The term virtual communities was coined by Harold Rheingold in his 1993 book with the same title. Rheingold defined the term as “A network of people with mutual interests who interact in a conceptual space” (Rheingold, H. 2000, p4), specifically within social media. Since this time new media technology has advanced at such a pace that Facebook (as an example) has a monthly activity of 850 million users (Honnigman, B. 2013) The advent of virtual communities and social media has posed new challenges to our concepts of what defines community and with it is our sense of time and space. With globalisation enabling people to move around the world with relative ease the traditional family unit and dynamics of social structures is undergoing a considerable transformation. This essay asks the question, does a community of support need to be physical and can digital media become an aid for the traditional modes of (specifically) maternity care in an increasingly centralised system?
Boyd, D et al (2007) defines social networking sites as web based services which allow users to;
- Construct an identity and profile within a bounded system.
- Create a list of users who they share a common interest with.
- Provide the ability to view connections of themselves and others within the system.
Using this framework of what constitutes social media, the potential for its use not only for individuals but also as a tool for governmental organisations as a way of providing expert advice and care will be explored. Research has shown that social media sites have given individuals a voice, enabling people to link with others who are having similar experiences and effectively helped initiate change within institutions which were traditionally closed off. (Ibid) Mark Zuckerberg in an interview with Times Magazine in 2011 stated that because there is easier access to information through Facebook it also creates issues of personal responsibility; each person being personally responsible for how they interact with the technology, something reiterated within the HSE policy later referred to. Zuckerberg’s intention for Facebook from its birth in February 2004 was to enable “people to stay connected” (Stengel, R. 2012). Zuckerberg emphasises that he does not believe that Facebook negatively impacts on social relationships but expands the already existing ones by the ability to stay in contact. Within its growth in the last 8 years Facebook now provides space for business pages and has been associated with revolutionary means of initiating change, as seen in the Arab Springs of 2010 and more recently the London riots of 2011 (Lillington, K. 2013). When asked about the political aspect of social media Zuckerberg states that in terms of news it provides a platform for friends to like articles of choice in which enables the news or product or service to spread quicker, based on personal recommendation. Facebook, Zuckerberg states is not based on ‘toppling institutions’ as was referred to within the interview with Times Magazine editor, Richard Stengel to Julian Assange from Wikileaks who is currently on trial for misconduct of information. (Stengel, R. 2012) Zuckerberg comments that the intention of Facebook is completely different.
Taking the life of the new mother as an example, in a world where women are becoming pregnant away from their nuclear families many feel isolated and cut off from support networks which traditionally would provide the care, advice and mothering during the tender transition to motherhood. The Association for Improvement of Maternity Services conducted a survey in 2009 in which one woman replied when asked where she sourced most of her information that the internet “while hugely helpful, is only ever anecdotal” (AIMS p.8), most information is provided by the ‘lay person’ and not institutions or health professionals. With maternity systems around the world becoming centralised and with the rise in complexity of births and older mothers (Ibid) the need for high need care is increasing and in turn is placing more strain on the maternity units. With the HSE constantly in the news with stories of understaffing, overspending, staff cuts and long waiting times new mothers are feeling isolated, alienated and not wanting to ‘bother’ already stretched staff and Public Health Nurses and thus mothers are becoming disempowered in their new role (not to mention financial strain) (Ibid). For those mothers in remote and rural areas access is limited to the expert advice needed when caring for a new-born and my suggestion here is that by making use of social media sites the HSE and other government institutions could effectively lessen the strain on services and new families whilst integrating the new online technologies of the 21st century.
The HSE currently has 2 Facebook pages; one for quitting smoking (plus a YouTube video for this) and one for teen mums. Two Twitter accounts; one for general business news within the HSE and one for management professionals, neither of which provide access to information on practical health and care. Current HSE policy on personal social media states; “Personal blogs created by HSE employees, including micro blogs like Twitter accounts, should have a clear disclaimer that the views expressed by the author in the blog are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of their employer.” (HSE, 2012). As it stands there are no HSE support pages via new media and social networks for maternity care and those that wish to blog or post are limited to what they can discuss. However in the HSE Digital Communications Strategy of 2011 it is stated that
“This Digital Communications Strategy proposes how the HSE will integrate digital and social media into all aspects of our work and will build a digital platform that will integrate patient information and our service now and into the future.”
The intention is clear but has not been updated since 2011 which is probably indicative of the current climate of economic recession.
Finland was the first country to make use of digital communications within their maternity services (2011) with Australia completing research the same year. What has come to light from these two papers is that social media is indeed a very successful means of accessing women as childbearing women and their families are regular users of the sites. Finland’s research showed that “This study showed that social media coordinated by a maternity clinic can effectively create a sense of virtual community, or a feeling of belonging to a group, and respond to the needs for social support of parents with small children.” (Palmen et al, 2012) Mirroring these findings, the Australian CISCO research showed that
By following these steps to deliver virtual maternity care services, healthcare organizations
will be able to bring a traditional service area into the information age and in line with
Expectations from an IT-literate clientele. Most important, they will improve prenatal and
postnatal outcomes for patients, while significantly lowering costs for their organizations.
(Gill et al, 2011)
In review of the research we can ascertain that social media in the form of virtual communities can indeed ease the strain on hospital waiting times and overstretched staff. If technology was used to create breastfeeding videos, antenatal classes, tours of the labour ward, postnatal depression videos and to virtually meet consultants, midwives and health professionals, providing a familiar face could effectively lessen prenatal anxieties and reduce physical visits and current strain. With online forums and discussion panels where women can speak to someone directly, 24 hours a day it seems to be a viable option for the vital transformation of the health service. Virtual communities, as highlighted are increasingly providing a platform where mothers can connect with other mothers at any time, night or day as and when is needed. Within these networks and forums mothers seek advice from other mothers going through the same anxieties and questions, regaining a sense of empowerment in their new found role. What is in question is the validity of information being provided as the majority of the forums are not led or managed by a health professional and this raises cause for concern and something which if the HSE was to employ could potentially reduce their strain, economics and increase satisfaction for all concerned.
Boyd, D; Ellison, N. Social. Network Sites: Definition, History and Scholarship. 2007. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), article 11. Print.
Gill, M and Grant, J. “Virtual Maternity Care How Social Networking Technologies Can Improve Prenatal and Postnatal Outcomes, and Lower Costs”. September 2011. CISCO Internet Business Solutions Group. Web. http://www.cisco.com. Sourced March 25th 2013.
Honigman, Brian. “100 Fascinating Social Media Statistics and Figures From 2012”. 29/11/2012. Huffington Post. Web. Sourced March 27th 2013.
HSE. National Communications Directorate. “Social and Digital Media Policy and Guidance for HSE Employees”. April 2012. Web. http://www.hse.ie Sourced March 20th 2011.
HSE. Digital Communications Directorate. “Overview of HSE Digital Communications Strategy”. November 2011. Web. http://www.hse.ie Sourced March 20th 2013.
Lillington, Karlin. “Revolutionary use of social media changes Arab world” The Irish Times. Thursday Feb 14th 2013. Web. Sourced March 27th 2013.
Palmen, Marilla, Kouri and Pirkko. “Maternity clinic going online: Mothers’ experiences of social media and online health information for parental support in Finland.” Journal of Communication In Healthcare, Volume 5, Number 3, October 2012 , pp. 190-1989. Print.
Rheingold, H. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electric Frontier. 2000. MIT Press: London. Print.
Stengel, R. Interview with Mark Zuckerberg. Time Magazine. October 19th 2012. Web. http://www.time.com Sourced March 27th 2013.