Online discussion forums have an undeniably addictive quality to them, and whilst they undoubtedly provide a sense of community, many have questioned whether this virtual bonding comes at the expense of more meaningful interactions in the real world.
Alas, a recent study suggests that online communities not only boost our wellbeing, but many can also increase our offline community engagement too.
The study shows that online communities provide benefits not only to us as individuals but also to society as a whole.
The paper is interesting as discussion forums have become almost old fashioned in a modern world awash with all manner of social networks. Despite the newcomers, forums remain incredibly popular, and are regularly used by 20% of the US web population.
The authors suggest that the anonymous nature of many forums is a major factor behind this continued popularity.
The research surveyed a large group of forum users. The group were largely selected from two core areas:
- members of a forum for which the topic was stigmatized (ie mental health)
- members of a forum for which the topic was not stigmatized (ie football)
Each participant was asked questions pertaining to their membership of the forum, such as what motivated them to join, whether the community fulfilled their expectations, whether they identified with fellow members, how satisfied they were with life in general, and whether they engaged offline with the issues raised on the forum.
“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 stigmatising 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,” the authors say.
It’s certainly something I’ve witnessed in my own forum usage. For instance, the GrandOldTeam forum for fans of Everton football club has had great success with a project around mental health issues among supporters, with fans seemingly more able to open up with fellow Evertonians.
“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 pay-off for both users themselves and society at large can be significant,” the authors conclude.