Balancing diversity and similarity in online patient communities [1/5]

In my previous blogpost I described the five building blocks of successful online patient communities, i.e. diversity vs similarity, extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation, privacy vs trust, moderation vs control, sociability vs usability.
Today we will zoom in on the trade-off between diversity and similarity. Like in a football team, patient communities need similarities in players to foster mutual understanding and the development of social glue. Diversity, on the other hand, is needed to ensure good performances. Football players all play different but complementary roles to enrich the team. A team containing solely strikers would not win the European Championship!
Balancing diversity and similarity in online patient communities
Similarity is an important building block for social purposes. Research in social network theory confirms that similarity breeds connection, meaning that the perceived similarity among participants will facilitate interaction. Furthermore, similarity will increase a common understanding of the community content and foster the credibility of otherwise unknown individuals.
Let’s have a look at diversity. Why is this important in patient communities? Research in knowledge creation states that patients need to tap into a very large but diversified set of peers in order to learn. Greater diversity produces more diverse opinions, which enriches community content and increases the learning potential of each participating patient.
In the online patient community ’Patients Like Me’, we find an example of how these two extremes might be balanced. This community contains several fora which can be very specific (e.g. on a distinct condition or treatment) or very broad in nature (e.g. on a group of related conditions). For example, a forum about epilepsy which gathers patients suffering from the same condition, but on the other hand also a forum regarding neurological and brain conditions. Depending on their current needs, patients can look for information and support in the specific or the broader forum.
At InSites Consulting, we also aim for a balance between diversity and similarity in our Patient Consulting Boards. We achieve this through our recruitment processes in which we might select patients suffering from the same condition who are at the same time very diverse in terms of treatment, stage of the condition, sociodemographic variables etc. Similarity, or the feeling that patients are all in the same boat, builds social glue and facilitates interactions. This diversity in participants allows us, researchers, to gather broad in-depth information, but also aids patients in gaining new information.
In the next blogpost we will look into the next building block: the trade-off between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. So stay tuned!
Source: Sarah Van Oerle (2016) “Value co-creation in online health communities: the role of participants’ posts, network position and behavioural patterns

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