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A View of Online Communities Across Stages of Life: Current Research and Future Trends

Jackie L. Bender, Holly O. Witteman, Osman Hassan Ahmed, and Michael Massimi


Online communities are virtual social spaces where people come together to share information and support, learn and collaborate with others, promote products or particular views, seek entertainment or simply to find company. When they first emerged in the 1980s, they were supported by mailing list and message board software built on ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet. With the evolution of the participatory web at the turn of the century, online communities now form rapidly around and across blogs, wikis and social networking sites. Since their inception, researchers from a wide array of disciplines have sought to understand and explain online community dynamics and their effects on people, organizations and cultures.

However, most studies have focused on characterizing participation in one or a few online communities using a single medium (e.g. bulletin boards) or serving a specific group of people (e.g. breast cancer patients). Additionally, most research that has examined the relationship between participation in an online community and a particular set of outcomes has been cross-sectional in nature and has focused on process or short-term outcome measures. Although researchers have begun to piece together how people selectively join, participate in and leave online communities, little is known about the role of these social technologies over long periods of time, and longitudinal research remains a challenge. Likewise, comparatively little work has examined the design process of online communities or reported on how technical, practical or social factors affect the efficacy or sustainability of the solution. Understanding how people use online communities in their every day life and over the course of their life is key to understanding their long-term efficacy.

In this panel presentation, we provide a broader perspective of online communities across stages of life. Osman Ahmed a Physiotherapist and PhD student at the University of Otago, New Zealand, will discuss how young adults with sport concussion have used online communities to support their return to play. Holly O. Witteman PhD, a human factors engineer and Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Université Laval, Quebec City, Canada, will discuss how women in their childbearing years use online communities in the course of making diverse decisions about pregnancy and birth. Jackie Bender PhD, a post-doctoral fellow and behavioral social scientist at the University Health Network, Canada, will discuss how people with breast, testicular and thyroid cancer use online communities as a form of supportive care through treatment and beyond. Lastly, Michael Massimi PhD, a computer scientist from Microsoft Research, Cambridge will discuss the role of technology at the end of life and online communities for the bereaved.

Together this panel will highlight the similarities and differences in the use and effects of online communities by different groups of people at different stages of life. In addition, we will discuss the methodological and ethical challenges of conducting research in the Facebook and Google+ era. This panel will conclude with a discussion of design considerations and implications for research and practice.


Publication typeOther
Book titleMedicine 2.0 Congress
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