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SXSW Interactive: Examining health and Facebook with Aimee Roundtree

SXSW Interactive: Examining health and Facebook with Aimee Roundtree

Picture of Angilee Shah

Many media and health advocacy groups take for granted these days that Twitter and Facebook are essential to reach readers and constituents. But a panel at South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive shed new light on how we use those social media tools.

Aimee Roundtree, an associate communications professor at the University of Houston-Downtown, has been examining health communication in social media for five years. She says health advocacy groups are using Facebook the same way they would traditional media.

When an advocacy group goes online, it often treats social media as another way to push information to the communities they serve. They will, for example, report on studies and publicize events but short-change social media's inherent benefits, Roundtree says. They do not spend enough time simply listening to their communities.

"Only a few of them use it in the ways that we know social media is used," says Roundtree.

Roundtree led a session called "Minority Report: Social Media for Decreasing Health Disparities" at last week's SXSW Interactive. Near the end of the session, she briefly summarized some of her work in surveying Facebook users and how they engage with health topics. What she found was that respondents aren't using Facebook specifically for health-related conversations and searches. These same users, however, are an "activated set of health consumers" in their real lives. They discuss and share information within their communities, even if they are not doing the same online.

Roundtree stresses that her findings are still preliminary. As of last week she had 250 respondents who took the online survey via invitations through various groups and listserves targeting University of Houston-Downtown faculty, staff and students. Roundtree expects to have about 300 respondents by the time the survey is closed at the end of the month. Anyone can take the survey before then and Roundtree shared slides documenting responses and recommendations so far.

View more presentations from akroundtree

Roundtree's recommendations are instructive not only for nonprofit organizations and advocates, but for media outlets looking to reach new communities and revamp their social media projects. Companies and organizations should "write like a friend, not an agency," and target "patient navigators," the nurses and social workers who guide patients through complex health care systems, instead of trying to reach patients directly, Roundtree told Reporting on Health in an interview after the panel.

She also analyzed the Facebook groups and pages of 75 minority health advocacy organizations, such as those run by the African American Wellness Project, Community Health for Asian Americans and the Hispanic Health Coalition. Most used the platforms to distribute content rather than to engage with communities. But Roundtree highlights Girl Trek and their Healthy Black Women and Girls Facebook page, launched about a year ago. The page has attracted 10,000 followers, up about 2,000 followers last week. Roundtree attribute their growth to the personal nature of the content. They use the medium differently, she says, because their goal is sharing, not linking to their site or driving traffic. Populated with axioms and quotations, anecdotes and sayings, GirlTrek engages by inspiring.

"They also invite group followers to redefine cultural attitudes about health and beauty," Roundtree adds. "They address culturally sensitive topics pertaining to weight gain, body image, skin color."

To journalists, Roundtree asks why media outlets want fans and followers on social media in the first place: "It's almost like a tack-on," she says. "They want to report a story and they ask their followers to send questions pertaining to the story on Twitter or they'll say 'Like us on Facebook.' But to what end? Just to see how many people are listening? They're using it as an addendum, but are they actually using it to design stories?"

Roundtree is engaging in several other interesting social media surveys. She is looking at 24 hours in the lives of 100 Twitter users of color, and doing a similar survey of minority advocacy groups use of Twitter. I'll be keeping up with her work here at ReportingonHealth, and you can also follow her on Twitter @akroundtree.

Ultimately, Roundtree's advice is that social media is for people who want to listen as much as they want to speak. 'This media is relational," she says, "and if you don't want to start a relationship, don't use it."


Picture of Vincent Lim

I don't know whether this initiative was mentioned during this session at SXSW, but there's an interesting project called HealthJusticeCT that is experimenting with the use of social media to address health disparities in Connecticut.

In terms of the use of social media to address health disparities among older adults, I haven't found that much out there. One issue that comes to mind is the disparity in access to social media across racial/ethnic groups.

An AARP survey last year found that the majority of Latinos 50 and older don't even have access to the internet. I suppose the question that I'm asking is how do we engage and connect with those communities who may not have the opportunities or means to develop relationships online?

Picture of Angilee Shah

Yes! In fact, Jen McClure, co-founder and president of the Society for New Communications Research  (SNCR) which created Health Justice CT was on the panel, as was a representative of their funder, the Connecticut Health Foundation. Their site has a lot of challenges. While McClure reported that they've hosted two two successful "tweet chats" to gather information and generate conversation, they haven't been able to create on-site discussions or engage people to use social media to discuss health disparities, their primary interest. Vince, what you are asking is exactly what was interesting about the panel. It took a critical look at whether social media campaigns, however popular, are actually the right way to reach all communities on health topics.


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