Although some may think online forums are outdated, a new study discovers forum participation is associated with well-being and community engagement. Researchers found forums to be generally of greater individual and societal benefit than many have realized.
Discussion forums are still regularly used by around 10 percent of online users in the U.K. and 20 percent in the U.S.
As published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, the study authors believe the value of forums may stem in part from the fact that they represent one of the few remaining spaces online that afford the user the potential for anonymity.
In the study, users were approached on a range of online discussion forums catering to a variety of interests, hobbies, and lifestyles.
Those recruited to the study were classified in two groups: those whose forum subject could be considered stigmatized (such as those dealing with mental health issues, postnatal depression, or a particular parenting choice for example) or non-stigma-related forums (such as those for golfers, bodybuilders, and environmental issues).
Participants were asked a set of questions relating to their motivations for joining the discussion forum, the fulfilment of their expectations, their identification with other forum users, their satisfaction with life, and their offline engagement with issues raised on the forum.
Lead author Dr. Louise Pendry of the University of Exeter said, “Our findings paint a more optimistic picture of old-style online discussion forums. Often we browse forums just hoping to find answers to our questions. In fact, as well as finding answers, our study showed users often discover that forums are a source of great support, especially those seeking information about more stigmatizing conditions.
“Moreover, we found that users of both forum types who engaged more with other forum users showed a greater willingness to get involved in offline activities related to the forum, such as volunteering, donating, or campaigning.”
Dr. Jessica Salvatore of Sweet Briar College in Virginia added, “What we are seeing here is that forum users who get more involved develop strong links with other users. They come to see themselves as more identified with other forum users.
“And then these more identified users see the greatest benefits, in terms of positive links with mental health and getting involved offline. In a nutshell, the more users put into the forum, the more they get back, and the payoff for both users themselves and society at large can be significant.”
Source: University of Exeter