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.
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 ), 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- About Breastfeeding Pinays. Retrieved from https://www.google.com.au/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=4&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwig3umPuqvTAhUBLpQKHYdZBDoQFgg0MAM&url=https%3A%2F%2Fhakabna.com%2Fabout%2Fabout-bfp%2F&usg=AFQjCNHo358NXcdc5Fgz4ZijiJl0rR2WTA&sig2=paL0Se0iKJICVOGZtOZbRQ
- Hinton, S., & Hjorth, L. (2013). Social Network Sites Understanding Social Media (pp. 32 – 54). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
- Jennings-Edquist, G. (2015, March 17). Great news: Facebook is no longer offended by breastfeeding. Retrieved from http://www.mamamia.com.au/facebook-censoring-breastfeeding/
- Kraut, R., et al. (2012). Building Successful Online Communities : Evidence-Based Social Design. Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
- Seo, H., Houston, J. B., Knight, L. A. T., Kennedy, E. J., & Inglish, A. B. (2014). Teens’ social media use and collective action. New Media & Society, 16(6), 883-902.