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Touted as places of encouragement, virtual support communities can undermine members as well, new Daniels research finds

During the Super Bowl LIV broadcast in early 2020, Facebook ran a slick commercial promoting its Groups functionality. Earlier this year, the company restarted the campaign, highlighting unique communities such as DeafHoops, Dance Accepts Everyone and Drag Queen Beginners.

Assistant Professor Ana Babic Rosario

The social media giant promotes Groups as places to “meet new people, share knowledge or get support.” Yet, recent research from Daniels Assistant Professor of Marketing Ana Babic Rosario concludes that within such online gatherings, connections may not be as constructive as Facebook hoped, especially in virtual support communities (VSCs), which are built on the premise of communal accountability and accomplishment.

“You may enter this online space with high expectations around accomplishing your goals, getting empowered, growing and learning,” Babic Rosario said. “Our research found that they can indeed be very powerful and jump-start positive, transformative change, but on the other side of the coin, they can incite insecurity and jeopardize mental health and the sense of belonging to a community.”

Babic Rosario worked with Pepperdine University’s Cristel Antonia Russell and Doreen Shanahan to explore social interactions in Facebook groups. They identified five paradoxical dynamics inherent in VSCs:

  1. Kind and hurtful sentiments coexist.
  2. Social empathy may be offset by judgment and angst, which can make some people anxious.
  3. Social pressures may be beneficial for accomplishing goals but also harmful.
  4. Valuable information may be constructively shared but also conveyed through heated exchanges and “tough love.”
  5. Members may disengage as frequently as they fully engage in the community.

The findings appear in the paper “Paradoxes of Social Support in Virtual Support Communities: A Mixed-Method Inquiry of the Social Dynamics in Health and Wellness Facebook Groups,” which will be published in a 2022 special issue of the Journal of Interactive Marketing dedicated to the unanticipated consequences of new technologies.

The research, which encompasses a qualitative deep dive into one health and wellness Facebook VSC and a series of member interviews as well as a quantitative analysis of nearly 300 members of multiple VSCs, is rooted in Babic Rosario’s personal experience.

facebook group researchIn 2015, as she embarked on the Whole30 nutrition and lifestyle program, she joined a dedicated Facebook VSC—as suggested by Whole30—to help navigate its strict dietary regimen. As she posted about successes and progress, she found that responses were just as likely to be discouraging as they were to be uplifting. The experience fostered an enduring curiosity about VSCs, which was stoked by Facebook’s recent flashy ad campaign.

“If brand managers encourage consumers to start their own support group or join an existing one, they need to understand that there is no such thing as a desirable social climate,” Babic Rosario said. “They should know what kind of support these groups are offering and that it might have adverse effects on the group members as well as their brand.”

To address the potential issues, she recommends that corporations be more intentional in how they frame their connections to VSCs and actively monitor any communities tied to their brands. Alternatively, companies may consider creating their own online support spaces.

“The recent Facebook whistleblower testimony tried to illuminate these gray areas of social media, where online social interactions can jeopardize the mental health of individuals, groups, and even entire democracies,” Babic Rosario said of Frances Haugen’s October appearance in front of the U.S. Senate. “In this research, my co-authors and I are similarly identifying these gray areas, specifically in support communities on Facebook, where social media can be helpful and where they can be damaging.