BACKGROUND: The goal of this research is to determine if different gender-preferred social styles can be observed within the user interactions at an online cancer community. To achieve this goal, we identify and measure variables that pertain to each gender-specific social style.
METHODS AND FINDINGS: We perform social network and statistical analysis on the communication flow of 8,388 members at six different cancer forums over eight years. Kruskal-Wallis tests were conducted to measure the difference between the number of intimate (and highly intimate) dyads, relationship length, and number of communications. We determine that two patients are more likely to form an intimate bond on a gender-specific cancer forum (ovarian P = <0.0001, breast P = 0.0089, prostate P = 0.0021). Two female patients are more likely to form a highly intimate bond on a female-specific cancer forum (Ovarian P<0.0001, Breast P<0.01). Typically a male patient communicates with more members than a female patient (Ovarian forum P = 0.0406, Breast forum P = 0.0013). A relationship between two patients is longer on the gender-specific cancer forums than a connection between two members not identified as patients (ovarian forum P = 0.00406, breast forum P = 0.00013, prostate forum P = .0.0003).
CONCLUSION: The high level of interconnectedness among the prostate patients supports the hypothesis that men prefer to socialize in large, interconnected, less-intimate groups. A female patient is more likely to form a highly intimate connection with another female patient; this finding is consistent with the hypothesis that woman prefer fewer, more intimate connections. The relationships of same-gender cancer patients last longer than other relationships; this finding demonstrates homophily within these online communities. Our findings regarding online communication preferences are in agreement with research findings from person-to-person communication preference studies. These findings should be considered when designing online communities as well as designing and evaluating psychosocial and educational interventions for cancer patients.