If you’ve ever updated your Facebook status with the news that you’ve come down with a bad cold, you’ve used Facebook (in some small way) for a little online TLC. It’s no real surprise, then, that Facebook could soon be capitalizing on that kind of behavior: Last week, Reuters reported on the tips of three anonymous employees that Facebook would experiment with facilitating health “support communities.”
Tech commentators have already begun questioning whether this is a wise idea, especially given the particularly sensitive nature of health information on a platform that monetizes other user data. But separate from the question of whether people should be posting about their health conditions under their real names is the question of whether it would even work.
For the past several years, social network researcher Munmun de Choudhury has been studying how people share personal information–especially personal health information–on different social media platforms. Much of her recent work has centered on Reddit, where de Choudhury has found thriving anonymous communities for a variety of conditions. Even though anonymity goes against Facebook’s ethos, de Choudhury says that it can actually help people suffering from stigmatized illnesses like anxiety or depression.
De Choudhury says she sees this pattern in how one-off “throwaway” accounts–the kind that are only used to post once or twice–are employed on Reddit. “We found that on mental health support forums, semi-anonymous throwaway accounts were 10 times more frequent than regular Reddit accounts,” she says. “People want to carefully manage their identity and what kind of information they reveal on a stigmatized health condition. We have seen that people are not comfortable sharing sensitive information about their health or about the kinds of experiences they have around that experience on Facebook.”
When de Choudhury studied post-partum depression, she found that users managed what they said on their Facebook accounts very carefully, but not on Reddit. In addition, de Choudhury found that semi-anonymous users in Reddit support groups felt the freedom to discuss intensely personal issues on a variety of subjects, including child abuse and suicide.
Other research supports the idea that anonymity can actually help people who might be embarrassed by their conditions go seek treatment. If people are nervous about talking to a therapist about their issues, going online and finding other people’s stories often encourages patients to take some of the first steps.
That’s not to say that Facebook wouldn’t be helpful to some. Lots of Facebook groups already facilitate connections among people with various conditions, like cancer or Celiac’s disease.
But for other stigmatized illnesses, anonymity still remains a key resource. “I don’t think that [Facebook and Reddit] are trying to compete for the same set of things, but I have a feeling that for health-related needs people might have a preference for these pseudonymous platforms like Reddit or Tumblr,” de Choudhury says.