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

Open Access
Kim, Hyangsook
Graduate Program:
Mass Communications
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 14, 2012
Committee Members:
  • S. Shyam Sundar, Dissertation Advisor
  • Fuyuan Shen, Committee Member
  • Lee Ahern, Committee Member
  • Roxanne Louise Parrott, Committee Member
  • online buddy
  • bandwagon cues
  • online health communities
  • user contribution
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). 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. 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. 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.