A huge number of really cool things happened this year at APW, some of them almost totally behind the scenes. One of those things was that Melissa Janoske, who’s working on her PhD in in public relations, social media, and social capital, wrote a whole research paper on the APW community and why so many of you stick around after you get married. It’s a fascinating paper, and she’s willing to email it to any of you that are interested in reading it. But today she’s here with a post about why she wrote on this topic and what she learned. It’s interesting to me, not just as the person who runs APW, but as someone who’s made some of her best girlfriends in the world through blogging. Why do we bond the way we do online? What happens when those relationships go from virtual relationships to solid real life relationships that nurture us? How does that happen? How can online communites foster this? As we wrap up 2011, Melissa is here to talk about what she learned.
Years ago, way back in 2006, I was just starting my first real job as an instructor at a small liberal arts college, and I met a boy. And I really liked that boy. I liked him so much, in fact, that I started to daydream-plan our wedding. I spent hours in my brand-new office using my brand-new computer to look at ways to create a wedding for my brand-new relationship. Beyond chair covers and the perfect shoes, however, I noticed something else: people (mostly women) talked on these communities. A lot. About everything. They shared the secrets of tying square knots and where to buy fifteen milk glass cake plates, but also how they felt about their future mother-in-laws, and if they were going to change their name, and lots of other things. I was hooked.
I spent a lot of time in that office over the next two years, alternately learning how to teach public relations to undergraduates and navigating planning my wedding to that boy I liked, using those same online communities. And one day, I stopped and thought about how interesting it was that people were making friends online. Real friends, ones who supported one another and answered questions and said that dress doesn’t make you look fat, exactly, but perhaps this one would be better. These relationships seemed to be the focus of the wedding blogs I read.
And, being the budding researcher that I was, I decided I’d like to know more about why that happened. What, exactly, was driving these women online, instead of to their best friend’s house? I scribbled down a note to myself, my very first “Something I’d Like to Research” idea, a promise that it would be something I would look into. I forgot about it for awhile, but as I got engaged and kept reading, got married and kept reading, got divorced and kept reading, started dating again and kept reading (I’ve been reading for awhile), I figured I was onto something. There was a reason I couldn’t tear myself away, a reason that all these other women couldn’t tear themselves away either, and I wanted to figure out what it was.
How do you explain APW to your family? To your friends? To your significant other? Do you think about it in terms of the conversations you have, the friendships you’ve formed, or just the key phrase from that one post that really made you think? Maybe you think about it in terms of social networks and the strange factors that entice people to build relationships online? Or maybe you don’t think about it at all—you just read.
I wrote a paper about APW. A whole, research and theory-based academic paper that finally made use of that five-year-old scrap of paper, focusing on what it is that APW does to make people stick around when previous research says they should leave (namely, once they’re married). And what I found was pretty interesting. I did interviews with twenty five members of the APW community (including one with Meg), where I asked them about their experiences. Why did they seek out wedding information or inspiration on the internet? Why did they stay once they found APW? What did they like, and what would they like to change? How did they feel about the relationships they’d made (if they’d made any)? Could they tell me why they kept coming back—why they couldn’t tear themselves away?
APW is classified in research as a event-based community of practice, which means that it’s an online community where people come together to learn, share information, and get support, and it’s built around the idea that there is an event happening after which people would be expected to leave the community (other examples: having a baby, supporting a political candidate, having major surgery, etc.). It’s why a site like Offbeat Bride expanded into Offbeat Mama and Offbeat Home, and we occasionally harass Meg about broadening Reclaiming Wife—the founders stand to lose too many personal and informative resources if everyone jumped ship once they tied the knot.
I used uses and gratifications theory (a fairly common mass communication and public relations theory) to understand why people would look for a wedding community online (gratifications sought) and why they would stay in the community (gratifications obtained). Based on the twenty five completed interviews, I found that people came to the community because they were looking for an emotional resource, a place to discuss changing societal roles and ideas about the terms “wife” and “marriage,” and to be empowered to make decisions that were right for them.
People stayed with the community because of the advice and support they found, the diversity and overall positive feel of the community, and the strength of the personal voices leading the community. I also discussed the post-event connection that occurs, due to the idea that a person’s role changes (one participant said that she “feels like an advisor now, more than a sponge absorbing information”), and the importance of having an offline connection option (book club and other social gatherings) to support the online connection.
One other important piece is that not only do the contributions and comments of married users provide discussion and resources for brides, but it provides a picture of what life is like on the other side, the ultimate gratification obtained. That crystallized picture of being a wife, full of advice and suggestions and stories, helps refuel commitment to the community, and to extend that commitment beyond the natural end. In addition, APW works to provide content that deals with marriage, and to let both married and engaged women have a say in that discussion. Instead of focusing on weddings specifically, there is a clear idea that weddings will turn into marriages, and it is good to be prepared for what happens after the party is over.
APW as a community ultimately survives because of their three-fold approach to the topic: it’s a practical resource for weddings (finding vendors, how-tos), a thought-provoking resource for marriage (name changing, fighting, potential parenthood), and an emotional resource for everything that comes along with both processes. Getting married is a highly personal universal event, and APW does its best to help you navigate that passage and then turn around to help others do the same.
Thanks to Meg and my twenty four other (anonymous) interviewees, who opened up their experiences and ideas to me, and were honest, thoughtful, and the real life of the project. The full paper is available upon request by contacting melissa dot janoske at gmail dot com.