Step aside, trolls. Despite their reputation as a place for low-brow commentary and outright harassment, old-school Internet discussion forums may not be as bad as we thought. In fact, they might even be good for you, according to a recent study published in Computers In Human Behavior.
Participation in online forums has a positive impact on life satisfaction, and even leads to increased involvement in offline communities, the researchers claim. And as Jessica Salvatore of Sweet Briar College told Phys.org:
What we are seeing here is that forum users who get more involved develop strong links with other users. They come to see themselves as more identified with other forum users. And then these more identified users see the greatest benefits, in terms of positive links with mental health and getting involved offline. In a nutshell, the more users put into the forum, the more they get back, and the pay-off for both users themselves and society at large can be significant.
Part of the impact seems to be related to anonymity, particularly when it comes to sensitive, often stigmatizing issues. Depression and other health issues, for example, are typically easier to explore in a cloak of online anonymity than in the physical world. For people seeking information and discussion about topics like these, online forums can offer a uniquely supportive environment. However, participants in forums about all sorts of topics–sensitive or not–showed a tendency to be more involved in similar communities in the offline world.
As far as the methodology goes, Phys.org explains:
Users were approached on a range of online discussion forums catering to a variety of interests, hobbies and lifestyles. Those recruited to the study were classified in two groups: those whose forum subject could be considered stigmatized (such as those dealing with mental health issues, postnatal depression or a particular parenting choice for example) or non-stigma-related forums (such as those for golfers, bodybuilders and environmental issues).
Each user was interviewed about the expectations, motivations, and overall experience of participating in such forums. Even as online communities have shifted toward more social places like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, there’s apparently still something to be said for the way we used to connect with like-minded folks online in 1998.