Eliciting and receiving online support: using computer-aided content analysis to examine the dynamics of online social support.
BACKGROUND: Although many people with serious diseases participate in online support communities, little research has investigated how participants elicit and provide social support on these sites.
OBJECTIVE: The first goal was to propose and test a model of the dynamic process through which participants in online support communities elicit and provide emotional and informational support. The second was to demonstrate the value of computer coding of conversational data using machine learning techniques (1) by replicating results derived from human-coded data about how people elicit support and (2) by answering questions that are intractable with small samples of human-coded data, namely how exposure to different types of social support predicts continued participation in online support communities. The third was to provide a detailed description of these machine learning techniques to enable other researchers to perform large-scale data analysis in these communities.
METHODS: Communication among approximately 90,000 registered users of an online cancer support community was analyzed. The corpus comprised 1,562,459 messages organized into 68,158 discussion threads. Amazon Mechanical Turk workers coded (1) 1000 thread-starting messages on 5 attributes (positive and negative emotional self-disclosure, positive and negative informational self-disclosure, questions) and (2) 1000 replies on emotional and informational support. Their judgments were used to train machine learning models that automatically estimated the amount of these 7 attributes in the messages. Across attributes, the average Pearson correlation between human-based judgments and computer-based judgments was .65.
RESULTS: Part 1 used human-coded data to investigate relationships between (1) 4 kinds of self-disclosure and question asking in thread-starting posts and (2) the amount of emotional and informational support in the first reply. Self-disclosure about negative emotions (beta=.24, P
CONCLUSIONS: Self-disclosure is effective in eliciting emotional support, whereas question asking is effective in eliciting informational support. Moreover, perceptions that people desire particular kinds of support influence the support they receive. Finally, the type of support people receive affects the likelihood of their staying in or leaving the group. These results demonstrate the utility of machine learning methods for investigating the dynamics of social support exchange in online support communities.