What does all this tweeting about health really mean? Expanding our understanding of Twitter & disease [research study]

I want to help build our understanding of how Twitter is used in health, particularly around healing. Will you help me by sharing this post?

With more than 560 disease-related hashtags registered on Symplur’s Health Care Hashtag Project, it’s clear that people are using Twitter to talk about health. The academic world has recognized this and has gradually been building scientific proof since Twitter launched in 2006. At the end of 2014, I searched published academic literature for papers on Twitter and consumer health and found studies on cancer, drugs, medication, communicable diseases, smoking (including e-cigarettes), mental health, exercise, pain, cardiac arrest, childhood obesity, concussion, dementia, epilepsy, orthodontics, palliative care, vaccines, and weight loss. I’m sure that list comes as no surprise to seasoned Twitter users – people seem to talk about everything on Twitter!

So while academics have shown that people tweet about health, we haven’t really got too far in exploring how it all connects to the daily lives of Twitter users. It’s an area worth exploring. The new online social tools of the last decade have become so ingrained in our daily lives, yet we don’t have a lot of research to show how it has shaped our “offline” lives. As Marie Hardin wrote in 2014,

“The next logical step after we have a good sense about [what Twitter is, how people use it, and for what purpose they use it] is to pursue studies that put a much higher priority on the wider sociocultural context and on theory. In other words, providing much more substance about what all this tweeting really means and its implications for what we already know. What is consequential and how so?”

It’s a huge topic that will take many researchers and even more studies, but I hope to tackle just a small sliver of it through my thesis.

One of the first published papers on medical anthropology ends with an idea that may explain why so many people turn to Twitter to talk about their health:

“… the increasing technical control [in medicine] has been accompanied by the separation of efficacy from meaning, progressive dehumanization of the healing function, so much so that we are seeing traditional healing activities surface in the wider social structure just as they are disappearing from clinical practices. ” (Arthur M Kleinman Inquiry, 16 (1973), 206-213)

What Kleinman is suggesting is that as we get better at treating the biological parts of disease through the development of modern medicine, the social connection of healing, common in traditional healing activities, disappears from the clinical encounter and instead happens in other social contexts. It made me wonder: is Twitter one of these other social contexts?

Update: Data collection has ended for this project and I am now finishing my analysis. Please contact me at alaina.cyr@mail.utoronto.ca if you are interested in learning more about this study or if you’d like to be contacted when the final analysis is complete.

This research study was reviewed and approved by the Research Ethics Board at the University of Toronto.

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