‘Superusers’ are vital to online communities for those with long-term conditions

Whether dealing with a runny nose or more serious medical conditions, people often turn to the internet as a primary resource for information. But online assistance can extend beyond Googling symptoms. Online communities can provide support and information to those dealing with long-term conditions, according to a study published online July 11 the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Researchers—led by Sagar Joglekar, MS, with the department of informatics at King’s College London—examined the structure and growth of two online communities. The team found that these groups are largely supported by so-called superusers, who engage with peripheral users by answering questions and sharing information across the platform.

“Superusers played a central role in these communities as a result of the characteristics of their posting activity and their constant online engagement,” Joglekar et al. wrote. “They preferentially replied to posts from peripheral users who were not equally well connected. In doing so, they additionally facilitated tie formation between users.”

The researchers studied Asthma U.K. from 2006 to 2016 and the British Lung Foundation (BLF) from 2012 to 2016. Both communities grew over time—topping out at 3,345 users and 32,780 posts for Asthma U.K. and 19,837 users and 875,151 posts for BLF. Superusers, the most active 1 percent of users, accounted for a significant amount of all posts—32 percent for Asthma U.K. and 49 percent for BLF.

Without these extremely active members, the study found, the communities would collapse.

“They preferentially replied to posts from peripheral users who were not equally well connected. In doing so, they additionally facilitated tie formation between users,” Joglekar and colleagues wrote. “Sensitivity analysis showed that gradual removal of superusers induced the network to collapse. Thus, superusers were responsible for holding the network together and, in particular, for ensuring the emergence of a large connected component.”

The researchers also noted online communities could provide a cost-effective way to encourage self-management of long-term conditions. Such benefits, though, will require additional research.

“Although there is evidence that highly engaged users play a role as active help-providers to other users, this is to our knowledge the first study showing that superusers in online health communities are responsible for holding the community together, engage with other users with low posting activity, and indirectly contribute to tie formation between other users,” the authors wrote.