Health Matters: Support Networks in Online Communities

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Over the last decade the increased availability of health-related information has contributed to health matters being a normal part of cultural life. Medical information has been ‘democratised’ leading Flowers (2004) to suggest that patient-support groups and consumerism compliment a ‘culture of consumption.’ Virtual communities are recognised as playing a significant role in the management of health conditions, and for providing a mechanism for both the sharing of information and provision of emotional and psychological support from peers.

The Web is more than just an information resource, the vast numbers of online communities example the important part played by community life and cultural experiences. Communities are developed through forums, MUDS etc. and the trust between members may be put down to shared experiences and interests etc. Engagement with online health communities enables support and allows individuals to manage their health choices, effectively becoming the ‘expert patient’. Such environments can provide valuable emotional and motivational support networks. There are a range of online patient support groups which use health technologies for both intended and unintended objectives. However, in some cases an anti-medical stance can be assumed, with groups actively seeking to reject established approaches to specific conditions. This can be observed in the pro-ana communities – for example online anorexia discussion groups, where members seek to manage and maintain their illness rather than cure it. This is directly in opposition to the professional medical stance. This is an example of how health related technologies are being utilised away from their intended and normative purpose, via the influence and varied perspectives of support networks in online communities.

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