Researching the communication structure of online health communities with social network analysis and computational linguistics, a group informatics approach

Online communities are virtual social structures that promote communication among Internet users on various discussion subjects.  Research has found that online communities make communication possible for every person and are highly active with almost every Web user being a member of a forum.  Online health communities connect people facing health concerns, exchange health information, and offer emotional support.  In health care, online support fora are shown to enable emotional support and information sharing.

Objective: This research analyzes the interactions of an online health community and study its participants’ interests and level of engagement.  The objective is to develop an informatics pipeline to improve our understanding of informational and social support in online communities and identify highly central participants.  The outcome can identify patterns that may be useful more generally across online health forum research.

Methods: Integrating qualitative research methods from grounded theory with computational linguistics and network analysis to aid a more systematic evaluation of the effectiveness of communication in online health communities.

Results: Network and text analyses of online community data project a central and highly influential participant, distribution of participants based on online discussions, correlation of discussion topics, and similarity between participants’ post structure.