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Interaction Patterns of Nurturant Support Exchanged in Online Health Social Networking

Gunther Eysenbach
Publication Date
DOI: 10.2196/jmir.1824
  • Original Paper
  • Communication
  • Social Sciences


Background Expressing emotion in online support communities is an important aspect of enabling e-patients to connect with each other and expand their social resources. Indirectly it increases the amount of support for coping with health issues. Exploring the supportive interaction patterns in online health social networking would help us better understand how technology features impacts user behavior in this context. Objective To build on previous research that identified different types of social support in online support communities by delving into patterns of supportive behavior across multiple computer-mediated communication formats. Each format combines different architectural elements, affecting the resulting social spaces. Our research question compared communication across different formats of text-based computer-mediated communication provided on the health social networking environment. Methods We identified messages with nurturant support (emotional, esteem, and network) across three different computer-mediated communication formats (forums, journals, and notes) of an online support community for alcoholism using content analysis. Our sample consisted of 493 forum messages, 423 journal messages, and 1180 notes. Results Nurturant support types occurred frequently among messages offering support (forum comments: 276/412 messages, 67.0%; journal posts: 65/88 messages, 74%; journal comments: 275/335 messages, 82.1%; and notes: 1002/1180 messages, 84.92%), but less often among messages requesting support. Of all the nurturing supports, emotional (ie, encouragement) appeared most frequently, with network and esteem support appearing in patterns of varying combinations. Members of the Alcoholism Community appeared to adapt some traditional face-to-face forms of support to their needs in becoming sober, such as provision of encouragement, understanding, and empathy to one another. Conclusions The computer-mediated communication format may have the greatest influence on the supportive interactions because of characteristics such as audience reach and access. Other factors include perception of community versus personal space or purpose of communication. These results lead to a need for further research.

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