Online forums have a certain reputation for being an outdated discussion tool where trolls lurk to pounce on anyone who dare asks a “stupid question.” But a group of researchers report in a recent study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, that this just isn't true. Forums aren't the monstrous online entity they're believed to be; quite the contrary. While anonymity in these spaces can lend them to some toxic comments for trolls, it's just this same feature that allows people to openly discuss topics they are often stigmatized for.  

Louise Pendry, from the University of Exeter, led her team of researchers into a series of online forums where they recruited participants to answer a series of questions. Yes, Twitter and Facebook — social forums where everyone knows your name — still make up a large majority of where internet conversations happen. But anonymous forums are still roamed by about 10 percent of internet users in the UK and 20 percent of those in the US. 

After the researchers found their volunteers, they sorted the recruited participants into two groups: users who felt they would be stigmatized discussing such topics as dealing with mental health issues or alternative forms of parenting and non-stigma-related forums for people who golf, body-build, and so on.

The researchers then asked them a series of questions dealing with their motivations for hanging out in these forums, if they identified with the people in the forum, and their overall satisfaction with life.

Pendry was happy to report that the answers to her questionnaire paint a nicer picture of online forums. She said to EurekAlert!:

“...our study showed users often discover that forums are a source of great support, especially those seeking information about more stigmatizing conditions. Moreover, we found that users of both forum types who engaged more with other forum users showed a greater willingness to get involved in offline activities related to the forum, such as volunteering, donating, or campaigning."

So, there you have it folks. Dispel any previously held notions about forums being a place where trolls roam the threads just to get in a good jab. Sure, there are times when users can be unforgiving in voicing their opinions, but it's also a place where you can feel you're part of a community and get personal, insightful help tips on everything from losing weight to getting help with seasonal depression.

Read more about the study at EurekAlert!.

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