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Communication & Social Support via Virtual Communities

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

The way we communicate, as geographical communities that usually share information via bulletin board systems and private networks that enable peer to peer communities, is being re-defined as social media and is reshaping how people self-identify, communicate, and associate within and among communities (1).

The way society defines 'community' is ever-changing and subgroups of geographical communities are finding different ways to communicate with each other. With more communication methods, come more opportunities to give, share and receive information (whether the information is true or false).

Communities are essentially a unification of subgroups who share thoughts, experiences, ideas, values and certain interests. Subgroups can be compartmentalized based on demographic variables, resources utilized, and even by the different ways it's constituents communicate with each other. Shared experiences, as mentioned above, can help strengthen and maintain the relationship built within communities and its subgroups proving that community building, (whether online or geographical) leads to effective, community-wide interventions. Communities provide additional and/or adequate-enough support to its constituents and subgroups, leaving a longer lasting impression of an intervention on both geographical and virtual ones. This would require the community to be identified accurately, be presented with correct information and for the intervention to have a benevolent, community-wide, valid, and reliable outcome/effect. Misinformation is harmful and has already penetrated the online community and its various subgroups of online communities.

Since the primary medium for virtual communities is the internet (via mailing lists, newsgroups or net discussion forums, web-based discussion forums, and live chatrooms), social support formed or facilitated in geographic communities are no longer bounded by political borders or geographic distance (1, 3). Online communities have an effect on participant retention and the effectiveness of automated lifestyle interventions just like geographical communities (2). An active online community might contain user posted stories about overcoming barriers, empathic messages of support for those who are struggling, and celebrations of success (2). If we can figure out how effective social support can be maximized by electronic support groups, it could leverage social support, positive social modeling, and dynamic content to keep users engaged in the program and to support behavior change (2).

I don’t think that virtual communities can ever substitute or complement face to face support groups completely (1). One study compared a computer mediated (voicemail) support group with a face to face group, noting that participation rates were significantly higher in the virtual group, but another study showed that virtual groups may be less effective than face to face groups to sustain weight loss (1). However, it is currently not clear whether participation in a peer to peer group reduces or increases the use of health care (1).

Participants in self-help groups may be a self-selected subgroup in whom self-help processes are effective but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t involvement from other health professionals in that process (1). In certain instances, participants may have the intrinsic desire to communicate with other people, which can prove 100%- virtual communities to be not as useful (1). There are many instances, where “stand alone” peer to peer interventions had involvement from health professionals, with trained individuals leading the groups as moderators or facilitators by stimulating discussions, formulating questions, or posting topics of interest or educational material on the bulletin boards (1).


  1. Eysenbach, G., Powell, J., Englesakis, M., Rizo, C., & Stern, A. (2004). Health related virtual communities and electronic support groups: systematic review of the effects of online peer to peer interactions. Bmj, 328(7449), 1166. doi: 10.1136/bmj.328.7449.1166

  2. Richardson, C. R., Buis, L. R., Janney, A. W., Goodrich, D. E., Sen, A., Hess, M. L., … Piette, J. D. (2010, December 17). An online community improves adherence in an internet-mediated walking program. Part 1: results of a randomized controlled trial. Retrieved from

  3. Cooper, S., & Palmedo, C. (n.d.). Social Media as a Transformative Force in Intercultural Health Communications: A Case Study of The Badass Army. Social Media as a Transformative Force in Intercultural Health Communications: A Case Study of The BADASS Army. Retrieved from

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