Social Media Communication · Assessment 3 · Online Communities · Breastfeeding

Online Communities: Milking Mommas

Four years ago, a small group of mothers attended a breastfeeding counsellor’s training in the Philippines. They wanted to share what they learned to other mothers through the internet, so they created a Facebook group called “Breastfeeding Pinays” (Breastfeeding Filipinas).

Unexpectedly, their simple idea which only had 200 members during the first 24 hours from its creation, already grew to an online community with 154, 948 members at present.

It is now composed of mothers, fathers, doctors, midwives, nurses, lactation counsellors and other health professionals.

Within the group, members exchange questions, advices, tips and guidelines about breastfeeding. It categorizes its information through albums that are dedicated to different subjects, such as a compilation of photo instructions on how to achieve a proper latch, or videos on how to cup-feed expressed breastmilk. Members are encouraged to contribute photos or videos to the group’s albums based on their categories.

unang yakap
Members upload photos to the group’s album entitled “Unang Yakap” or “First Embrace”

The group has become so popular in the Philippines, that it has been featured in several articles and television shows—even celebrities joined the group.

Breastfeeding Pinays is an example of a successful online community, where netizens are gathered by shared interests and goals through a social networking site.

Academic Research on Online Communities

Hinton and Hjorth (2013) discussed communities in social media by looking into how online interactions take place and the structures used in these connections.

They digged into the history of online community studies, by pointing out how it was popularized by Howard Rheingold in 1993, when he discussed about an early online community called the WELL (Whole Earth Lectronic Link). This sparked a discussion about the topic both in the media and in academic discussions.

Some scholars saw online communities as socially isolating, as they promoted escapism and removed users from reality and social connections (Wellman & Gullia, 1999, cited in Hinton and Hjorth, 2013, p.37). For others, these communities generated public discussion and democratic participation, making the internet a powerful medium.

Further research into online communities examined the role of offline relationships in communication. Internet studies underwent an ‘ethnographic shift,’ as real-world settings influenced online communication.

In Daniel Miller and Don Slater’s (2001) study on how Trinidadians used the internet, they discovered the important role of the geographical place and the offline social world of users. Their findings showed that being Trinidadian influenced how and why people in Trinidad went online (Miller and Slater, 2001, cited in Hinton and Hjorth 2013, p.39).

This is true for Breastfeeding Pinays where most members are Filipinos living in the Philippines who share the same language and cultural practices. In the group, new members are added because of an invitation or recommendation of an existing member. In most cases, the new member and existing member are both offline friends or acquaintances.

The factor of geographical place, however, has been challenged by scholars such as Manuell Castells and Barry Wellman, who argue that social ties are maintained through internet use despite proximity. People create and maintain relationships because of shared interests and knowledge, even if they have never met in real life. Although these relationships are not strong, Castells points out that they are still important. This is demonstrated by Clay Shirky’s (2008) example of how a lost Motorola Razr phone was recovered through the efforts of an online community.

In the case of Breastfeeding Pinays, overseas mothers, including myself, have joined the group because of our common goal to exclusively breastfeed.

Personally, I feel a special connection to the members of the group despite our distance, and participating in the discussions give me the feeling of a casual conversation with fellow mothers back home.

This kind of connection over distance distinguishes online networks from online communities. An example of the former would be joining a Facebook group of one’s grade school alma mater where offline relationships have already been established and communication only takes place when called for.

With online communities such as Breastfeeding Pinays, connections are created even by people who do not know each other in real life, because of a shared interest that maintains these online relationships. In a community, a collective will is aimed through individual efforts (Tönnies, 2009), and social capital plays a key role in its creation and maintenance (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013, p.42).

The concept of social capital was introduced by Bourdieu (1984 [1979]), who pointed out that the three important kinds of capital that influenced individuals’ tastes were cultural, social and economic.

This can be applied with the chosen example, as one’s choice to commit to exclusive breastfeeding and thus join an online breastfeeding group, can be influenced by one’s upbringing, connections, and economic conditions. These kinds of capitals are important in sustaining the online community.

Rules Governing Online Communities

Park (2011) notes that there are three conditions for a community to exist, namely, membership, expression, and personal connection. I would like to elaborate on the first as it is interesting to note that for memberships to be retained in an online community, established rules should be followed.

For example, the administrators of Breastfeeding Pinays have always emphasized their set of rules within the group. These include the prohibition of textspeak, the posting of advertisements, or the promotion of the use of artificial nipples. Violators are reprimanded and some are even removed from the group.

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Group administrators always remind members of the rules governing their online community

Kiesler S. et al. (2012) in their book, “Building Successful Online Communities,” point out that rules and procedures play an important part in regulating non-normative behaviour in online communities. They note that social norms are usually violated by newcomers, which is why in the case of Breastfeeding Pinays, administrators immediately send new members a copy of the forum’s rules and files upon admission to the group.

When violations become rampant in the group discussion, the list of rules are posted again in the thread and inappropriate posts are deleted.

Kraut R. et al. (2012) also note that there are online users who purposely damage online communities such as trolls, manipulators and spammers.

Trolls gain satisfaction from disrupting communities, so the authors propose that the best way to limit their activity is to ignore them. Manipulators on the other hand, use multiple “shill” accounts to get communities to produce particular outcomes such as in the case of websites like Yelp or TripAdvisor—therefore, posts from suspected manipulators should be filtered out. Meanwhile, a mechanism has been developed by blog platforms to help lessen spammers, by automatically including the rel=nofollow attribute in links embedded in the comments, to prevent search engines from trusting these links (Kraut R. et al., 2012).

The Impact of Online Communities and How they Mobilize the Offline World

I suggest the expansion of the study of online communities by including how they affect online normative behaviour outside their private group. For example, Breastfeeding Pinays has always encouraged its members to post “brelfies” or breastfeeding selfies on their personal social media accounts, not only to encourage breastfeeding but to normalize it as well. The group also endorsed the “Tree of Life” campaign, where brelfies are edited using an application to include tree branches in the picture. This has been an instant trend among the group’s members.

tree of life
Uploaded Tree of Life Brelfies of Group Members

Initiatives by Breastfeeding Pinays and similar online groups have helped lessen the stigma attached to uncensored pictures of babies feeding on the breast that are posted in social networking sites. In fact, in 2015, Facebook changed its policy and removed its ban on breastfeeding photos after years of censoring.

Furthermore, studies show that digital communication technologies mobilize individuals who aim for common goals whether civic or non-civic (Bimer et al., 2012; Earl and Kimport, 2011; Rheingold, 2002). This has been proven by Seo, H. et al. (2014), in their case study on how social media facilitated flash mobs among teenagers.

Online communities also enable mobilization in the offline world by providing a forum to organize activities in line with their objectives.

In Breastfeeding Pinays, different events are brought together such as seminars and counsellor trainings. Breastmilk sharing is even done through requests and donations mentioned in the community discussions by mothers who have never met in real life before.

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One of the organized events of Breastfeeding Pinays where group members feed their children together in public

Application to our Social Media Campaign

The concept of how online communities connect people with shared interests or objectives in spite of distance was applied in the social media campaign we made for #BetheFilter.

Our strategy revolved around the idea of ambassadorship, which aimed to create as many volunteer campaign ambassadors as possible, who will vow to use social media responsibly in terms of news consumption in their social media accounts. It seeks to create an online community among all netizens across borders, with the common belief in the importance of responsible social media use.

Once a successful community of campaign ambassadors is achieved, the strategy aims to spread its influence and make critical thinking part of normative behaviour among internet users in social networking sites.

Conclusion

This essay aimed to examine how online communities are created and maintained through a case study on a popular Facebook group in the Philippines, Breastfeeding Pinays. It first traced Hinton and Hjorth’s (2013) discussion of how academic researchers dissected the concept—wherein some argue that online communities promote escapism, while others contest that they provide a platform for democratic participation. Second, this paper highlighted how offline relationships help in the creation of online communities; however, it is not considered a requirement since online relationships foster in these communities even if the members have not met in real life, as long as there are shared interests and goals. Third, it looked into how rules regulate non-normative behaviour in these communities. Lastly, it challenged to expand the research on the study to include the impact of online communities on normative behaviour outside their private group and how these mobilize individuals to achieve its goals in the offline setting. It will be interesting to see how online communities will foster in the coming years as current social networking sites will soon lose their popularity, and new web portals will emerge into the picture.

 

References:

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4 thoughts on “Online Communities: Milking Mommas

  1. Hi Andrea,
    The “Breastfeeding Pinays” Facebook group was a wonderful example of an online community created for a positive cause. The camaraderie and unity you describe between the ladies in the group – as well as the health professionals and husbands that the membership has expanded to, is a great demonstration of the empowerment that can be gained from online communities. A topic such as breastfeeding that can be personal or sensitive can be liberated in a group such as this, and the online realm is an excellent platform to generate awareness, provide support, lessen stigma and unite like minded women.

    The organised events you mentioned are a great example of how online communities can enable mobilization in the offline world. Breastfeeding is a natural process that women all over the world partake in and social media and online communities provide an opportunity to unite these women with the common issues or concerns they face and or triumphs and happiness they share. For those that may feel isolated, particularly if experiencing some sort of post natal depression or baby blues, the camaraderie of an online community would be incredibly valuable.

    The ‘Brelfies’ with the tree of life are also a great initiative to gain traction for the social media awareness campaign and unite even more women across the globe in this common cause. This is a great demonstration of how a simple idea can grow into a chain response. I think this is a great way to overcome stigma that may exist right across the world in regards to breastfeeding.

    I wonder if perhaps this online community could evolve and generate more specific sub-branches in other areas away from the philippines (such as yourself in Australia) to accommodate for the growing online community and to ensure that relationships and connections are still formed amongst members despite the growing size of the group.

    It seems that it is a supportive community that helps empower many women and help them freely express this natural practice. A great example of the power of social media to unite, generate awareness and overcome stigma in both the online and offline realms.
    Thank you for sharing this example with us.

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  2. Hi, Andrea~ Thanks for a really informative read. The “Breastfeeding Pinays” is a very good example for online community, and I learn a lot from your article.
    I agree with your points, especially, “People create and maintain relationships because of shared interests and knowledge, even if they have never met in real life.” For me personally, I love watching football matches, and I always communicate people have the same interest like me online but I never play football offline. As Castells (2001) mentioned, People coming together in an online forum to discuss a topic of shared interest may come to know one another through their posts, but never meeting in real life or even knowing the real person. I am a big fan of Cheslea which is a British Football Club, however, I never meet any fans in London but we can share our comments about one match, criticize our teams’ players who did not have good performance, even talk to other teams’ fans. There are so much things we can do through network without offline meeting.
    Also, in the Facebook group of Social Media Communication, all the member comes from one class, but we may not meet each other offline after finishing course, however, we still can communicate with others through that Facebook group.

    Reference
    Castells, M. (2001). The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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  3. I really liked your case study on the Breastfeeding Pinays, and how it demonstrates how online communities form and function, and the important distinctions between it and an online network. I think this concept is a particularly important one, regardless of if we chose to pitch for the Con or “Be The Filter” – in both cases the desired end result is the same: a change in behaviours through online initiatives.
    My group pitched for the Con, which aims to translate a larger presence and more interaction on social media into more “bums on seats” for their lunchtime and Greenway concerts. I do question how effective a social media campaign alone will be (and I’d love to read further research on the topic) as there are some significant differences in the Breastfeeding Pinays group and potential concert goers that related to the idea of the public and networked publics (boyd, 2010).
    As you noted, the Breastfeeding Pinyas group is a type of networked public, brought together by a common interest (breastfeeding) on a networked technology (Facebook). The Con wants to enlarge networked public that comes together on various SNS thanks to their common interest in music, but here is where I start to see a difference. The offline behaviour being championed by the networked public that is the Breastfeeding pinyas is one that is not restricted to place and time – you can quite literally breastfeed anywhere. In contrast, the Con wants their networked public to physically attend concerts at a specific place and time in Sydney.
    I guess this is one of the many reasons developing a strategy specific to the client and their targets is essential, and why we have studied so many different theories over the semester. There truly is no one size fits all approach.

    References
    boyd, d. (2010). Social Network Sites as Networked Publics. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.) A networked self: Identity, community and culture on social network sites. New York: Routledge.

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  4. Hi Andrea,

    I really liked your article, and I was particularly intrigued by the idea of how quickly a breastfeeding mothers group can become popular through geographical links, rather than an international group. I do think I agree somewhat with your point about Castells and Wellman’s argument concerning social ties -“People create and maintain relationships because of shared interests and knowledge, even if they have never met in real life. Although these relationships are not strong, Castells points out that they are still important. This is demonstrated by Clay Shirky’s (2008) example of how a lost Motorola Razr phone was recovered through the efforts of an online community.”

    Personally I feel relationships like those between breastfeeding mothers require both geographical links and shared interests and knowledge, from experience with the mothers in my family – the closer we live, the stronger the relationship, I’ve found. However, there’s a bit of shared interest required too, and I think it’s interesting how medical professionals are in the group as well, as my initial impression of the group from the title of your article was that it was a very mothers’ oriented group, and might well consult medical professionals occasionally instead of allowing them in.

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