To Your Health: The Serious Side of Social Networking
Can specialty social networking sites survive in a Web 2.0 world dominated by MySpace and Facebook? Perhaps -- especially if your health depends on it. Networks oriented toward specific conditions or approaches are effective substitutes for face-to-face interactivity, particularly for people who don't have access to real-world support groups tailored to their needs.
A Type 2 diabetic for more than 14 years, Sherman, N.Y.-resident John Morris thought he had everything he needed to manage and treat his disease. He was wrong. It wasn't until he became a member of the recently launched social networking Web site Diabetic Connect that he realized how essential the support of like-minded people was in dealing with diabetes.
"The support on the site is fantastic -- it is hard to describe how much love and support and concern there is among the members," Morris told TechNewsWorld. His network has grown to 900 "friends" on the site, and he keeps in touch with 60 of them outside of it.
More Than Information
Web sites like Diabetic Connect are, of course, Web 2.0 versions of the kinds of support groups that can be found for most diseases, such as breast cancer or lupus or irritable bowel syndrome, to name just a few examples. The main drawback of such online groups is clear: They entail no face-to-face interaction. The advantages make up for that, though, starting with outreach to towns or regions where there might not be a support group, or to people whose friends and family do not understand.
Diabetic Connect, for example, "has been a great source of comfort to newly diagnosed diabetics," Morris said. "A lot of people still don't understand this disease or what is necessary to treat it."
"You can get health information anywhere -- it is a commodity," noted Stead Burwell, CEO of Alliance Health and creator of Diabetic Connect.
"What we deliver through our social network platform are tools and a support group that can change the care people receive," he told TechNewsWorld.
Although newly launched this year, Diabetic Connect belongs to the first wave of health-oriented social networks -- that is, online communities that focus on a certain disease or health problem. Indeed, the emergence of social networking and Web 2.0 tools is tailor made for this online constituency.
Next-Gen Health Networking
Now, there's a second generation of health social networks forming, addressing broader and, sometimes, more benign subject areas, such as exercise or herbal remedies. It is questionable whether these sites can thrive, though, especially in the shadow of MySpace and Facebook.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that people dislike maintaining separate networks and are unlikely to invest serious time in a niche social networking site over the long term.
That has not stopped these sites from forming, nor do the creators believe that users necessarily look at social networking as an either-or proposition.
"A lot of people easily jump back and forth from MySpace to Facebook," said Larry Fitzgibbon, the general manager of Livestrong.com, a health social networking site founded by Lance Armstrong. "We are finding that people are becoming more interested in vertical sites as well."
In fact, he argued, MySpace and Facebook have paved the way for these specialty sites. "People have gotten used to communing online, and now they want to do it around specific topics."
Sites like Livestrong can easily compete alongside the larger social networks like MySpace and Facebook, Shannon Nelson, chief blogger and social media expert at Pierce Mattie PR, told TechNewsWorld.
"Niche social networks is an idea that is growing in popularity as people want to connect to others with similar interests to themselves," she said. "In addition to connecting to others, it also gives them a one-stop shop on articles and content surrounding what interests them. This isn't only for fitness, but can be applied across the board for fashion, beauty and so on."
Indeed, unlike the larger sites, these niche sites will thrive because they offer more than just social connections, stated Ofer Wellisch, a doctor who serves as the expert medical consultant for Mamaherb.com, a site that offers holistic remedies, treatments and information on a variety of ailments and diseases.
"Niche social networks have more meat than sites like Facebook, which are really about stalking your friends," he told TechNewsWorld.
Mamaherb.com, for instance, connects users to peer reviewed published studies about the herbs discussed on the site, he said. It also has collaborative features, like a recommendation engine that lists the most popular articles.
The people who use this site are serious about using herbs as medical treatments, Wellisch continued, pointing to one example -- the use of flaxseed oil as a stroke preventative. "It brings together people with a common interest and connects them with the information they need."