Online health communities (OHCs) constitute a useful source of information and social support for patients. American Cancer Society's Cancer Survivor Network (CSN), a 173 000-member community, is the largest online network for cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers. A discussion thread in CSN is often initiated by a cancer survivor seeking support from other members of CSN. Discussion threads are multiparty conversations that often provide a source of social support, e.g., by bringing about a change of sentiment from negative to positive on the part of the thread originator. While previous studies regarding cancer survivors have shown that the members of an OHC derive benefits from their participation in such communities, causal accounts of the factors that contribute to the observed benefits have been lacking. We introduce a novel framework to examine the temporal causality of sentiment dynamics in the CSN. We construct a probabilistic computation tree logic representation and a corresponding probabilistic Kripke structure to represent and reason about the changes in sentiments of posts in a thread over time. We use a sentiment classifier trained using machine learning on a set of posts manually tagged with sentiment labels to classify posts as expressing either positive or negative sentiment. We analyze the probabilistic Kripke structure to identify the prima facie causes of sentiment change on the part of the thread originators in the CSN forum and their significance. We find that the sentiment of replies appears to causally influence the sentiment of the thread originator. Our experiments also show that the conclusions are robust with respect to the choice of the: 1) classification threshold of the sentiment classifier and 2) choice of the specific sentiment classifier used. We also extend the basic framework for temporal causality analysis to incorporate the uncertainty in the states of the probabilistic Kripke structure resulting from the use of an imperfect state transducer (in our case, the sentiment classifier). Our analysis of temporal causality of CSN sentiment dynamics offers new insights that the designers, managers, and moderators of an online community, such as CSN, can utilize to facilitate and enhance the interactions so as to better meet the social support needs of the CSN participants. The proposed methodology for the analysis of temporal causality has broad applicability in a variety of settings where the dynamics of the underlying system can be modeled in terms of state variables that change in response to internal or external inputs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number7539545
Pages (from-to)75-87
Number of pages13
JournalIEEE Transactions on Computational Social Systems
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Human-Computer Interaction


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