Knowledge Communities: 6 Questions Drag Race Spoilers Can Answer for Public Health Communication

By Samuel R. Mendez. June 23, 2023.

The RuPaul’s Drag Race spoiler subreddit is impressive. Scroll through the compiled spoilers, and you’ll see inside jokes, commentary on sources’ reliability, and reflections on the broader reality TV franchise. The hallmark feature, though, is just how open it is. While there are quality control processes, the whole space feels like a 24/7 watch party. This feeling of casual participation and accessibility is the hallmark of “knowledge communities.”

Public Health Communication Action Items

The expert model of communication is prominent in public health. Still, there are ways to embrace community-based models that can redistribute resources and power toward communities experiencing health disparities. 

  • Individuals: form community partnerships that can have impacts beyond the timeline of a single project. Sustainability plans (Module 5) are a helpful approach. 
  • Organizations: offer monetary support for community partnerships. Offer faculty training in Community Based Participatory Research. University of Arizona and Columbia University are useful examples. 
Professional public health experts can only do so much. Here's how we can support communities as experts too.Individuals: create sustainability plans for community partnerships to better ensure redistribution of resources. Policy goal: create more funding opportunities to support participatory research and community engagement.

What are “knowledge communities”?

The Drag Race spoiler community on Reddit is an example of a “knowledge community.” These communities’ key feature is temporary, voluntary membership. Their connections are formed through emotional investment and intellectual effort. Their structure is non-hierarchical and fluid. Altogether, this means that in a knowledge community, expertise can come from anywhere. And that unpredictability is half the fun. In the Drag Race example, we can think about how local knowledge from contestants’ hometowns might be just as important as an inside scoop from on set.

How do knowledge communities relate to public health communication?

Public health communication largely works under an “expert” or “deficit” model. The underlying logic is that public health experts have knowledge that other people lack. And they have the responsibility to get this knowledge out through pamphlets, press conferences, etc. 

Knowledge communities are an example of participatory media cultures. In the social media age, more and more people are used to talking with and talking back to friends, brands, celebrities, and politicians alike. Most people are not involved in online fandoms, but these types of interactions are increasingly common in the social media era.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the strengths and limits of this approach. On one hand, research shows that debunking is an effective way to counter misinformation. On the other hand, public health officials are just one voice in a crowded field. Though correcting misinformation can be effective, the positive effect of corrective health information can be short-lived and correcting falsehoods can have unintended damage on other health beliefs. Knowledge communities present a flexible alternative geared toward network-level impacts, not just individual education.

What are the strengths of knowledge communities?

Pros and Cons of the Expert Model for Public Health Communication. Pros: depth of knowledge, individual accountability, explainable thought process. Cons: narrow knowledge domain, limited time & energy, and limited personal experience.

Where experts have a depth of knowledge on narrow topics, knowledge communities have a wide breadth of knowledge. Where experts are limited by time and space, knowledge communities can distribute work across time and space, especially online. Where experts may fall victim to a lack of diverse perspectives, knowledge communities can draw on a wide array of lived experiences.

What are the pitfalls of knowledge communities?

Pros and Cons of Knowledge Communities for Public Health Communication. Pros: breadth of knowledge, distributed work across time & space, and diversity of experience. Cons: ill-defined knowledge domain, lack of accountability, and unpredictability.

The collective emotional investment that motivates knowledge communities can go too far. Plus knowledge communities can reflect the forms of discrimination that thrive in their outside environments. Finally, knowledge communities are vulnerable to spirals of misinformation. One mistakenly accepted falsehood can fuel rejection of accurate information down the road. The stakes are low when it comes to spoiling episodes of reality TV, but these dynamics are concerning when we think of ways that health misinformation can thrive online.

How can public health professionals embrace knowledge communities?

One approach to blending expert models and knowledge communities is through community-based participatory action research (CBPR). In CBPR, community members facing a health issue partner with scientists to study it. An example of CBPR is the HERMOSA Study, in which UC Berkeley researchers worked with teenagers in Salinas to measure teen girls’ exposure to hormone disruptors in personal care products. As partnering students described it, the project helped provide them with the tools and platform to become local leaders in environmental health.

Projects addressing recent viral outbreaks show an emerging approach that doesn’t draw a sharp line between scientists and communities. The Patient-led Research Collaborative is a network of patient-researchers working to promote and fund biomedical research into Long COVID that patients themselves want to see. RSPND-MI is a LGBTQ+ community-led survey of mpox symptoms and networks in New York City. Both projects are models for how to contribute to scientific knowledge, community solidarity, and self-determination through socially responsive research. Importantly, one reason this works is because these groups embrace the fact that researchers are already part of communities impacted by public health issues.

How can public health institutions better embrace knowledge communities?

One way is to equitably enable more people to go into research careers. Funding data from the National Institutes of Health show disparities in funding rates for Black, Hispanic, and Asian scientists compared to White scientists. Data on graduate programs from the National Science Foundation show underrepresentation of Black, Hispanic, and American Indian or Alaska Native people in STEM fields. A study of leading public health schools revealed that ethnic minority women in particular were under-represented in faculty positions at top public health schools. These are symptoms of systemic racism in academic systems, which we must end if we are to follow the example of innovative mpox and Long COVID projects.

At the same time, it’s important for health institutions to support long-term community partnerships. This will make public health more accessible so that people don’t need years of graduate education just to be listened to. This echoes calls to learn from the 2022 mpox outbreak by building sustainable partnerships that can foster community-led efforts to actually prevent future outbreaks. This also echoes calls to sustain COVID-19 community engagement so as to better link research to advocacy and resource distribution.

Health Communication Spotlight: What could socially responsive public health communication & research look like? Rapid Epidemiologic Study of Prevalence, Network, and Demographics of MPOX Infection (RSPND-MI): RSPND-MI is a LGBTQ+ community-led survey of mpox symptoms and networks in New York City. Patient-Led Research Collaborative: The Patient-led Research Collaborative is a network of patient-researchers promoting long COVID research that patients want to see. In these examples, it's a strength that researchers are part of the community responding to a public health issue.


Knowledge communities are open, non-hierarchical, and a bit unpredictable. Their membership is in flux and their conversations hard to follow as an outsider. This might sound scary to public health professionals, who are used to thinking about flows of information out from experts. This isn’t a call to abandon the expert model completely, but rather a call to embrace complementary approaches too. The future is unpredictable, but we know to expect more public health emergencies. We need to act now to develop  models of communication and engagement flexible enough to respond to the unknown.

Key References

  • Jenkins, H. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. 25-58. NYU Press.

  • Madrigal DS, Minkler M, Parra KL, et al. 2016. Improving Latino Youths’ Environmental Health Literacy and Leadership Skills Through Participatory Research on Chemical Exposures in Cosmetics: The HERMOSA Study. International Quarterly of Community Health Education. 36(4):231-240.

  • Craig M, Vijaykumar S. 2023. One Dose Is Not Enough: The Beneficial Effect of Corrective COVID-19 Information Is Diminished If Followed by Misinformation. Soc Media Soc. 9(2):20563051231161298.

  • University of North Dakota, Center for Rural Health. 2015. Community Engagement Toolkit. (PDF). University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Stay in Touch with Samuel

You can find Samuel talking about health communication, health equity, and video games: @samuelanimates on Twitter, Twitch, YouTube, Tiktok, and on the Mastodon server. 

Samuel Mendez


The mission of the Boston Congress of Public Health Thought Leadership for Public Health Fellowship (BCPH Fellowship) seeks to: 

  • Incubate the next generation of thought leaders in public health;
  • Advance collective impact for health equity through public health advocacy; and
  • Diversify, democratize, and broaden evidence-based public health dialogue and expression.

It is guided by an overall vision to provide a platform, training, and support network for the next generation of public health thought leaders and public scholars to explore and grow their voice.