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Background: Expressing emotion in online support communities is an important aspect to enabling e-patients in connecting with each other, in expanding their social resources, and indirectly increase 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: We built upon 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 (CMC) formats. Each format combines different ‘architectural elements’, affecting the resulting social spaces. Our research question compares communication among different format of text-based CMC provided on MedHelp.org health social networking environment.
Methods: We identified messages with nurturant support (emotional, esteem, network) across three different CMC formats (forums, journals, notes) of an online support community using content analysis. Our sample consists of 493 forum messages, 423 journal messages, and 1180 notes.
Results: Nurturant support types occurred frequently among messages offering support (Forum Comments, 67%; Journal Posts, 73.9%; Journal Comments, 82.1%; and Notes 84.9%), but less among messages requesting support. Of all the nurturing supports, emotional (i.e. encouragement) appeared most frequently, with network and esteem support appearing in patterns of varying combinations. Members of this 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.
Conclusion: We conclude that the CMC 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.