Sharing with Strangers or Friends?

14 Sep

There are lots of potential benefits to sharing your health status and achievements with other people. When we interviewed participants in online health communities, mostly from SparkPeople, they identified potential benefits of sharing including emotional support, acountability, motivation, advice, and showing off (though they didn’t call it that).

But wouldn’t these benefits be amplified if you shared with people you actually know, rather than with strangers? Maybe, but not necessarily.

Consider sharing with all your FB friends. Our interviewees identified several reasons not to. Your so-called friends are not as supportive as the strangers in dedicated health communities. It’s embarrassing to tell your old high-school friends that you’re trying to lose weight. And you’ll bore them with the minutiae of your progress or come off as boastful (think of your fit friends who post their daily workout statistics to FB). Ironically, it feels safer to share intimate details of your life with strangers (at least under cover of a pseudonym) than with your weak ties and perhaps even your close friends.

We found a similar result when we made a Facebook app for recording and sharing three good things that happen to you each day (paper; 3GT app). It’s a well-known positive psychology exercise, and one of the few that seems to have long-term positive effects (see paper by Seligman et al). We added the ability to share some or all of your good things as FB status posts, or with other users of the app. Although people reported that one of the most engaging things about the app was reading other people’s posts, and they liked getting feedback from friends, they also reported barriers to sharing with their FB friends. The biggest one, surprisingly, was not embarrassment, but worry about “spamming” friends with things that were too mundane or too boastful.

I don’t think we should give up on the idea of sharing with people we know. It’s partly because existing relationships are powerful that there are more barriers to sharing. Thus, there are likely more potential benefits as well. But better tools are needed for managing who to share with. Some ideas include sharing with other friends who are engaged in a similar behavior change, or others who explicitly agree to be part of a support group.

I’d love to hear about examples of systems that have successfully navigated this challenge.

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