The Quality of Online Support Communities: People not Posts
People, Not Posts or Number of ‘Friends’
Quality support communities differ from their shallow counterparts simply because they emphasize people over posts. It’s not chasing a numbers game of how many ‘friends’ you have in the community.
Replies generally aren’t just information-oriented in nature (You asked Question A, I reply with Answer B). They are support-oriented, and tend to involve the individual’s own personal experiences with the issue or health concern in a narrative form. Such communities also emphasize an individual’s own personal experiences and not as a substitute for a search engine, so the community isn’t treated as an unlimited human resource (such as Yahoo! Answers).
Informational questions that have been asked and answered in the past are often stored in the form of a FAQ or “sticky” thread so people don’t expend time asking and answering the same questions over and over again. After all, that’s one of the powerful uses of computers – to organize information that is known. There is a simple, factual answer to “I think I may have depression… What are the symptoms of depression?” that doesn’t require a human being to copy and paste the answer from another website. Yet this is exactly the kind of behavior some online communities endorse and reinforce.
In the same vein, communities that emphasize a social networking component for health or mental health support are simply latching onto the latest online phenomenom. ‘Friends’ are not defined by a simple online connection to someone who has the same issue as you. And the number of such ‘friends’ a person has doesn’t help the individual with their health issue. It has to go deeper than that. So while such components have the potential to help people, nobody has yet deployed them in a manner that actually does.
Experts Help Guide Support Communities
Strong, thriving online communities are not numbers games. In addition to emphasizing a person’s own personal experiences over that of informational posts, quality online communities are focused and overseen by people who understand the unique needs of their users. Similar to how editors work at large news-oriented community sites such as Digg, Engadget or Slashdot, community administrators and editors should have a background, knowledge and deep understanding of the topics their community covers. Since setting up community software is as simple as clicking a signup button, a quality community differentiates itself by having topical experts who can help tailor the community’s growth and development over time. Each community has unique needs, so such experts become important guides that help foster the community’s users own personal growth, learning, and support.
Expert community guides and editors have a grounded educational background in the topics they are covering, and be readily available to the community on a regular basis to be most effective. Such people should also understand that their role is to help foster the community’s growth along a positive path of support and help, not to expound their own personal or professional theories on the health or mental health topic. Experts and professionals are there to serve the community, not the other way around.
Beyond the Numbers
In summary, online health and mental health support communities:
- Emphasize and reinforce internal rewards (not external rewards)
- Have community ground rules that are enforced by a transparent team of impartial, fair moderators
- Emphasize quality over quantity
- Emphasize personal experiences and sharing over information re-publication (and duplicate posts)
- Foster personal growth, learning and support through expert guides and editors
Online health and mental health support communities have unique requirements over a typical online community. Sites that recognize these needs and foster their users’ growth and development offer a more vibrant, higher quality experience than sites that don’t understand their users and treat them just like another social network. Discerning users know the difference and vote with their mouse.