Date of Award

12-2006

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

Communication and Information

Major Professor

Benjamin J. Bates

Committee Members

William L. Seaver, Sally J. McMillan, Gretchen Whitney

Abstract

This dissertation examines how people and organizations used the World Wide Web to discuss and debate a public policy in 2005, at a point of time when the Internet was viewed as a maturing medium for communication. Combining descriptive and quantitative frame analyses with an issue network analysis, the study evaluated the frames apparent in discourse concerning two key sections of the USA Patriot Act, while the issue network analysis probed hypertext linkages among Web pages where discussion was occurring. Sections 214 and 215 of the USA Patriot Act provided a contentious national issue with multiple stakeholders presumed to be attempting to frame issues connected to the two sections. The focus on two sections allowed frame and issue network contrasts to be made.

The study sought evidence of an Internet effect to determine whether the Web, through the way people were using it, was having a polarizing, synthesizing, or fragmentizing effect on discussion and debate. Frame overlap and hypertext linkage patterns among actors in the issue networks indicated an overall tendency toward synthesis.

The study also probed the degree to which there is a joining, or symbiosis, of Web content and structure, in part evidenced by whether patterns exist that like-minded groups are coming together to form online community through hypertext linkages. Evidence was found to support this conclusion among Web pages in several Internet domains, although questions remain about linking patterns among blogs due to limitations of the software used in the study.

Organizational Web sites on average used a similar number of frames compared to other Web page types, including blogs. The organizational Web pages were found to be briefer in how they discussed issues, however.

The study contributes to theory by offering the first known empirical study of online community formation and issue advocacy on a matter of public policy and through its finding of a linkage between Web content and Web structure. Methodologically, the study presents a flexible mixed-methods model of descriptive and quantitative approaches that appears excellently suited for Internet studies. The dissertation’s use of fuzzy clustering and discriminant analysis offer important improvements over existing approaches in factor-based frame analysis and frame mapping techniques.

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