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Online Communities and COVID-19

Three years on from the first reported outbreak of COVID-19 in December 2019, most people have been lucky enough to return to their familiar routines, provided they test themselves at home and wear face masks when appropriate. However, it is important to remember that at the peak of the pandemic, many of the affected nations withdrew into extended periods of lockdown. Businesses were shut down, travels were restricted, and social gatherings dropped to an all time low. Having nowhere else to turn, people resorted to using online communities and communications to meet their social needs, keep their careers going, and to keep up with the bizarre and ever changing world around them (Matthewman & Huppatz 2020). But while the phenomenon of using cyberspace as a means of understanding COVID-19 came with many benefits, it also posed new problems.

In order to understand the nuances of how online communities function as sources of knowledge, the term ‘online community’ must be clearly explained. An online community may be defined as “cultural aggregations that emerge when enough people bump into each other often enough in cyberspace” (Rheingold, 1994, p. 57). While the properties in an online community vary depending on its purpose and the space it is hosted in, they share a few common requirements: a shared goal, an interest or activity, access to shared resources and information, and members that actively participate and engage with the community in some form (Whittaker et al. 1997).

Figure 1: A few example of the many types of online communities

It is with this definition in mind that we can introduce the two separate subreddits discussing the virus itself, r/China_Flu and the later emerging r/Coronavirus, as online communities that will serve as the key case studies for this article. A ‘subreddit’ is one of the many smaller communities on the social network site Reddit. Each subreddit can be likened to a forum of discussion on a specific topic, where users can create posts to discuss an idea or opinion, and comment either by replying to other users posts or replying to a comment underneath the post. Any user may choose to upvote or downvote posts and comments depending on whether they agree with the points being made, which affects their visibility as the highest rated posts and comments will be at the forefront of the subreddit.

One key thing to note with subreddits is that although a certain amount of interaction from users by way of creating posts and comments is necessary to keep a subreddit active - with users needing to create an account to make posts and comments - none of these are requirement for users to read the discussions that take place. As a result of information on Reddit and other social media being so accessible, and technology being cheaper and more widely used than ever before, there has been an increase in the number of people using social media to understand the impact of crises and maintain societal relevance (Lachlan et al. 2016).

Figure 2: An example of an r/Coronavirus Reddit thread, with names crossed out. The main post cites a relevant article, and users below have commented their thoughts. Taken on 21st August 2022

Many of the benefits of using these online communities as a place to discuss socially charged subjects like COVID-19 stem from the types of relationships that form within these spaces. Granovetter uses a strong and weak tie system to evaluate interpersonal relationships in terms of time invested, emotional intensity, and degree of intimacy (Granovetter, 1973). Where a parent and child relationship would be an obvious example of a strong tie, relationships between reddit users can be defined as weak ties. An exchange of comments that make up a conversation on a topic can take as little as a few seconds, and as they are conducted via text through a computer screen means the interaction between two users is usually devoid of intimacy. Though weak tie relationships may sound unappealing, they are extremely useful for the discussion of ideas. With little consequence for making any mistakes or appearing uneducated, reddit users can gather information and explore ideas they are unfamiliar with, and are allowed to connect with people they otherwise could not due to geographical differences, which was a major issue during lockdown (Kling, 1996).

Another advantage of weak tie relationships is that they do not share the same fate as strong tie relationships when it comes to sensitive issues. When discussing issues like coronavirus within strong tie relationships, many people feel a social pressure to either conform to the opinion of the group or remain reserved in their contributions, as there is a risk of damaging the greater relationship (Clay, 2011). This is not the same for users on the r/China_Flu and r/Coronavirus subreddits, who are hidden behind an anonymous username and have no prior relationship with the people they are talking to, and so they have no reason to avoid sharing their true opinions. Furthermore, the forum based design of reddit allows for comments to be made by anyone at any time, allowing for both convenience of being able to reply at any time, and the opportunity to reflect on comments before posting them. This freedom does also come with a cost however, in that it is difficult to confirm the validity of the information being provided, an important consideration when discussing a topic like COVID-19 that relies heavily on reliable scientific evidence (King, 1994).

Figure 3: A visual demonstration of the scope of weak tie relationships compared to strong tie relationships

Unfortunately, for every benefit that weak tie communities provide, an equally harmful drawback exists. A regrettable side effect of conducting social interaction through the use of text comments is that they limit the user’s ability to convey emotion and feelings of reciprocation in conversation. This hinders many of the mental health benefits that come with face to face interaction and makes it easy to forget there is a real person on the other side (Rademacher & Wang, 2014).

In addition, the increase in leisure time spent at home and the ease at which websites like Reddit provide information on COVID-19 might lead to an overconsumption of negative news stories. While there are clear benefits in using media to stay informed, reading too much can be detrimental to the reader’s mental wellbeing. Users of these subreddits are bombarded with reports of increasing numbers of infections and deaths, a variety of economic issues, and the strain on public health services. This leads to a higher chance of psychological distress, resulting in feelings of loneliness, trouble sleeping and depressive thoughts (Stainback et al., 2020).

Although the format of subreddits does allow for a free and open discussion of ideas, the website’s mechanics can often be abused or misinterpreted in a way that makes the opposite true. It is difficult to provide sufficient context for the user’s claims within a single text comment, and communicating in cyberspace makes it easier for users to avoid responsibility for their aggressive actions. This results in a small percentage of the userbase who are quick to resort to aggressive debating techniques, or even downright abuse, when met with a difference of opinion (Spears & Lea, 1992). This type of behaviour is only encouraged by the aforementioned upvote and downvote system of Reddit. If the subreddit at large has already made a consensus on a select issue that is being discussed, a sudden influx of downvotes on a comment will hide it from being viewed by other users unless they choose to see it, signalling to the user that their opinion is not welcome and causing them to feel frustrated that their views are not being heard.

Figure 4: Feeling ostracized from conversation

In the case of the two subreddits r/Coronavirus and r/China_Flu, r/China_Flu was the original space for discussing the coronavirus, as r/Coronavirus only gained significant traction once Reddit made it their official subreddit for discussing COVID-19 on February 17th of 2020. While it might seem like there is no significance to these communities existing side by side, by using public information on Reddit about the other subreddits users that are a part of either r/Coronavirus or r/China_Flu, it becomes clear that there is more to it than meets the eye. Evidence from a study conducted by Zhang, Keegan Lv, and Tan in 2006 shows that r/China_Flu followers were much more likely to also follow r/The_Donald, a politically right leaning subreddit supporting the current president at the time, Donald Trump. Meanwhile, r/Coronavirus followers were more likely to also follow r/sandersforpresident, a subreddit supporting one of the democratic nominees Bernie Sanders (Zhang et al., 2006). This divide in political opinion gradually spread into the two coronavirus subreddits over time as their communities began to differentiate themselves. Upvoted posts and comments, and therefore the information that users would see, began to reflect the political affiliation of the respective users in both subreddits (Zhang et al., 2006). This change was accelerated by the actions moderators, a small group of users with the power to delete and filter content posted, until the once open discussion of the virus crept closer and closer to two separate echo chambers (Berge, 1992).

Though the end of lockdown signifies a return to learning and talking about the issues they and others experience in face to face interaction, there still exists a large proportion of the population that continues to participate in online communities for the same purpose. Periods of lockdown have been helpful in revealing the inherent benefits and concerns that come with using cyberspace to discuss and understand the world around them. While it would be ill-advised to ignore the dangers they prevent, there may be a middle ground where online communities have their use alongside traditional news sources to keep citizens optimally informed .

Bibliographical References

Berge, Z. (1992). The role of the moderator in a Scholarly Discussion Group. Interpersonal Computing And Technology

Clay, S. (2011). The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change. Foreign Affairs, 9011.

Granovetter, M. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal Of Sociology, 78(6), 1360-1380.

King, S. (1994). Analysis of Electronic Support Groups for Recovering Addicts. Interpersonal Computing And Technology: An Electronic Journal For The 21St Century, 2(3), 47-56

Lachlan, K., Spence, P., Lin, X., Najarian, K., & Del Greco, M. (2016). Social media and crisis management: CERC, search strategies, and Twitter content. Computers In Human Behavior, 54, 647-652.

Matthewman, S., & Huppatz, K. (2020). A sociology of Covid-19. Journal Of Sociology, 56(4), 675-683.

Rademacher, M., & Wang, K. (2014). Strong-Tie Social Connections Versus Weak-Tie Social Connections. Scholarship And Professional Work - Communication, 103

Rheingold, H. (1994). A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community. L.M.Harasim, Global Networks: Computers And International Communication, 57-80

Spears, R., & Lea, M. (1992). Social Influence and the Influence of 'Social' in Computer Mediated Communication. Contexts Of Computer Mediated Communication

Stainback, K., Hearne, B., & Trieu, M. (2020). COVID-19 and the 24/7 News Cycle: Does COVID-19 News Exposure Affect Mental Health?. Socius: Sociological Research For A Dynamic World, 6, 237802312096933.

Whittaker, S., Isaacs, E., & O'Day, V. (1997). Widening the net. ACM SIGCHI Bulletin, 29(3), 27-30.

Zhang, J., Keegan, B., Lv, Q., & Tan, C. (2021). Understanding the Diverging User Trajectories in Highly-related Online Communities during the COVID-19 Pandemic. University Of Colorado Boulder Journal

Visual References

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