I recently came across a piece of research that looked at the social benefits of online forums.
The research paper made the distinction between social media and online forums and the benefits of the latter.
One thing that really stood out was that forums allow users to disclose as much or as little personal information that they are comfortable with and how this encourages them to join and contribute.
When you consider that when you join a Facebook Group, it only takes a few clicks to learn a lot about an individual; more than enough to get a good snapshot of their life, where they live and what they like.
This makes it uncomfortable when discussing stigmatised topics such as illness, debt and so on.
Some of my favourite quotes include:
People may strategically express identities when they think they will not be punished, and/or connect them to an audience that is valued
Initial levels of forum identification are low as a rule; users do not tend to join a forum with a sense of already being connected to other users (who are strangers) by more than shared interests. Forum identification develops over time.
For example, people with an obscure interest may join an online discussion forum to obtain information or social support that is not available in their own community. Because online communication provides disparate gratification opportunities compared with traditional media, individuals may find it superior to face-to-face communication
A key aspect of our argument is that some of the benefits of online interaction may accrue particularly to people with stigmatizing conditions, whose need for a sense of community may be harder to meet in the course of normal, day-to-day offline interactions
Taking these first two sets of analyses together, we conclude that people joining forums are not very attuned to the community-building utility of forum membership; they are more interested in its instrumental value as a site of information transfer between members. Indeed, the latter analysis affirms that online forums are perceived by their users as an exceedingly successful means of information transfer.
To summarize, then, our research suggests that users of discussion forums may find themselves with improved well-being and may also find themselves empowered and galvanized to work for the forum cause offline
Indeed, we provide clear evidence that online forums afford users a way of being genuinely “together, together”, as opposed to what calls “alone together.”
It’s worth a read especially if your niche is stigmatised or obscure.