A Romania of the imagination
First Monday

A Romania of the imagination: Formula As, virtual community, and normative behavior by Gary Burnett and Mihaela Nocasian



Abstract
Using concepts from the Theory of Normative Behavior (Burnett, et al., 2001), this article examines a print–based virtual community that interacts in the pages of a Romanian magazine named Formula As that focuses on publishing letters from its readers. This community constitutes a textually mediated Small World, comprised of members who share a specific set of common interests and accepted modes of interaction. Its publicly visible activities — embodied as texts in the magazine’s pages — reveal a specific Worldview, as well as specific sets of Social Norms, Social Types, and Information Behaviors. Together, these features comprise the normative shape of the Formula As Small World.

Contents

Introduction
The Formula As Small World
Theory of Normative Behavior
Formula As and The Theory of Normative Behavior
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

While most studies of virtual communities examine social worlds that maintain themselves through their use of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), this article looks at a geographically distributed community that, while it does have a presence on the Web, is primarily print–based: a Romanian magazine named Formula As that focuses on publishing letters from its readers. To look at Formula As, we draw on the Theory of Normative Behavior (Burnett, et al., 2001), which describes the ways in which “Small Worlds” — definable social groupings yoked together by shared concerns, interests, behavioral norms, and ways of dealing with information — construct coherent collective identities to sustain their social contexts and interactions. The Theory of Normative Behavior is built out of four basic concepts: Worldview, Social Norms, Social Types, and Information Behavior. Later sections of this article will look closely at the Formula As Small World through the lenses of these four concepts to describe the ways in which the readers’ letters that it publishes sustain a kind of distributed (though not wholly digital) virtual community. Before we turn to that analysis, we discuss the Formula As Small World.

 

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The Formula As Small World

Formula As began publication in 1991 as a small, print–only, Romanian, general interest magazine, combining a focus on health with social and political stories as well as domestic and ecological issues (Nocasian, 2005). In subsequent years, the magazine has become a major publication available both in print and online, targeting Romanians at home and abroad, with more than eight million readers worldwide. Owned and edited (with the assistance of an editorial staff) by poet and writer Sanziana Pop, Formula As emphasizes interaction between its readers by functioning — particularly in its online edition (http://www.formula–as.ro/) — as a moderated asynchronous discussion board, highlighting letters to the editor rather than stand–alone articles.

Due in large part to this intentional foregrounding of readers’ voices rather than the more typical “journalism of information” and punditry (Merritt, 1995), Formula As holds a unique place in Romanian journalism. It is sometimes subject to criticism from the more mainstream press for its perceived excesses. Relying on “word of mouth” marketing rather than sponsorship from political parties or market backing, the magazine is, in the words of Toma Roman, its chief editor for 10 years,

“the first post–1989 Romanian magazine [to mold] itself in accordance with its readers’ needs and expectations ... . The As has become in fact a magazine that has been forged by its readers.” (Formula As 500, 2002; all translations from Formula As are by Mihaela Nocasian.)

Compared with the more standard model of journalism, in which readers form a largely passive audience, Formula As functions as a locus for sustained community–based interaction between the magazine’s readers and editors.

Because of the magazine’s roots as a print publication — and because it continues to appear in a weekly format — there is a significant delay between an initial letter containing a question or describing a problem and any answers that other readers may offer. To compensate for this shortcoming (or perhaps to preserve the uniqueness of the magazine and to avoid legal complications), the editors’ contributions to the ongoing interactions are kept to a minimum. They mainly aggregate the information originating from the readers and post it in the pages of the magazine.

The core concern of the magazine can be summarized as “healthy body and spirit.” Sections such as “Editorial,” “Health,” “Romanian Spirituality,” “S.O.S,” “Recipes,” and “Animal World” have been central to the magazine since the first issue, and have carried over into the online edition. Specifically, the “Health” section follows a “questions and answers” pattern in which readers can exchange information about various medical conditions, most of them life–threatening; choose among alternative treatments posted by others; and, testify to the validity of specific treatment options. The magazine’s most notable section is its “S. O. S.” column, which contains pleas for help from readers in dire need who feel they can no longer cope on their own and who tell stories of extreme physical and emotional suffering or of struggle with adverse life circumstances. Monthly, Formula As presents a detailed account of the distribution of readers’ donations through the magazine’s non–profit foundation and publishes follow–up messages in response to earlier letters.

Before examining the interactions between the Formula As readers in some detail, we now turn to a discussion of the theoretical lens through which we will do so: the Theory of Normative Behavior.

 

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Theory of Normative Behavior

Overview

The Theory of Normative Behavior (Burnett, et al., 2001) examines aspects of information behavior in the context of definable social groupings of people, or “Small Worlds.” Growing out of Chatman’s earlier work, much of which focused on localized social worlds constrained by economic poverty coupled with a dearth of access to information resources (e.g., Chatman, 1983, 1985a, 1985b; Chatman and Pendleton, 1995), the theory expands this focus to include other types of social groupings. For example, Burnett, et al. (2001) examined two geographically dispersed “small worlds” suffering neither limited access to information nor socio–economic poverty: virtual communities and feminist booksellers, and Burnett, et al. (2008) used the theory to investigate the social aspects of access to information in public library and federal information policy settings. The notion of the “Small World” is closely linked to other concepts of social groupings, including for example Strauss’ (1978) notion of “social worlds,” which are built “around a primary activity such as work, learning, or family support.” [1]

However, the Theory of Normative Behavior may be distinguished from such related concepts; it is not, for example, linked to specific geographic locales, and it also explicitly addresses the relationship between groups and their use of information resources — how they understand the place of information in their world, what types of information they value (and what types they disregard), how they interact with information providers of various sorts, how they exchange information between themselves, etc. According to the theory, information is never, within a small world, a neutral value, nor is it a commodity imposed from the broader world outside of its boundaries. Rather, it is always embedded within the specifics of the world itself, and, thus, is given significance by the values and norms of that world. Further, the theory focuses on the ways in which information is made visible and shared publicly — or, as Burnett and his colleagues put it, “public expressions of the information.” [2]

This article examines a geographically dispersed small world which is yoked together through the publication of letters in the Romanian magazine Formula As; it looks at the letters published in there as “public expressions” of the information of value to the small world of the magazine’s readers and contributors.

The theory is comprised of four fundamental conceptions: 1) Worldview; 2) Social Norms; 3) Social Types; and, 4) Information Behavior.

Worldview is “a collective perception held in common by members of a social world regarding those things that are deemed important or trivial.” [3] Members of small worlds are not only united by a specific set of shared interests, but also by a common understanding of which aspects of the world — both their own small world and the greater world beyond its borders — are worth their attention and which are not. Worldview defines the “scope” of a small world, establishing the relative importance of different things and different bits of information available to its members. It thus provides a way of analyzing what is of concern — and what is not important — within specific social contexts.

Social Norms, in contrast, define acceptable public behaviors, giving a sense of “‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ in social appearances” and activities. [4] Social Norms identify the ways in which members of a world “should” present themselves to other members of their world — ways in which they should behave and interact. They also have an impact on how — and what kinds of — information is valued. For example, if information coming to the world from outside is somehow perceived to be at odds with the norms and values of the world, it will be seen as “wrong” to members of that world and, thus, may be either disregarded or actively dismissed.

The concept of Social Types addresses the role of individuals within a small world, and the ways in which individuals are classified (or “typecast”). Social Types provide individuals with social definitions that both limit and make possible how they are perceived and what they may credibly do within a world. “For example, based on one’s common and predictable behaviors, one could be categorized as a social type called ‘student,’ ‘parent,’ ‘liar,’ and so forth.” [5] In addition, Social Types influence the acceptance or rejection of information apart from its actual content; for example, information (even if it is accurate) coming from an individual typed as untrustworthy or from one who is seen to be at odds with the norms of the world will, often, not find an easy welcome from other members of the world.

Finally, Information Behavior broadens the concept of “information seeking” to include all kinds of possible human behaviors or activities related to information. People not only seek information actively by presenting queries to a formal information system such as a library or an online database, but also informally share information as part of their normal social activities, and even overtly ignore or dismiss information that is available to them. The concept of Information Behavior, further, relates to the uses to which information is put within a small world — whether, for example, it is used for education, to support community activities, or for entertainment and leisure activities.

These four concepts of the theory combine to characterize the ways in which a Small World collectively defines and understands the role of information within its boundaries. The “smallness” of the Small World, thus, is not necessarily a sign of a dearth of access or resources; rather, it designates the fact that any given social group shares a limited set of compelling and routine concerns. Such a set of interests is both a limitation — a constraint upon the activities of a social group — and a mechanism for group self–identification. Burnett (2002), for example, has noted the ways in which virtual communities use a hermeneutic process — the writing, reading, interpreting, and further writing of shared public texts — to generate cultural meaning and sustain community through “making distanciation productive”; other types of Small Worlds similarly function within their own shared social constraints and limited contextual characteristics to sustain themselves and generate their own shared sense of meaning and value.

 

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Formula As and The Theory of Normative Behavior

As members of a community based on the exchange of written texts, Formula As participants develop a sense of involvement with the magazine’s goals, shape group identity through their interactions, and rhetorically construct a sense of belonging and communion. In the absence of face–to–face interaction — and through the mediation of an editor — texts created by Formula As participants are thus the primary avenue for constructing a shared impression of the Small World of its readers. Formula As participants often refer to themselves in their letters as being part of the magazine’s community and acknowledge a deep sense of identification with the group at large.

In this section, we analyze this sense of identification in terms of the four core concepts of the Theory of Normative Behavior. First, however, it is necessary to address the role of the editor. Clearly, Sanziana Pop and the editorial staff function as gate–keepers in their selection of material from readers and, thus, play a strong role in the presentation and structure of the magazine’s Small World. It is clear, however, that the editors do not alter the integrity of readers’ letters, which are published as they are sent, as reflected in this letter from a member of the Romanian diaspora living in Canada:

“The ... reason I write is to thank you for the honor and pleasant surprise that you offered me through publishing, in the magazine’s 353 issue (number 10 of this year), of the e–mail that I sent you. This has brought immense joy to me and my dear ones from home who recognized my style — and certainly — my signature. Having read Formula As for so many years I always wondered if there is someone in the editorial team who prepares readers’ letters for a ‘good for print’ form. Now, I am convinced that this does not happen since not even one character was removed from my text![6]

The texts of the letters themselves — although selected by the editors — reflect the readers’ perceptions of the magazine’s norms as much as they do the expectations and concerns of the editors. In other words, the Formula As Small World is co–constructed by the magazine’s editors and its readers; through the mechanism of the editors’ choices, the readers articulate the norms and values of the world. While it is likely that many of the core concerns evident in the magazine’s pages are in part a matter of editorial choice, it seems equally likely that the strong presence of these concerns in nearly every letter published reflects the degree to which the magazine’s readers have chosen to express them as evidence of their acceptance of those concerns as their own. In other words, readers choose, through their letters, to participate within the Small World of the magazine, enacting its norms as they compose their texts for publication. In what follows, we attempt not to lose sight of the mediated and edited nature of the Formula As World; at the same time, however, we argue that, as authors of the texts that appear in its pages, the magazine’s readers have invested themselves in its norms and have become full participants in the Small World to be found within its pages.

Worldview

In a Small World, worldview functions as a collective perception of those things — whether within or outside of the boundaries of the world — that are important or trivial. The worldview of the Formula As Small World is, to some extent, a matter of editorial policy and choice; certainly the editors establish the basic categories into which the letters they publish are organized.

However, beyond such editorial direction, the Small World of the magazine is unified by its readers’ shared linguistic and cultural background: Formula As is published in Romanian and is explicitly targeted to a Romanian audience, whether at home or abroad. This shared linguistic and cultural bond is one of the main themes of the letters published in the magazine, as in the following letter from a member of the diaspora:

“I know that we, those from far away, can rely on you, a doctor of hearts who, with magic hands, removes distances on the map and makes us feel, as we are in fact deep in our hearts, ROMANIANS!” [7]

Through such a direct expression of the “Romanianness” of the magazine and its readers, a number of Worldview concerns emerge in this letter. It is clear, for instance, that emigration and distance from home form a fundamental part of the community’s worldview. Even though the magazine is published in Romania and is read by many who have remained at home, the fact that many Romanians find themselves at a distance from home is central to the ways in which this community understands itself and, as such, something that commands attention.

Further, the topics addressed by the magazine’s community (such as shared language and cultural memory) bring the members of that community together and provide them with a coherent way of looking at and understanding the world around them. Just as face–to–face communities retain the unique flavor of their cultural context and provide members with a normative universe that informs their worldview, so does the Formula As community develop a sense of shared history that strengthens community bonds (see Nocasian, 2005). Romanian cultural memory exists in the minds of each of the magazine’s readers wherever they live, as the following excerpt from the same letter makes clear:

“Trust me, I do not exaggerate at all when I say that there is a bit of Romanianness in every piece of information that I absorb through the magazine and I’d feel more barren were it not for you.” [8]

The worldview of the Formula As community is explicitly intertwined with its perception of its own “Romanianness.” Thus, a number of themes are routinely addressed in the community’s texts, including:

  1. The nature of the Romanian Orthodox faith, occasionally supplemented with material about other faiths that are practiced in Romania;
  2. Romanian history, including narratives of Romania during monarchy coexisting with stories from survivors of communist persecutions;
  3. Cultural traditions illustrated through articles describing ancient Romanian folk practices as they still exist in certain villages combined with reader–authored material that provides a more personalized texture;
  4. Romanian geography;
  5. Traditional Romanian medicine;
  6. Romania’s transition and future viewed by experts (both Romanian and foreign) and others;
  7. Romanianness viewed from abroad (e.g., interviews both with foreigners with strong connections to Romania and with Romanian born personalities); and,
  8. Social issues such as emigration, Romania’s image abroad, corruption, etc.

For an overwhelming number of community participants, the sense of a common language is associated with a Romanian cultural identity, as seen in this text submitted by a Romanian reader in Japan:

“[Formula As] is one of the ties with the cherished place that I left and with which I will be forever connected, no matter where I live. Last but not least, reading [the magazine] alleviates my longing for Romania and the Romanian language.” [9]

Within this shared sense of linguistic and cultural roots, the Formula As community maintains a worldview that is more narrowly focused on a specific set of topics. As noted earlier, these narrower topics are reflected in the titles of the magazine’s major sections, including “Health,” “Romanian Spirituality,” “S.O.S,” “Recipes,” and “Animal World.” Still, within each of these topics is a shared perception that they are worth attention precisely because of their specific resonance for Romanians at home and abroad. These topics are collectively perceived by the readers of the magazine as somehow being part of a particular vision of what being Romanian is all about. As one seventeen–year–old reader makes clear, these issues transcend simple facts, but are perceived as inherently meaningful within the Small World because of the ways they fire a shared imagination of what is important:

“I simply found what I value most in life: that ROMANIA that exists beyond the apartment houses and highroads. I want to thank you for boosting my imagination through articles about truly wonderful places.” [10]

If a worldview provides, as Burnett, et al. [11] put it, a mechanism through which participants “become conscious of those things that they ought to know,” then such a “ROMANIA that exists beyond the apartment houses and highroads” — a Romania of the imagination, beyond the drudgery of daily life — is at the core of the worldview of the magazine’s Small World. In many cases, this Romania of the imagination is perceived as a corrective to the misleading and negative perception of the country that readers see as rampant in the world outside of their community (or, paradoxically, by other Romanians — non–readers of the magazine), as in this letter:

“Dear Formula As, dear readers
In the following text I’d like to plead for the love of our homeland. Due to my profession, I have often traveled, studied, and worked abroad but I preferred to return, to live in Romania, thus not giving in to the temptation of emigration. (...) Romania’s negative image abroad burns my cheek, like a slap in the face. This image is created and sustained either from the outside (through mass–media, as a rule), or paradoxically, from the inside.” [12]

Through such a vision of Romania, readers of Formula As explicitly set themselves apart from the broader world — whether Romanian or otherwise — outside of the boundaries of their own textually mediated Small World.

Social Norms

The concept of Social Norms speaks to shared expressions of right and wrong within a Small World. Social Norms, that is, determine both the parameters of correct public behaviors as well as the set of morals and values within which those behaviors acquire meaning.

The Formula As Small World depends for its very existence on a specific set of such public behaviors: the writing and submission of texts to the magazine for publication and, by extension, the reading of those texts, which is in turn reflected in the writing and publication of further follow–up texts. As Burnett’s (2002) application of Paul Ricoeur’s (1976) hermeneutic theory to virtual communities has argued, such activities draw distributed communities like the Formula As world together by “making distanciation productive.” In the Formula As World, these acts of reading and writing stand apart from the exchange of information as valued activities in and of themselves. Regardless of the content carried by the letters published in the pages of the magazine, the sheer fact that they exist as visible and public evidence of readers’ activities is perceived as something that is fundamentally right within the Formula As Small World.

Not surprisingly, reading and writing are repeatedly cited in letters as the primary activities of the community. References to reading — either in private or as a shared activity — permeate the letters, often with allusions to the ways in which such acts of reading are ritualized. In one such reference, a reader tells the story of Aunt Maria, an elderly woman from a southern Romanian village. Aunt Maria — an unschooled woman who “attended the school of life” by working hard and raising five children and numerous grandchildren — routinely offered loaves of bread that she had baked herself to her neighbor, wrapping them in magazine paper. One day, when her neighbor began to read a page out loud, Aunt Maria learned that the paper — a copy of Formula As — in which she had wrapped her bread was unlike any other. The elderly woman started crying gently and asked her neighbor to stop reading so that they could leave some for the next day. According to the narrator of the story, Aunt Maria, a devoted baker, gave up her baking ritual so that she would spend more time every day listening to the neighbor read from Formula As, even offering to pay for the “listening share” from her small pension [13].

Numerous letter writers present themselves as former “lurkers” who have finally chosen to transform themselves from passive — if passionately engaged — observers into active participants in the exchange of texts, as in the following letter from a reader in France:

“You have probably gotten used to it by now, but look, you succeeded, again, to convert another reader by urging her to write to congratulate you. I’ve been reading you for a long time, since 5–6 years ago, but before I left the country, I was more interested in the naturistic medicine, beauty, and weight loss articles. For a little over a year since I came to foreign land, I’ve been only reading the texts in the “Society” and “Spirituality” sections, and every time you manage to make me shed some tears, even though I’m only 20 years old! This time, you’ve succeeded to make me write to unburden my heart.” [14]

This letter is typical in its portrayal of a devoted reader who has decided to add her voice to magazine’s ongoing interactions. Based on their own descriptions, such readers have developed the habit of reading the magazine for years, bonding with its community despite the absence of physical contact. Through the medium of exchanged texts, then, the Formula As community continually expands its membership by the addition of new participants from Romania and the diaspora.

Although reading is, in its purest form, a private activity and, thus, not part of the public enactment of Social Norms, stories such as these make it clear that, in the Formula As Small World, the norm of reading is predominantly public, and is largely valued because it is an activity shared with others and — more importantly — because it is transformed into writing letters to the magazine. As a public sharing of a private activity, reading — made visible through writing — is the central norm of the Formula As world.

Formula As contributors often explicitly embed this iterative cycle of reading and writing into their texts, almost as though they were participating in an asynchronous threaded discussion. Thus, they have cultivated norms of interaction through direct reference to earlier letters, as in the following letter:

“Just as Ilie Marian wrote in the 496 issue of the magazine that God descended into his home, I am writing to let you know that the same thing happened for our family too after my letter was published in Formula As.” [15]

Such self–reflexive reference to prior texts is standard practice in Formula As. However, because writing refers to a non–textual world as well as to other texts, letters to the magazine consistently articulate a wide range of other Social Norms as well. In one sense, it is not important whether the activities reported in the letters actually took place or not; within the textually mediated world of Formula As, it is the stories themselves that really matter. However, situated within a Worldview defined by a particular vision of Romanianness, these stories engage with a particular set of real world issues through the interactions made possible by reading and writing.

Such issues, as noted above, include a range of concerns, including environmentalism, animal rights, what it means to be Romanian, etc., all perceived through a particular set of values and a strong sense of “rightness” and “wrongness.” Readers are connected to each other not only through shared acts of reading and writing, but through the magazine’s umbrella goal of shaping “authentic” Romanian values centered on “love, solidarity, faith, and patriotism.” [16] These values allow the Small World members to feel strong ties to their distributed community and to see that community as a collective endeavor to promote what is “right” throughout the Romanian diaspora, to inculcate a powerful ethical approach to the world across international boundaries. Readers are adamant about their adherence to these norms and values, even touting them as a form of “perfection,” as in the following letter, describing the ethical goals of the magazine:

“It is a perfect magazine and that promotes the true spiritual values: love, understanding, hope, faith, beauty, honesty, modesty, innocence. In one word, perfection.” [17]

Formula As has, in an important sense, even formalized its normative values through its “S.O.S.” section, which is devoted to often desperate pleas for help from readers in dire need and to responses (often containing donations) to those letters. Through the “S.O.S.” section of the magazine, the editors maintain a non–profit foundation to help those who have solicited help through the magazine; in addition to letters, the “S.O.S.” section contains monthly accounting of donations and the distribution of funds to readers. Because of such efforts — in addition to the continual references to values throughout letters to the magazine — Formula As is inextricable from a specific set of Social Norms that have been accepted by its readers. Indeed, all of the information exchanged in the magazine, arguably, expresses such norms; in this Small World, all information — and all Information Behavior, as we will discuss below — is embedded within the World’s Social Norms.

Social Types

The concept of Social Types refers to the ways in which individuals are perceived and labeled within a Small World. In the Formula As Small World, social typing takes place in three primary ways. First, certain individuals — particularly Sanziana Pop, the magazine’s editor — are consistently typed in specific ways; second, the magazine itself is consistently anthropomorphized, referred to as an active agent or character within the Small World; third, the readers of the magazine are commonly typecast into a single group of people whose similarities are more significant than their differences.

Formula As’ chief editor, Sanziana Pop, sets the tone for such social typing as an integral part of the magazine’s mission, using terms that explicitly contextualize the roles of individual readers within a perceived normative endeavor; the magazine was designed — from the beginning — as a “normal magazine for normal readers.” [18] However, what is “normal,” takes on a very particular emotional and discursive tone in the magazine, particularly in the ways in which Pop herself is characterized by the Small World participants. Indeed, for anyone reading Formula As for the first time, the community’s rhetoric comes across as rather unusual; community participants consistently engage in a rather intense and “effervescent” rhetoric, particularly when referring directly to the magazine or to its editor [19].

For example, in the following letter, one of the recipients of financial support through the magazine’s “S.O.S.” section types Sanziana Pop as a legendary and almost supernatural figure, embodying the wish–fulfillment role of the good fairy:

“Mrs. Sanziana, thanks to your magazine, I now love people; you have shown me that they can alleviate poor people’s sufferings. I received many letters of encouragement, clothing, and money that we used to pay our utilities ... . Mrs. Sanziana, we will never forget what you’ve done for us, it’ll be the wonderful story that I’ll tell to my children. You are the good fairy from fairy tales and the angels from my dream are the good people who lend us a helping hand.” [20]

Such a direct address to the Formula As editor is — like the “effervescent” typecasting of her role in the magazine’s Small World — typical. She is, in the world of the readers, a “kind heart,” “the wonderful heart called Sanziana,” a “second mother,” or, along with the rest of the editorial staff, “divine messengers.”

The magazine, itself perceived as a social actor, plays a similar role within the Small World. As a letter cited above puts it, Formula As is, like its editor, a “doctor of hearts,” the member of the community who “removes distances on the map,” joining the distributed members of the Small World together, and, as in the following letter, soothing the “diaspora hearts” of its readers:

“Allow me first to congratulate you for the content of your magazine that soothes our diaspora hearts. I enjoyed reading the articles about the popular dance traditions in Maramures. I would be grateful if you could point me to a source for this type of event before they actually take place (an Internet site or perhaps a Romanian address). I have a 9 year–old son and I’d like to show him first–hand the true Romanian traditions.” [21]

Such typecasting of Sanziana Pop and Formula As itself into the role of “doctor” or mediator of the distances of the diaspora is integral to the Small World’s view of itself as simultaneously divided by diaspora and yoked through the common experiences of being Romanian and the exchange of texts in the pages of the magazine. As one letter puts it, the magazine is “a source of light in the darkness and despair around you! ... for the warmth that inspires you to build solidarity bridges among good people.” [22]

While the editor and the magazine function in the Small World as the creators and sustainers of “solidarity bridges,” the letter–writers typically portray themselves as a unified group, yoked together by the perceived commonality of being Romanian. In other words, the readers of Formula As perceive themselves according to a consistent and specific social type, regardless of any differences between them. The outlines of this social type are, perhaps, most clearly seen among those readers who have emigrated from Romania but who still present themselves as essentially Romanian. Emigration is a common theme in the magazine’s letters; perhaps because it was a taboo topic in public — and even private — discourse during Romania’s communist years, few Romanian publications other than Formula As openly cater to aspiring emigrants as well as Romanians in the diaspora at a deeper level than providing occasional news.

As the following exchange suggests, the difficulties of the emigrant experience are perceived to be at odds with the essential social type of the magazine’s readers, and such difficulties put a significant strain on the lives of emigrants. The exchange begins with a letter from a woman who had recently moved to Canada. She introduces herself as a patriotic Romanian married to a Romanian man who had been living abroad for several years:

“I left Romania (only a few months) and I already feel that I cannot breathe the air here, from far away. (...) The number of those who did adapt to Canada is small and I would not want to be categorized in the ‘exceptions’ group, but I simply don’t know what to do, how to think so that I can be understood. I ask for your readers’ help, especially those who are abroad, because I know that I’d receive honest advice. My husband is different; he does not suffer so much for not being home and does not quite understand my emotions. When I read Formula As I show him all the beauty that you present with so much warmth but he only reads articles from newspapers rendering the hard life in the country.” [23]

In this letter, the husband plays the role of a somewhat different social type: he is the successful emigrant, who neither understands what it means to be truly Romanian nor is suitable as a role model for the magazine’s readers.

Several months later, Formula As published two follow–up letters, along with the following introduction, which makes it clear that the initial letter portrays the true “sentimental nature” of the Romanian type:

“The letter titled ‘My heart is back home’ and published in Formula As no 574 and sent from Canada caught attention among our readers abroad. Adaptation is apparently, a handicap for the sentimental nature of Romanians. We hope that the texts that we selected would be of help to [the writer].” [24]

As in this example, Formula As consistently and explicitly portrays itself as an outlet for formerly marginalized elements of Romanian society, including individuals and families who live in poverty or are in crisis, Romanian emigrants and aspiring emigrants, the elderly, the disabled, and animal rights activists. These social types are, in the magazine’s Small World, at the core of what it means to be Romanian. As Sanziana Pop puts it in a response to another letter,

“the Romanian readers’ presence in the pages of the magazine sends a message of solidarity, transcending time and distance, of the joy that we are alive through our common origin. We need this certitude of brotherhood, of knowing that we’re not alone in the world, on either side of the ocean.” [25]

Information Behavior

The concept of Information Behavior refers to the various ways in which a Small World typically interacts with and uses — or chooses not to use — different types of information resources. As noted above, participants in the Formula As Small World share a specific set of interests that are reflected in the titles of the magazine’s sections, including “Health,” “Romanian Spirituality,” “S.O.S,” “Recipes,” and “Animal World,” etc. The letters published in these sections — and in others — support ongoing information–seeking and exchange for the Formula As community. While the magazine’s letters allow for strong expressions of “Romanianness” by members both home and abroad, the community’s information exchange is, arguably, the glue that holds it together; further, the characteristics of these activities are among the most important elements in giving the Formula As world its particular “tone” or “flavor.”

Although this tone can be seen throughout all areas of the magazine — and, indeed, is strong in the examples we have already cited — it is strongest in the “Health” section, where both requests for and offers of information reflect the serious information needs of the community. Numerous messages in the “Health” section demonstrate significant medical knowledge among readers, who often describe conditions using medical terms, are familiar with treatment dosages and side effects, and occasionally provide referrals to health professionals either in alternative or allopathic medicine. Given the asynchronous nature of the community’s interactions, some Formula As participants keep up with the answers provided for a particular reader and/or illness over the course of several months. For example, the following contributor offers commentary on previous offerings of information about the treatment of gastritis:

“Since I also suffered from the same illness as you, I have followed all the answers that you received for the past several months. The remedies are all good, and even though some may not cure, they at least alleviate the illness as long as you keep up with the treatment or the diet.” [26]

Formula As participants rely on the “Health” forum to seek practical information and, in so doing, display particular patterns of interaction that reflect a culture of gift–giving with its own norms of cooperation and reciprocity, as well as a strong belief in the accuracy and reliability of the information offered by others (Nocasian, 2005).

A couple of standard “markers” of authenticity appear to be particularly important elements of the community’s information behavior in this ongoing exchange of health–related information. First, many of the letters responding to requests for information provide a high level of detail, including very specific instructions for treatments of ailments, as in the following letter describing an alternative treatment for kidney cysts:

“I’d like to recommend you the following treatment: take two handfuls of minced horsetail plant (it’s better to use the whole plant, bought from the plant grower), place it in a linen cloth and tie the pouch with a knot. Next, bring a pot of water to a boil, immerse the linen pouch containing the plant in, and let it steep for 2–3 minutes. Take it out, wring the pouch a bit and lay it while it’s hot on the afflicted area. Wrap a scarf around it and keep it in place for two hours. Use the remaining tea for a soaking bath. Continue the treatment for at least a week, even twice a day. I wish you much health!” [27]

The presumed accuracy of such information is not simply a matter of its source; much of the medical advice in Formula As comes from a core group of Small World participants, which includes licensed health practitioners, but also includes a significant number of laypersons and, on occasion, the magazine’s editors themselves.

However, the acceptability of information is not just a matter of who it comes from — a function, that is, of social type — it is largely a matter of how it is presented, a matter of normative information behavior. Often, as in the letter above, such credibility is signaled for the community by the sheer level of detail. More commonly, however, information is more highly valued if it is delivered with a strong suggestion that it has emerged from what could be called “lived experience” rather than out of educational background or medical training. In addition, it is common for letters offering information to make explicit reference to other, prior letters. As in the following letter, thus, information is of particular value not only because it is linked to the experiences of other members of the Small World, but also because it is tightly woven into the shared experiences of the community as a whole:

“In 1999 I had considerable health problems. At the time I was not given a definite diagnosis — I was feeling fatigued, my liver was enlarged and I had a preliminary diagnosis of chronic hepatitis. Due to my being a regular reader of the Formula As magazine — I’ve collected the magazine since 1995 — I tried almost all the remedies offered by readers — both for enlarged liver and for hepatitis, even for hepatic cirrhosis. Little by little, my health has improved and currently I feel very good. In the meanwhile, my diagnosis has been clarified as well; I’ve lived with hepatitis B without being hospitalized and without one day of sick leave. Moreover, not only that the disease has not become chronic but healed. I would like to use this opportunity to thank the readers who published those naturistic remedies which were very helpful to me. I also want to thank the wonderful staff of Formula As, and especially Mrs. Sanziana Pop.” [28]

Interestingly, even though the information request was for a treatment for thyroid cancer, the letter offers information related to a myriad of other ailments, including hepatitis and cirrhosis. The letter makes it clear that the way in which the information is offered — and, more important, its close connection to the lived experiences and interactions of the community — is more important than its direct applicability to a particular problem. The empathy expressed, that is, is as valuable as the information offered.

Another information behavior commonly seen in the letters to Formula As involves the active sharing of the magazine with friends and family of the readers, often, as in the following letter, with established protocols for the order in which different people read it:

“In my family, it’s become a weekly ritual for Formula As to lodge on the fridge, but not for long, when I can hardly wait to skim through it, eagerly, and then read it carefully, after it goes through my mother’s hands (she is the first one to read it) and my sister’s.” [28]

Some readers even create their own archiving system complete with topical indexes by cutting out desired posts and pasting them in separate folders, which are consulted as needed, as noted in the following letter:

“Once the latest issue has made it into the reader’s home, it is read through from cover to cover and then shared with others who may need some advice or remedy, and then certainly, is going to be catalogued, archived, together with the other valuable possessions (i.e., issues) from which the devoted collector cannot conceive to separate ... .” [29]

In another example, Bogdan Lupescu, one of the magazine’s editors, notes that one woman (the granddaughter of sculptor Constantin Brancusi) from the village of Hobita sewed the entire magazine’s collection together into a huge book, calling it her “small treasure.” This Formula As collection has circulated from one household to another for the past ten years with “some of the pages ... turned yellow as they were wrinkled by thousand of hands.” Whenever someone in the village experienced health or other problems, he or she would show up in front of the woman’s house and ask, from the front gate, “Mrs. Maria, please lend me the ‘As’ a little more!” [30]

Members of the Formula As Small World have, in many cases, developed informal but strict procedures and social activities to support information exchange. These activities and protocols meld mechanisms for providing access to the information to be found in the magazine’s pages with an even stronger component of social interaction. Arguably, as these examples suggest, the actual content of the information itself — although it is clearly highly valued — is secondary to the social role of the information within the community, and the community’s information behaviors reflect this social emphasis.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

Although the interaction it allows between its readers is not limited to CMC channels but is also supported by the print version, Formula As functions as a kind of virtual community. As is the case with some well–established computer–mediated communities (such as the WELL), its readers are physically separated and scattered over large geographical areas with no built–in real–time interaction. Rather, as Nocasian (2005) notes, the Formula As community of readers maintains itself through the ongoing mediation of texts, which are infused with recognizable markers of affective and community–oriented bonds between the magazine’s readers. As in other virtual communities, Formula As texts are openly and publicly available for participants in the discursive space of the magazine.

The Formula As community differs from many typical virtual communities not only because it uses a hybrid of print and CMC to connect its participants, but also because of its status as an edited magazine. Still, the Formula As community constitutes a textually–mediated Small World, comprised of members who share a specific set of common interests and accepted modes of interaction. Within its limits — its editorially mediated, asynchronous, distributed, and text–only structure — this Small World maintains its own strong shared sense of meaning and values. The Formula As community, as reflected in its publicly exchanged texts, clearly functions within the parameters described by the Theory of Normative Behavior. Its publicly visible activities — embodied as texts in the magazine’s pages — reveal a specific Worldview, as well as specific sets of Social Norms, Social Types, and Information Behaviors. Together, these features comprise the normative shape of the Formal As Small World. End of article

 

About the authors

Gary Burnett is an Associate Professor in the College of Information at the Florida State University, where he has taught since 1996. He holds a Ph.D. in English from Princeton University and an M.L.S. from Rutgers University. His research has focused on interpretive practices and the interaction between social interaction and information exchange in text–based online communities. Dr. Burnett is the author of a book on the American poet H.D., and his LIS research has appeared in a number of journals, including Library Quarterly, Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Library & Information Science Research, First Monday, Information Research, and the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication. With Paul Jaeger of the University of Maryland, he is currently working on a book titled Information Worlds: Social Context, Technology, & Information Behavior in the Age of the Internet.

Mihaela Nicosian is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. She received her B.A. from the University of Bucharest, her M.A. from Wake Forest University, and her Ph.D. (in 2005) from Florida State University.

 

Notes

1. Haythornthwaite and Hagar, 2004, p. 313.

2. Burnett, et al., 2001, p. 537.

3. Ibid.

4. Burnett, et al., 2001, p. 537.

5. Ibid.

6. Formula As 357, 1999; emphasis added.

7. Formula As 535, 2002.

8. Ibid.

9. Formula As 519, 2002.

10. Formula As 581, 2003.

11. Burnett, et al., 2001, p. 537.

12. Formula As 510, 2001.

13. Formula As 450, 2001.

14. Formula As 660, 2005.

15. Formula As 507, 2002.

16. Formula As 500, 2002.

17. Formula As 675, 2005.

18. Formula As 500, 2002.

19. For “effervescent,” see Durkheim, 1965.

20. Formula As 549, 2002.

21. Formula As 503, 2002.

22. Formula As 550, 2003; emphasis added.

23. Formula As 574, 2003.

24. Formula As 580, 2003.

25. Pop, Formula As 373, 1999.

26. Formula As 516, 2002.

27. Formula As 518, 2002.

28. Formula As 408, 2000.

29. Formula As 581, 2003.

30. Formula As 500, 2002.

 

References

Gary Burnett, 2002. “The scattered members of an invisible republic: Virtual communities and Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics,” Library Quarterly, volume 72, number 2, pp. 155–178.http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/603353

Gary Burnett, Paul T. Jaeger, and Kim M. Thompson, 2008. “Normative behavior and information: The social aspects of information access,” Library and Information Science Research, volume 30, number 1, pp. 56–66.http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.lisr.2007.07.003

Gary Burnett, Michele Besant, and Elfreda A. Chatman, 2001. “Small worlds: Normative behavior in virtual communities and feminist bookselling,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, volume 52, pp. 536–547.http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/asi.1102

Elfreda A. Chatman, 1985a. “Low income and leisure: Implications for public library use,” Public Libraries, volume 24, pp. 34–36.

Elfreda A. Chatman, 1985b. “Information, mass media use and the working poor,” Library & Information Science Research, volume 7, pp. 97–113.

Elfreda A. Chatman, 1983. “The diffusion of information among the working poor,” Unpublished dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.

Elfreda A. Chatman and Victoria Pendleton, 1995. “Knowledge gap, information–seeking and the poor,” Reference Librarian, volumes 49–50, pp. 135–145.http://dx.doi.org/10.1300/J120v23n49_10

Émile Durkheim, 1965. The elementary forms of the religious life. Translated by Joseph Ward Swain. New York: Free Press.

Formula As, 2000–2005. At http://www.formula-as.ro/, accessed 29 June 2008.

Caroline Haythornthwaite and C. Hagar, 2004. “The social worlds of the Web,” Annual Review of Information and Science, volume 39, pp. 311–346.http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/aris.1440390115

Davis Merritt, 1995. Public journalism and public life: Why telling the news is not enough. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Mihaela V. Nocasian, 2005. “Creating community over the Net: A case study of Romanian online journalism,” Unpublished dissertation, Florida State University, Tallahassee.

Paul Ricoeur, 1976. Interpretation theory: Discourse and the surplus of meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press.

Anselm L. Strauss, 1978. “A social world perspective,” Studies in Symbolic Interactions, volume 1, pp. 119–128.

 


Editorial history

Paper received 14 August 2008; accepted 20 October 2008.


Copyright © 2008, First Monday.

Copyright © 2008, Gary Burnett and Mihaela Nocasian.

A Romania of the imagination: Formula As, virtual community, and normative behavior
by Gary Burnett and Mihaela Nocasian
First Monday, Volume 13, Number 11 - 3 November 2008
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2257/2040





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