Can Online Social Pressure be Good for You?

December 7, 2021

The early adopters of the internet were mostly techies. Then came the age of brand followers. Nowadays, many people are seeking out supportive communities to help them reach their health and wellness goals. One place available to them on social media are virtual support communities (VSCs). These provide information and socio-emotional support to their members. Of course, negative social dynamics can also crop up, affecting VSC users, which begs the question, can positive and negative influences coexist in VSCs, and if so, in what ways do they affect consumer engagement?

Our research explores whether positive and negative social processes coexist within VSCs and assesses how these paradoxical dynamics affect VSC members’ relational and engagement outcomes.

Researchers Ana Babić Rosario, Cristel Antonia Russell and Doreen Ellen Shanahan used a mixed-method approach to conduct their research. They used netnography (ethnographic analyses of social media) and in-depth interviews (IDIs) with members of the Whole301 (W30) Facebook community and data from a cross-sectional survey of members of a large number of similar health- and wellness-related VSCs.

What did they find? There is evidence of both social pressure and social empathy in VSCs. Social empathy was fairly easy to detect and always had a positive effect. The role of social pressure however was more complex. Sometimes, it leads to positive results. Social pressure can increase engagement and lead to good relational outcomes if coupled with social empathy. Social pressure alone however can be detrimental. Without empathy, it often leads to angst.

Similarly, a VSC’s informational value emerges from positive but also negative social dynamics. Researchers witnessed instances of “tough love” meant to reinforce the W30 rules for members, maintaining the quality of shared content and preventing informed opinion from being “diluted by novices.”

Perhaps the most surprising finding was that self-disclosure was not necessary for those in VSCs to yield informational and emotional benefits. To avoid making themselves vulnerable to potentially harmful social dynamics, many members spent a substantial amount of time watching and vicariously reaping the benefits of community membership, despite not being actively engaged themselves. The authors also observed other social dynamics in VSCs, such as a spiral of silence, which can normalize unhealthy behaviors.

Read the full working paper here.

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