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Digital safe-havens: Boundary work in stigmatized communities online

Conference contribution
Authors Ylva Hård af Segerstad
Daphna Yeshua-Katz
Published in 7th European Communication Conference (ECREA), Lugano, Switzerland, 31 October - 3 November 2018
Publication year 2018
Published at The Linnaeus Centre for Research on Learning, Interaction, and Mediated Communication in Contemporary Society (LinCS)
Department of Applied Information Technology (GU)
Language en
Keywords social media; stigma
Subject categories Human Aspects of ICT, Other Humanities


With the purpose of examining boundary work in stigmatized communities online, we draw on theories on stigma (Goffman, 1963), boundary work (Gieryn, 1983; 1999), and computer-mediated communication (e.g. Baym, 1995; Baym & boyd, 2012). People living with stigmatized conditions may experience social isolation in the offline realm. However, online support groups offer contexts in which members can share their experience in the security of peers-only, in what can be described as digital safe-havens. In order to remain safe-havens, the communities have to maintain boundaries to the outside, as well as in-group norms (Hård af Segerstad & Kasperowski, 2017). In this study, we examine boundary work in four different types of stigmatized online support groups: (1) “pro-ana” blogs operating via blog-hosting platforms (international, open access); (2) infertility discussion boards (Israeli, sign-up); (3) a WhatsApp group for veterans with PTSD (Israeli, by invite), and (4) a Facebook group for bereaved parents (Swedish, sign-up). Data consist of 52 semi-structured interviews with members and moderators of the four groups, revealing that challenges posed to digital safe-havens for stigmatized groups are linked to two technological affordances: the scalability and searchability (boyd, 201), which simultaneously encourage people sharing the same stigma to join the group but allows for potentially unwelcome participants to enter them, thus threatening to dismantle the safe-havens. Results expose how media affordances challenge the ways stigmatized individuals utilize these communities. Both moderators and members invested efforts into protecting group boundaries in two ways: (1) monopolization of the communities, and (2) removal of “pseudo” members. In open-access communities (pro-ana blogs) members watched the newcomers’ interaction to see if they abide by group’s norms. Identifying members who are labeled “wannarexics” (perceived as wannabees) served as a way to erect boundaries and develop a group identity. One way to identify these “pseudo” members was to monitor their information requests for signs that they were seeking a lifestyle rather than experiencing an illness. In online communities that require admins’ approval (closed groups on Facebook and WhatsApp) moderators control access and investigate if a newcomer is authentic before admitting new members. However, the possibility to create fake online accounts breeds insecurity among members, and admins in the bereaved parents’ group report that “At first we didn’t do any check up on who approached the group, but then weird people who pretended to be a family in grief appeared…”. In the semi-public group for Israeli women with fertility issues, removal takes place by deleting posts, as the admin reported: “Sometimes people trick us. They make up a story, and then we have to block them. If problems occur, we first send a warning and then start deleting messages.” In the closed group for bereaved parents both moderators and members monitor interaction in the group, and identified impostors are removed from the group. In the PTSD WhatsApp group, the selection process before admittance is highly controlled and therefore the admins could not point at a case of an outsider entering the group.

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