Effects of online buddies and bandwagon cues on user participation in an online health community
 
Student researcher

Kim, Hyang-Sook (Ph.D. student)
This paper is based on the author’s dissertation

Faculty Supervisor

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar (advisor, committee chair)

Introduction

Individuals who join online communities generally do so to obtain information and support than to offer it to other users, thus raising concerns of under-contribution. Social impact theory (SIT) suggests that this could be due to lack of perceived social responsibility—also referred to as social loafing (Latané, 1981). The core argument of SIT is that individuals are unlikely to offer someone help unless they have received a specific request for such help. This dissertation operationalizes the notion of a specific request in the form of an online buddy and investigates whether it encourages participation among users in a health community website. In addition, it investigates whether collective community feedback, in the form of bandwagon cues, persuades users to participate, as predicted by social facilitation theory (Zajonc, 1965) and the MAIN model (Sundar, 2008a).

Research question / Hypotheses:

H1a: When users are assigned to help another user in an online community, they will perceive greater social responsibility than when they are not assigned to a specific user.
H1b: The more social responsibility there is, the greater an individual’s intention to help will be and the more he/she will actually perform helping behaviors.
H2a: When users comment on questions and their comments attract strong bandwagon ratings, they will perceive more positive evaluations from others’ presence than when the comments elicit weak bandwagon cues.
H2b: The more positive evaluations from others’ presence a user perceives, the greater his/her intentions to participate in the community will be.
H2c: Such effects will be stronger when users are assigned to specific recipient buddies than when they are not assigned to anyone.
H3: When users’ replies to recipient buddies’ questions receive strong bandwagon cues, users will show a greater sense of agency (H3a) and sense of community (H3b) than when the replies receive weak bandwagon cues.
H4: The higher the sense of agency (H4a) and sense of community (H4b), the greater the level of positive attitudes toward posting.
H5: The higher the sense of agency (H5a) and sense of community (H5b), the greater the intention to post.
H6: When users actually help their recipient buddies and their posting activity receives strong bandwagon cues, they will show higher levels of helpfulness to their buddies (H6a), and feel greater perceived competence in (H6b)—and enjoyment (H6c) of—the posting activity, than when their posting activity receives weak bandwagon cues.
H7: These psychological outcomes of posting will mediate the effect of the online buddy and bandwagon cues on posting attitudes (H7a) and intentions to contribute to the community (H7b).
H8: When a user’s posting activity receives weak bandwagon cues, the level of perceived evaluation of the activity will be greater than when it receives strong bandwagon cues.
H9: The feeling of being evaluated by others will mediate the effects of bandwagon cues on posting attitudes (H9a) and intention to post (H9b) in the online community. R1: Will users assigned to a recipient buddy be more likely to perceive pressure to help and, therefore, be less inclined to help than those who do are not assigned a recipient buddy?

Method

The study employed a 2 (online buddy: absence vs. presence) by 2 (bandwagon cues: weak vs. strong) between-participants factorial design experiment to test the effects of two main variables on participants’ psychological outcomes, including perceived responsibility, social presence, perceived evaluation, sense of community, perceived helpfulness, and psychological reactance, as well as their posting attitudes, posting intentions, and website attitudes, across two sessions that were two to three days apart. The study constructed a prototype of an online health community website for the experiment.

Results

The major findings of the study are that 1) assigning specific online buddies to users in a community forum may lead to negative psychological and behavioral consequences; 2) the online buddy cue interacts with bandwagon cues to activate different cognitive processes, leading to differential interpretation of the meanings of those bandwagon cues — either as compliments (in the presence of online buddy) or as unreliable feedback (in the absence of online buddy) — and consequent psychological outcomes; and 3) in the absence of strong community feedback, the online buddy reduces users’ sense of community, thus leading to negative attitudinal and behavioral reactions among participants.

Conclusions

These findings imply that the social responsibility that users typically associate with online communities is undermined by the personal responsibility involved in helping specific individuals in those communities. Furthermore, the existence of online buddies makes users interpret community feedback in different ways. More specifically, when users have online buddies, positive community feedback signaled by strong bandwagon cues creates more pleasant psychological states than negative community feedback signaled by weak bandwagon cues. However, in the absence of online buddies, the strong bandwagon cues generate a greater level of accuracy motivation to verify the veracity of community feedback. This dissertation discusses these and other related theoretical implications as well as practical implications for online community designers.

For more details regarding the study contact

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar by e-mail at sss12@psu.edu or by telephone at (814) 865-2173

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Media Effects Research Lab at College of Communications, Penn State University