The Intimate Public: Extending the Benefit of Healthcare’s Online Communities

flickr: kaybee07

Recently, when reading an article by Chelsea Lonsdale in the Slughorne Journal titled The “Intimate Public” of Mommy Blogs, I was reminded of the concept of “the intimate public” first introduced by Lauren Berlant. It’s a helpful concept as you consider how online communities can be used to prevent or manage illness, as well as how to extend the benefit of these online communities to offline patients.

Lonsdale borrowed the phrase “intimate public” from Lauren Berlant’s book The Female Complaint (2008) and related Berlant’s definition of intimate public: “a porous, affective scene of identification among strangers that promises a certain experience of belonging and provides a complex of consolation, confirmation, discipline, and  discussion about how to live as an x.”

A valuable patient service

In healthcare, we can replace the “x” in Berlant’s definition with our patient communities … how to live as a cancer survivor, how to live as a diabetic; how to live as an amputee, etc.  Blogs, chat rooms or other online communities can provide patient communities with an environment that fosters intimacy and helps patients feel a sense of belonging, consolation, confirmation and discipline, and provides a safe place to discuss how to live as an “x.” This, alone, is a valuable patient service.

However, the benefits of these intimate communities can be extended. Lonsdale discusses how researchers use mommy blogs to “shed new light on topics that have been marked as inappropriate for public discourse, which thus unpacks the myths of motherhood that the genre of parenting literature generally perpetuates.”

More spaces for “intimate public” dialogue

Today in healthcare, more spaces for “intimate public” dialogue are online–both through closed online communities through hospitals and clinics and open communities like Facebook or other applications.

By studying interactions in these online communities, we can go beyond offering support solely for patients who participate in the community. We can begin to use these online communities to help us understand the intimate issues faced by patients with the illness. We can use information gleaned from the online communities to address patient concerns that are under-addressed due to misinformation, myths, embarrassment or neglect due to underestimating the degree of topic significance to patients.

In this way, we can ensure that even patients who don’t engage in online communities to prevent or manage illness (whether due to socio-economic constraints or personal preference) can still benefit from the “intimate public” who does.

How we help

Hive Strategies helps health systems create HIPAA-compliant online communities for better health, lower costs and greater loyalty.

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