Using metrics to describe the participative stances of members within discussion forums.
Jones R., Sharkey S., Smithson J., Ford T., Emmens T., Hewis E., Sheaves B., Owens C.
BACKGROUND: Researchers using forums and online focus groups need to ensure they are safe and need tools to make best use of the data. We explored the use of metrics that would allow better forum management and more effective analysis of participant contributions. OBJECTIVE: To report retrospectively calculated metrics from self-harm discussion forums and to assess whether metrics add to other methods such as discourse analysis. We asked (1) which metrics are most useful to compare and manage forums, and (2) how metrics can be used to identify the participative stances of members to help manage discussion forums. METHODS: We studied the use of metrics in discussion forums on self-harm. SharpTalk comprised five discussion forums, all using the same software but with different forum compositions. SharpTalk forums were similar to most moderated forums but combined support and general social chat with online focus groups discussing issues on self-harm. Routinely recorded time-stamp data were used to derive metrics of episodes, time online, pages read, and postings. We compared metrics from the forums with views from discussion threads and from moderators. We identified patterns of participants' online behavior by plotting scattergrams and identifying outliers and clusters within different metrics. RESULTS: In comparing forums, important metrics seem to be number of participants, number of active participants, total time of all participants logged on in each 24 hours, and total number of postings by all participants in 24 hours. In examining participative stances, the important metrics were individuals' time logged per 24 hours, number of episodes, mean length of episodes, number of postings per 24 hours, and location within the forum of those postings. Metric scattergrams identified several participative stances: (1) the "caretaker," who was "always around," logged on for a much greater time than most other participants, posting but mainly in response to others and rarely initiating threads, (2) the "butterfly," who "flitted in and out," had a large number of short episodes, (3) two "discussants," who initiated many more discussion threads than anybody else and posted proportionately less in the support room, (4) "here for you," who posted frequently in the support room in response to other participants' threads, and (5) seven "people in distress," who posted many comments in the support room in comparison with their total postings and tended to post on their own threads. CONCLUSIONS: Real-time metrics may be useful: (1) by offering additional ways of comparing different discussion forums helping with their management, and (2) by identifying participative stances of individuals so allowing better moderation and support of forums, and more effective use of the data collected. For this to happen, researchers need to publish metrics for their discussion forums and software developers need to offer more real-time metrics facilities.