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Social Dynamics in Online Cancer Support Groups

About this event

Speaker:  Robert Kraut, Ph.D. - Carnegie Mellon University

Many people with serious diseases use online support groups to exchange social support. For these groups to be effective, members must both seek support and provide it. For the groups to be sustained, some members must continue to participate. This talk presents three studies in a large, online breast cancer group examining how people get support and the impact of support on group satisfaction and commitment.
We use machine learning techniques to automate content analysis of 1.5 million messages measuring the extent to which message contain informational and emotional support, questions and self-disclosure and the strength of ties between participations. These variables are used in longitudinal regression analyses and structural equation modeling to predict the type of support people receive, their satisfaction with the exchanges and their commitment to the group.
Although members asked explicit questions to get informational support, they used both positive and negative self-disclose to elicit emotional support. Because providing emotional support has implication for the relationship between the provider and recipient, it became less valuable as a signal of caring if it must be explicitly requested. Moreover, failing to receive support after explicitly requesting it has negative consequences for the seeker’s face. Receiving either informational or emotional support positively predicted participants’ satisfaction with support exchanges. Moreover, recipients were more satisfied if the support they received matched the support they sought, at least for informational support. In contrast, they were equally satisfied with emotional and informational support after seeking emotional support, presumably because any response to them was an indicator that others in the community cared about them. Receiving support also influenced members’ continued participation in the group, with emotional support increasing their commitment and informational support decreasing it.
Dr. Kraut has broad interests in the design and social impact of computing and has conducted empirical research on online communities, the social impact of the internet, the design of information technology for small-group intellectual work, the communication needs of collaborating scientists, the impact of computer networks on organizations, office automation and employment quality, and the role that the Internet has on the relationships among people and on their psychological well-being.

His recent research has focused on the analysis and design of online communities, such as Usenet groups, guilds in multi-player games, the editors who write Wikipedia and participants in health support groups. This research consists of both empirical analyses of how they operate, such as how they socialize newcomers and coordinate their work, and interventions to improve the way they operate. He is the coauthor of Building Successful Online Communities: Evidence-Based Social Design.

 Please contact Robert Kraut directly at robert.kraut@cmu.edu for a copy of his presentation.