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What Motivates People to Participate in Online Communities? #hcsmca Study

May 31, 2016

By Sarah Gilbert (@_sgilbert_)

Why do people take part in online communities? I set to find out.

headshot of Sarah Gilbert

Sarah Gilbert

Between February and June of 2015, I interviewed 23 #hcsmca community members and founder, Colleen Young, as part of my dissertation on what drives people to participate in online communities. As a forum in which a diverse network of people who are passionate about health gather to research, discuss and problem solve challenges and opportunities in Canadian healthcare, #hcsmca is aptly described as a community of practice. Because learning is an integral aspect of participation in communities of practice, I sought to explore the role of learning as a motivation for participating in #hcsmca. I was interested in three key research questions:

  1. What role does learning play as a motivation for participation in the #hcsmca community?
  2. How do Twitter and the tweet chat format affect learning for members of the #hcsmca community?
  3. How is learning enacted for members of #hcsmca through their participation in the community.

To respond to these questions, I looked to the interviews for references of learning, descriptions of their experiences using Twitter and the tweet chat format as a discussion platform, and descriptions of how participants learned by participating in discussions.

The importance of learning for #hcsmca community members 

Learning and participating in the knowledge exchange process was found to be a key driver for participating in #hcsmca. 17 of the 23 community members interviewed responded that learning was a driving factor of participation. Five of those who did not cite learning as a motivator cited sharing knowledge with the group as a driver for participation in the community. When directly asked, all participants indicated that they had learned through their participation in the community, although one participant could not think of an example.

Twitter and learning

Because Twitter is the medium through which most community members interact, I was interested in the impact of the platform and the tweet chat format on learning. Participants highlighted a number of ways Twitter supported discussions: it was cited as accessible, fast, efficient, and democratizing. Upon asking Colleen @colleen_young, why Twitter? She responded:

Colleen YoungTwitter is just extremely accessible. It’s very quick. People do have some skepticism around the length of the messages that people are able to write, but there’s a lot of efficiency in keeping your comments to 140 characters. It’s a really level playing field for that as well.

And many participants agreed! For example, features such as liking and favouriting allowed a participant with a cognitive impairment to be visible and support the community when she was not well enough to participate actively in the chats. @anetto described Twitter’s democratizing effect:

AnettoIt’s easier for me to meet people and talk to people online than it is to talk to them in person. I mean it seems more egalitarian doesn’t it? … You’re influenced so much by the way people look, right? And so if you’re young and vibrant and well dressed and you have great shoes, you’re going to get a different response than if you’re older and maybe a little stooped and your shoes are ugly…So I like that that’s not what happens so much on Twitter.

While most participants were supportive of Twitter as a platform to engage in healthcare discussion, six noted limitations of the technology. The most common criticism was that the chats were awkward and hard to follow; one participant described the chats as stressful so she tended to avoid them. Two participants were concerned that the 140-character limit could not support the depth of discussion they would like to see come from the community. As a supplement to the Tweet chats, a monthly in-person sub-community was founded by members in BC, Evening Rounds, and annual meet-ups were organized by Colleen with planning support from the community.

Learning through participation

 The final research question was posed to identify how learning is enacted through participation in the community. Through analysis I identified four main themes: knowledge exchange between experts and novices, learning what others know, exposure to diversity, and learning knowledge they can practice.

Twenty participants cited social learning as a motivation for participation: 13 interviewees valued the opportunity to share their expertise and 17 valued the opportunity to access the expertise of other members, with some overlap between the two. Because the personal and professional experiences of the community members are so diverse, members may be simultaneously experts and novices, allowing those who are traditionally considered experts to occupy the position of novice. For example, @drpauldempsey cited learning from patients as a key motivator:

Dr Paul DempseyI appreciate hearing the perspectives of patients and non-doctors. So I tune in primarily because I like to listen in and get a different perspective on things. That helps me, in my view, plan services; it helps me respond to patients in the office, it helps me with what we do with our Quinte Pediatric work online. And if it’s a topic that I can additionally add some information or my input, that’s great. But I don’t go there to try to have a platform or to speak or to present, I go there to learn. Really listen and learn.

While patients, often through a drive to act as self-advocates and raise awareness, take on the role of expert, as @CatToyOriginal does when sharing information about her rare disease:

CarrieIn the early days it was really scary, so that’s when I will really tweet something to hcsmca with that tag … it’s a way to keep the name of this illness out there … half the battle is … to get it talked about enough so that it’s in [doctors’] minds. Somebody walks into their office and they are struggling with all these things, [doctors] will think of it because people are talking about it.

Learning about who’s who in healthcare, and who knows what was a driver for 14 participants. This was an important professionally driven motivation for community members who are new to the field and also an important personally driven motivation for those who had specific questions about the healthcare system; for example, @eringarrity described how participation in #hcsmca helped her situate herself in the healthcare field:

ErinGarrityI’m reading who’s writing what, when are they writing, what are their positions, opinions, and then, if I want to … I can pursue something more.

Community members expressed a sense of trust – knowing who knows what was often expressed hand in hand with a sense that community members would be willing to help and could provide reliable responses.

Access to the diversity of voices, roles, ideas, and experiences of community members was a driver for 14 participants and was something that they highly valued; in the words of @kathykastner:

KathyKastnerThe fact that I have this worldwide pool of brains that I can call upon and will answer me is like gold!

Several participants expressed the the community was the only way that they would have access to a diverse network of people and therefore access to a range of information. For example, @pat_health described the unique advantages he gets from the community:

PatRichAt the micro level I get insights into projects and perspectives that I wouldn’t otherwise have any knowledge of, especially in Canada. I get more insight into various aspects of the community or groups in the community, like the engaged patients and the other health professionals, the PR people that are working for hospitals. I gain a lot of insights into where people are coming from so the value I get from it ranges from very specific topics and areas.

While generally the community was discussed as diverse, several community members (in an interview and during the chat I hosted, see for a link to the transcript)  were concerned that while the group was diverse, their similar values led to topics discussed in an echo chamber.

In discussing learning through participation in the community, eight participants noted that they had been able to apply what they’d learned. For example, two physicians, including @drpauldempsy, cited above noted that they were able to improve their practice applying what they’d learned through the community. Others learned leadership skills through planning events and moderating chats, and others, such as @DrRKSingal were able to learn the norms and conventions of tweeting as professionals:

RajivSingalI used it as a way early on just to learn simple things: you know, how do professionals conduct themselves on Twitter. I mean, a tweet chat is a very good way to kind of figure out what your own style might be; what’s kosher, what’s not. I actually modeled a lot of it after the way Colleen conducted herself, you know. So I learned a lot from her actually.

@SaraHamil noted that participation in the community provided her with information that she could use in her personal life:

SaraHamilI feel much better equipped that, should the time come where I need to be more involved in my own health, I feel like I’m better equipped with the tools that I need than had I not participated in the community.

In the analysis I teased apart the four themes; however, each of these aspects of learning affects the other: for example, learning who knows what provides members with information about the knowledge of an array of experts who have diverse areas of expertise. Knowledge learned through these interactions may then be put into practice. In viewing the themes as interwoven, the rich tapestry of learning through participation in #hcsmca emerges.

#hcsmca-ers, I’d like to know what you think! Do my findings align with your learning experiences? Why or why not?

A full report of my findings can be found here (paywall): http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1369118X.2016.1186715?journalCode=rics20

If you do not have access to the paper and would like to read it, please email me at sagilber@mail.ubc.ca for a link to an e-print.

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