Attraction, selection, and attrition in online health communities: Initial posts and subsequent activity levels

Babak Abedin

Background: The effectiveness of online health communities (OHCs) for improving outcomes for health care consumers, health professionals, and health services has already been well investigated. However, research on determinants of OHC users’ activity levels, what is associated with attrition or attraction to these communities, and the impacts of initial posts is limited.

Aims: We sought to explore topic exchanges in OHCs and determine how users’ initial posts and community reactions to them are associated with their subsequent activity levels. We also aimed to extend the theory of Attraction-Selection-Attrition for Online Communities (OCASA) to this area.

Methods: We examined exchanges in a major Australian OHC for cancer patients, analyzing about 2500 messages posted over 2009–18. We developed a novel annotation scheme to examine new members’ initial posts and the community’s reactions to them.

Results: The annotation scheme includes five themes: informational support provision, emotional support provision, requests for help, self-reflection & disclosures, and conversational cues. Initial conversations were associated with future activity levels in terms of active posting versus non-active engagement in the community. We found that most OHC members disclosed personal reflections to bond with the community, and many actively posted to the community solely to provide informational and emotional support to others.

Conclusions: Our work extends OCASA theory to bond-based contexts, presents a new annotation scheme for OHC support topics, and makes an important contribution to knowledge about the relationship between users’ activity levels and their initial posts. The findings help managers and owners understand how members use OHCs and how to encourage active participation.