February 1998


Issues Related to Negative Communication on Disability-Related Electronic Listservs

by Susan Fox

People with disabilities often lack the physical means to interact with other people, especially other people who have disabilities. Therefore, listservs on the Information Superhighway which service different types of disabilities (e.g., cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, polio, blindness) and discuss disability-related issues (disability services, rehabilitation, ADA-laws) are one way that these people can interact with others who share similar concerns. The purpose of these listservs is to the disseminate information and provide a forum for different issues. In 1992 as many as 10 million people frequented electronic bulletin boards (Berck, 1992), and the virtual community experienced by people on bulletin boards and listservs is growing. For computer-literate people with disabilities, electronic listservs can provide an on-line interactive communication medium that may act as a support group.

Support groups are based on the "principles of empowerment, inclusion, non hierarchical decision making, shared responsibility, and a holistic approach to people's cultural, economic, and social needs" (Braithwaite, Waldron, & Finn, 1996, p. 7), and the benefits of support groups has been well documented (see Roberts, 1988 and Green, 1993 for reviews). There are many advantages to on-line disability listservs such as eliciting and disseminating large amounts of information, create a sense of community, and bypassing mobility difficulties (Braithwaite, et al., 1996).

I view listservs as a computer-mediated social support group. Weinberg, Schmale, Uken, & Wessel (1995) contend that people who may be unable or unwilling to participate in face to face support groups may turn to computer mediated support groups for assistance. In other contexts, Finn & Lavitt (1994) find that computer-based self-help groups for sexual abuse survivors reduce social status cues, encourage participation from reluctant members, and enhance communication for those with interpersonal difficulties. Zimmerman (1987) found that psychologically disturbed adolescents found a computer-mediated context more comfortable for expressing feelings and interpersonal issues than a face- to-face forum. Braithwaite, et al. (1996) found that emotional support, information support, and esteem support were the most frequent types of social support given on a disability related electronic bulletin board. They found that the on-line interactions helped to "validate one another's experience and perceptions and provided great amounts of encouragement, understanding, and empathy to one another" (Braithwaite et al. 1996, p. 23). Therefore, these on- line social support groups can be beneficial to those who participate.

Although the benefits of face to face support groups have been documented, little research has been done about the possible negative effects of these social support groups (see, though, Galinsky & Schopler, 1994; Schopler & Galinsky, 1981). Galinsky and Schopler (1994) found that negative experiences in face to face support groups include embarrassment, distress, obtaining incorrect information, becoming too dependent on the group, learning inappropriate behavior, or finding open communication threatening. From these negative interactions, "residual feelings included such sentiments as humiliation after exposing inadequacies, [and] anger for being 'put down'" (Schopler & Galinsky, 1981, 425-426). Furthermore, they believe that people involved in negative experiences may withdraw from the group and avoid future group involvement.

Disadvantages of social support groups do exist, yet on line groups are being increasingly utilized by computer-literate people via electronic listservs and bulletin boards. While their use appears to be increasing, negative experiences may actually be more prevalent in computer-mediated support groups. For example, these groups are not necessarily conducted with professional supervision. Finn (1988) points out disadvantages of computer mediated groups involved in social support. For example, receivers could obtain incorrect information from well-intentioned but misinformed others which could contribute to negative outcomes. Additionally, participants can become addicted to the email medium and therefore decrease other important forms of face-to-face social interaction. Also, computer-based resources are accessible to only those people who have computer access and knowledge, which can potentially bias the views of its participants. Finally, it is possible that on line communication may cause "harm through negative, hostile, or malicious encounters" (Braithwaite et al., 1996, p. 12).

King (1995) asserts that there are a "preponderance" of argumentative notes in Cyberspace, and although there are rules of "netiquette," some researchers argue that the computer medium reduces the use of politeness forms in email messages (Sproul, 1986; Sproul & Kiesler, 1986). This is seen as resulting from feelings of depersonalization and the lack of fear of social sanctions in computer-mediated communication (Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984; Sproul & Kiesler, 1991). This can manifest itself in electronic messages which are often "startlingly blunt", and therefore "electronic discussions can escalate rapidly into name calling and epithets, behavior which computer buffs call flaming" (Mantovani, 1994, p. 55).

There are "many anecdotal reports of uninhibited (counter normative) behavior in computer networks which circulate on computer bulletin boards in computer- related publications," (Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler, & McGuire, 1986, p. 161) leading to questions regarding the effectiveness and benefit of social support groups on electronic listservs if, in fact, more negative information is present. Support for this notion is also found in research suggesting flaming and negative communication is more frequent in listservs than in person to person electronic mail (Thompsen & Ahn, 1992). But although there seems to be evidence asserting that computer medicated communication is comprised of intense language, swearing, impolite statements, and general negative or hostile communication, Walther, Anderson, and Park's (1994) meta-analysis found that the incidence of flaming is overrated. Therefore, it is unclear whether there is a large amount of negative communication occurring during computer mediated communication.

Since the context of electronic listservs may increase the likelihood of negative communication, the presence of negative communication occurring on computer-mediated social support groups for people with disabilities could negatively impact its users. It is therefore important to examine the occurrence of negative messages in the email medium generally, and electronic listservs specifically. Future research should begin by addressing many different areas. First, researchers need to determine the frequency and prevalence negative communication which transpire during this form of communication. Second, the effects of the negative communication occurring on this medium needs to be addressed. Electronic listserv participants may engage in discussions of a negative nature without any unfavorable effects. Recipients of negative messages may depersonalize the messages they receive and therefore not be negatively (or positively) affected by them as they might in a face-to- face medium. Next, since flaming has been found to occur more on listservs and bulletin boards than in personal emails (Thompsen & Ahn, 1992), there are messages that the whole listserv is not privy to reading. It is possible that there may be reconciliatory messages which are sent back and forth interpersonally that serve to ameliorate the negative effects of posted flames for some of the participants. Because of this, research should track not only public but also personal emails so that a more gestalt approach to coding emails can take place. Finally, future studies of social support groups comprised of both people with and without disabilities could examine the types and target of negative communication directed at people with and without disabilities.

Although social support groups can greatly contribute to the psychological and physical well-being of its participants, there may also be negative consequences that researchers and practitioners have yet to examine. This may be especially true of computer-mediated support groups given the presence of negative messages which may be occurring in this medium. Future investigations should be careful not to take an overly "Polly-anna-ish" approach to computer mediated communication but to objectively determine the uses and effects of this medium. In this way, listservs may better serve their users. It is my hope that an investigation of negative communication would help to improve the viability of listservs for enhancing communication and quality of life for persons with disabilities.


  • Berck, J. (1992) All about electronic bulletin boards, The New York Times, July 19, 1992, F12.

  • Braithwaite, D. O., Waldron, V. R., & Finn, J. (1996). Communication of Social Support in Computer-Mediated Groups for People with Disabilities. Paper accepted by the Health Communication Division of the Speech Communication Association for the November, 1996 Conference, San Diego, CA.

  • Finn, J. & Lavitt, M. (1994). Computer-based self-help/mutual aid groups for sexual abuse survivors. Social Work with Groups, 17, 21-46.

  • Fullmer, S. & Walls, R. T. (1994) Interests and participation on disability- related computer bulletin boards. Journal of Rehabilitation, 60, 24-30.

  • Galinsky, M. J. & Schopler, J. H. (1994). Negative experiences in support groups. Special Issue: Social work in ambulatory care: New implications for health and social services. Social Work in Health Care, 20, 77-95.

  • Green, G. (1993). Editorial review: Social support and HIV. Special Issue: The family and HIV disease. AIDS Care, 5; 87-104.

  • Kiesler, S.; Siegel, J.; & McGuire, T. W. (1984). Social psychological aspects of computer-mediated communication. American Psychologist, 39 , 1123-1134.

  • King, S. A. (1995). Effects of mood states on social judgments in cyberspace: Self focused sad people as a source of Flame Wars. storm1.htm

  • Mantovani, G. (1994). Is computer-mediated communication intrinsically apt to enhance democracy in organizations? Human Relations, 47, 45-62.

  • Nelson, J. A. (1995). The Internet, the Virtual Community and those with disabilities. Disability Studies Quarterly, 15(2), 15-20

  • Roberts, S. J. (1988). Social support and help seeking: Review of the literature. Advances in Nursing Science, 10, 1-11.

  • Schopler, J.J., & Galinsky, M.J. (1981). When groups go wrong. Social Work, 26, 424-429.

  • Siegel, J., Dubrovsky, V., Kiesler, S., McGuire, T. W. (1986). Group processes in computer-mediated communication. Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes, 37, 157-187.

  • Sproul L. & Kiesler, S. (1986). Reducing social context cues: Electronic mail in organizational communication. Management Science, 32, 1492-1512.

  • Thompsen, P. A., & Ahn, D. (1992, Summer). To be or not to be: An exploration of E-prime, copula deletion and flaming in electronic mail. Et Cetera: A Review of General Semantics, 49, 146-164.

  • Walther, J. B., Anderson, J. F., & Park, David W. (1994). Interpersonal effects in computer-mediated interaction: A meta-analysis of social and antisocial communication. Communication Research, 21, 460-487.

  • Zimmerman, D. P. (1987). A psychosocial comparison of computer-mediated and face-to-face language use among severely disturbed adolescents. Adolescence, 22, 827-840.


The author wishes to acknowledge contributions of Research Mentor Dawn Braithwaite, Arizona State University West, Jeff Butler, University of Central Florida, and Joe Walther, Northwestern University.

Susan Anne Fox (, Ph.D. (1994, University of California, Santa Barbara) is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Western Michigan Univesrity. Her area of expertise is interpersonal communication with an emphasis in intergroup communication. Her research focuses on problematic communication between groups with an concentration on intergenerational, interability, illness, and weight related contexts. Dr. Fox teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in interpersonal communication, research methods, persuasion, gender and communication, and intergroup communication.

Copyright © 1998 by Susan Anne Fox. All Rights Reserved.

Contents Archive Sponsors Studies Contact