the Internet will make social butterflies out of homebodies.” Participation in newspaper forums apparently does not, either.

Contact: Jack Rosenberry, Associate Professor, St. John Fisher College, Rochester, N.Y. 585-385-8206;


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