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Analyzing Online Social Support Networks. The Case of Italian Time Banks on Facebook


With the advent of the Internet, social support has changed in nature and size, and new forms of social help have emerged, that reshaped the meaning of this concept. In the last years, social support has been mainly investigated within the theoretical framework of relational sociology, using network analysis techniques (Crossley, 2011; Donati, 2011; Mische, 2011; Tronca, 2013). An interesting expression of social support networks and civic engagement is the phenomenon of time banks that has had a broad diffusion in the mid-1990s, after important changes in postindustrial society. These organizations are now trying to exploit the potential of the Internet and social networking sites as a mean of communication, promotion, recruitment, coordination and sharing. But do they actually supply social support? In this chapter, I present the main findings of a research regarding nine Italian time banks that own a public page on Facebook. A mixed methodological approach was adopted for the analysis, which studied both the networks of interaction within each organization and their online discourse, triangulating the data. The network analysis showed a heterogeneous situation, with different types of social structure and different distributions of communication and power, leading to reconsider the controversial hypothesis of a lack of civic commitment in the South. Four main areas of discourse also emerged from textual analysis. These thematic areas lay at the intersection of two latent semantic dimensions: community vs. society, and identity vs. social structures (i.e. formalization). The final results stimulate some new insights regarding online social support and civic engagement.