Online Support Group as a Possible Discourse Community

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Posted on 08 Mar 2013 02:46

While searching the internet for groups that might fit Swales’ six criteria of a discourse community, I came across a website called After a basic exploration of its contents, which required me to create an account to view, I observed most of the characteristics generally accepted to be defining of a discourse community. The website is divided into many different groups, one for each issue that people struggle with that they would like to talk about to others who can relate to them. I chose to focus on the group Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) because it is one of the most active groups on the website and the disorder is less heard of than the issues of other popular groups such as Depression, Anorexia, OCD, Bulimia, Anxiety, and Loneliness.

The shared goal of the support group is to help each member feel more uplifted with their life and to alleviate her (almost all of the contributors in the Borderline Personality Disorder forums were female) symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder through advice, personal experiences, and sympathy. There is a disclaimer at the bottom of each page on the website indicating that the content of the site is not meant to replace any current prescriptions assigned to the members by their doctors and is only meant to bolster, through social means, the treatment that they receive from qualified medical authorities. Through this website, people can communicate with each other in the forum or by private message. The forum can be added to by creating a discussion or posting to an existing discussion in the support group of your choosing. Private messages are pretty self-explanatory in that you can communicate with any user of this website without making your message public. These are the methods of intercommunication between the members of this discourse community that I feel fit Swales’ description in that they use the forum to give and receive the advice and thoughts of one another. I cannot speak for private messages because I have not been able to research that genre as they are evidently not public. has other functions such as being able to become other users’ “supporter.” The more people a user supports (by clicking the “Add Supporter” button) and the more actively she participates in the forum, the more support points that user garners. Support points seem to act as an incentive for members to contribute to the goal of the website. As more points are earned, users progress up a hierarchy of “support badges.” These terms I feel, may be considered the lexis that Swales feels is characteristic of a discourse community as an outsider might not have heard of support points or badges. However, this might be considered a loose interpretation of the criterion since the terms are straightforward.

The discussions created in the Borderline Personality group are mostly by people who are new to the group and want to integrate themselves into the community by reaching out to others. The discussion that I read was created by an outsider, and the people who responded to the user were mostly more experienced users, or insiders, denoted by the number of support points that they had (which is published under each comment made by that user). The forum is only open to those who have an account, so an outsider who has never heard of an online support group for Borderline Personality Disorder cannot find these discussions by accident. Those with more support points are not necessarily experts in advice. There is no hierarchy of members except for the moderator, who does not seem to get involved with any discussions, so no member’s advice or input is backed by any provable qualifications. The knowledge provided in the forums mostly comes from personal experience, and even that can’t be corroborated. Therefore, I am not sure if this aspect of the BPD support group could fit the last requirement of Swales’ conceptualization of a discourse community, which is that “A discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.” The support group only needs members who are willing to discuss their issues with others and relate to others.

After my research on this forum created by members of a Borderline Personality Disorder online support group, I am still unsure whether or not it could be rendered a discourse community by Swales’ specifications. This group fits some parts of the definition well, but for others, I felt I had to stretch the meaning of his words into something that might have lost the intent of the author. On the other hand, Swales’ description might have been written to be flexible to include more communities such as the Borderline Personality Disorder support group. A flexible definition would be more fitting in this technological age because of the developing online communities that change the way people interact.

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