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An online vehicle for support

April 29, 2008
by Jacqueline Bodnar
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The WebTribes social networking organization features a site focusing on addiction

Working with people who suffer from addictions, professionals know just how important it is for addicts to be able to share those life situations with others going through the same thing. If they don’t get the chance to do that, they can feel it’s an “us versus them” approach, leaving them feeling as though nobody understands what they are going through or how addiction and recovery have affected their entire life. It’s one of the things that makes Alcoholics Anonymous so successful—people don’t go it alone. Rather, they feel as though they are part of a group whose members are all striving to reach the same goal. It’s a safe place to share their experiences, struggles, and quests to regain their future.

But what happens if people live in rural areas, have a job that requires a lot of travel, or aren’t comfortable in a group setting? For many people, that can lead to a loss of interest, and they might begin to return to their old behaviors. Lately, however, those with Internet access have begun turning to online support groups in an effort to connect with others who share in their addiction experience. Many have found, one of five community Web sites offered by
WebTribes Inc., a social networking organization featuring “tribes” that focus on addiction, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and HIV/AIDS.

An idea is born
WebTribes was started by a husband-and-wife team, Ryan and Kristin FitzGerald. While Ryan was volunteering at the organization Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, he created an online streaming/downloading service for its members. It was at that time that he realized just how important an online community could be for people affected by daily challenges.

“There was a small following of people that used the dyslexia community site,” explains Ryan. “It was eye-opening to hear how much it meant to them to have a place where they felt like they belonged and were understood. It had a powerful impact on helping them with their self-confidence and managing their condition.”
As happens with many new business ventures, circumstances fell into place that pushed the FitzGeralds toward a new career. As luck would have it, Ryan was laid off from the Internet company where he worked, because of downsizing. And the hits kept coming: The very next day, the company for which Kristin worked filed for bankruptcy and warned that she’d be out of a job in two weeks. At the time, the FitzGeralds had a four-month-old baby at home. Thus, necessity led to the birth of WebTribes. “We chose the five topics we did because they are life-consuming ailments that require daily encouragement,” says Ryan. “Knowing that others are dealing with similar experiences can be uplifting for our members.” Today, the sites generate revenue for the FitzGeralds’ new business through online banner advertising. Because the FitzGeralds have partnered with an advertising network with a focus on health care, they receive premium rates for their ad inventory.
Social interaction
Interacting online can be a very positive experience for people. According to the Internet media and market research company Nielsen/NetRatings, social networking sites collectively have been seeing a 47% growth rate from year to year, and are used by an estimated 45% of Internet users.
For people recovering from an addiction, such sites offer a comfortable way to find others, locally or around the world, with whom they can discuss feelings and issues. For many, it takes the pressure off being in a group setting. An online setting allows members to share what they need to say, even when it is something they may not want to talk about in a room full of people.

Beyond the central idea of a group of people getting together because they share a common interest or disease, there are other ways in which these individuals can express themselves, an important part of any recovery program. Subscribers get the opportunity to interact, participate in blogs and groups, post photos, take part in polls, and learn about events that may be of interest to them. While many people might go to the site to seek help, others are there with a mission of giving help to those in need. “The networking gives many members a social outlet that they may not have in their day-to-day lives,” says Ryan FitzGerald. “There are those in recovery who know how important it is to get and receive support. So they actively visit the site to offer that help to others in need. It keeps the whole system working and makes it an important tool that they can turn to when in need.” He explains that knowing how other people deal with a situation or feeling can be eye-opening. Someone who is having a problem in the middle of the night might not be able to find someone to talk to. They may not have kept in touch with their sponsor, or feel like they don’t want to burden that person by calling at that hour. But getting the much-needed support at the critical time can be a very important part of addiction recovery. fills that gap by being available for support 24/7.
Addiction professionals know the importance of finding what works for each individual. Recovery certainly isn’t “one size fits all,” and often professionals need to be creative about what helps to support someone through their journey. While some things work for certain personality types, more creative or different approaches might be better tools for others. Sites such as provide yet another tool that people can use in their effort to seek others with similar experiences for support.
Branching out