Shifting Dynamics or Breaking Sacred Traditions? The Role of Technology in Twelve-Step Fellowships

Twelve-step fellowships are the most common long-term maintenance program for recovery from alcoholism and addiction. By interviewing members of A.A. and N.A., I identifiedĀ a number of tensions in how technology is perceived and used, including issues of anonymity, equal participation, access to technology, and physical presence.

What does technology have to do with recovery from addiction and alcoholism?
What does technology have to do with recovery from addiction and alcoholism?

Twelve-step programs include a number of suggestions to help members abstain from the problem behavior (e.g., drug use, gambling).

  1. Members attend regular (daily or weekly) peer support meetings with others in the program.
  2. They help newer members of the program (known as sponsorship) and do service work to help the program deliver services to others.
  3. They follow the 12 Steps of their program to address underlying reasons for the problem behavior.

More recently members of these fellowships have turned to technology to find social connections or attend “online meetings,” to find new meeting locations in their area, to coordinate sponsorship activities remotely (e.g., over videochat), or to keep a daily inventory of recovery activities. However, use of technology frequently causes tensions with the rules that govern 12-Step Fellowships, known as the 12 Traditions. I observed 132 meetings and interviewed 12 members of these groups to better understand these tensions and the role of technology in recovery. Here is a sample of a few of the take-aways:

  • Social Journey, Not Just Getting “The Answer” — members suggested that getting phone numbers, finding out about meetings, and finding a sponsor should be “hard” rather than facilitated with technology, because it forces newcomers to talk to people and build their social support networks.
  • Anonymity as a Way of Democratizing Participation — persistent identity in online systems implicitly creates a reputation system that many participants found counter to the 12-Step philosophy that “we are all the same” and equal.
  • Remote Contact Shouldn’t Be Too Easy; In-Person Is Always Better — participants did not think that computer-mediated communication technologies should be encouraged as a medium for meetings, because it means so much more to show the effort of going in person, particularly offering comforting touch to others.
  • Support High-, Low-, and No-Tech Participation — twelve-step fellowships are huge international organizations but they are run largely by consensus and cannot require access to any technology. To participate in group processes, the fellowship provides multiple methods including high-tech (e.g., email), low-tech (e.g., phone), and no-tech (e.g., area workshops) all of which are equally considered in making decisions. New technology must consider equal but no-tech ways of participation.

The above insights are not only relevant to 12-Step Fellowships, but also potentially to other organizations, social support structures, and volunteer efforts.

For more, see our full paper, Shifting Dynamics or Breaking Sacred Traditions? The Role of Technology in Twelve-Step Fellowships.
Svetlana “Lana” Yarosh, AT&T Research Labs

About the author

Lana Yarosh

Lana Yarosh is a researcher at AT&T Research Labs and a recent graduate of the Ph.D. program in Human-Centered Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research interests fall primarily in the area of Human-Computer Interaction, particularly Ubiquitous and Social Computing. She has a passion for empirically investigating real-world needs that may be addressed through computing applications. After identifying these opportunities, she designs and develops technological interventions, evaluating them using a balance of qualitative and quantitative methods. Most recently, she has designed a media space system supporting synchronous remote communication between children and parents to help address the needs of divorced families.

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