Participation in online health communities and perceived social support : elaborating participation types, identification, and interpersonal bonds




Zhu, Yaguang

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Presently, an increasing number of people with chronic diseases exchange social support using online health communities (OHCs). They often gain knowledge from interacting with like-others and improve self-management of their disease. Analyzing people’s online participatory behaviors boosts our understanding of the impact of OHCs. This dissertation project describes two interrelated studies that examine the relationship between participation types, group communication mechanisms, and social support. Together, they reveal how people participate in OHCs and provide understanding of the nuanced communicative mechanisms found in online communities that might help people cope and heal when they have a chronic disease.
Study One critiques previous methodological approaches as limited by a static conceptualization of participation that (1) dichotomized people’s online interaction (e.g., low participation vs. high participation) and (2) did not allow for variability of OHC participation. To fill the gap, this study advances the conceptualization of OHC participation by defining participation in two equally important dimensions: level of participation (ranging from complete lurking to active posting) and mode of participation (task mode and/or relational mode). This conceptualization is further validated through an empirically-based user typology. Results of cluster analyses identify a fourfold typology of user participation: hybrid-mode posting, task-mode posting, relational-mode posting, and task-mode lurking. Drawing on Prentice et al.’s (1994) common-identity and common-bond framework, Study Two proposes and examines the group communication mechanisms through which members’ OHC participation influences their perceived social support. Results of the SEM model suggest that two group communication mechanisms—identification with the community and interpersonal bonds with other members—mediate the relationship between OHC participation and perceived social support. Specifically, identification has a stronger mediating effect than interpersonal bonds. Furthermore, one-way ANOVAs reveal that identification, interpersonal bonds, and perceived social support vary across different user participation types (as identified in Study One).
A discussion of results is offered in addition to study limitations and future directions. Notably, this dissertation makes theoretical progress on the impact of different participation types and group communication mechanisms for benefiting members in OHCs. From an applied perspective, this research contributes to OHC design insights that can potentially (1) enhance users’ participation in OHCs and (2) improve online intervention programs by targeting specific functions of OHCs.


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