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Craig A. Morehead, Brendan O’Hallarn and Stephen L. Shapiro

The Internet has drastically changed how society seeks and consumes information. One influential change in the communication process is the widespread use—and perhaps abuse—of user-generated content. If provided a frame of reference to help direct the discussion, such as a news story, comment functions can act as a proxy “town hall” in a virtual setting. Unique to this cyber town hall, however, is the sense of anonymity that leads some users to post content they would not normally voice in a public context. This investigation intertwines uses-and-gratifications theory and online disinhibition effect by analyzing anonymous-comment postings on a newspaper Web site. Seven newspaper stories on the campus master plan and football-stadium proposal at Old Dominion University demonstrate the sociological underpinnings where sports, education, economics, and politics intersect in an anonymous forum where users can relay their opinion on the subject while remaining invisible and unidentified.

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Brendan O’Hallarn, Stephen L. Shapiro, Marion E. Hambrick, D.E. Wittkower, Lynn Ridinger and Craig A. Morehead

Popular social media platforms have faced recent criticism because of the tendency for users to exhibit strongly negative behaviors, threatening the open, prodemocratic discourse that proponents believe was made possible when social media sites first gained widespread adoption a decade ago. A conceptual model suggests that the microblogging site Twitter, and especially sport-themed debate through hashtags, can still realize these ideals. Analyzing a dataset of tweets about the firing of former Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling by ESPN on April 20, 2016, as well as a qualitative questionnaire given to the users of the hashtag, this study attempted to ascertain how closely the discourse comes to realizing the ideal of the Habermasian public sphere. The findings demonstrate that although users draw value from participation in the discussion, they are less inclined to desire interaction with other hashtag users, particularly those who disagree with them. This suggests that Twitter hashtags provide an open forum that approaches the participatory requirement of the public sphere, but the lack of back-and-forth engagement suggests the medium is not ideal for the generation of deliberative public opinion.