1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Objectives
  5. Defining Virtual Communities
  6. A Typology of Virtual Communities
  7. Evaluation of the Typology
  8. Usefulness: The Ultimate Criterion
  9. References

Despite the growing popularity of virtual communities, there is no consensus among researchers regarding the appropriate definition or types of virtual communities. In this paper, a virtual community is defined as an aggregation of individuals or business partners who interact around a shared interest, where the interaction is at least partially supported and/or mediated by technology and guided by some protocols or norms. The central objective of developing this typology was to develop a classification system that would be useful to researchers from various disciplinary perspectives such that the classification system might be used as a foundation for theory construction. The proposed typology serves its intended purposes and is evaluated against criteria put forth by Hunt (1991). The proposed typology uses establishment type and relationship orientation as the key categorization variables, reconciling problems posed by other researchers who attempt to use attributes as categorization variables. It is simple, pragmatic for practitioners and useful for researchers seeking to develop an understanding of the virtual community phenomenon.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Objectives
  5. Defining Virtual Communities
  6. A Typology of Virtual Communities
  7. Evaluation of the Typology
  8. Usefulness: The Ultimate Criterion
  9. References

More people use the Internet to participate in virtual communities than to make purchase transactions (Horrigan, 2001). Indeed, eighty-four percent of Internet users have contacted or participated in a virtual community (Horrigan), and the growth in membership and usage is expected to continue (Bressler & Grantham, 2000). The popularity of virtual communities reflects the fact that individuals are using new technologies, such as the Internet, to fulfill both social and economic goals (Rheingold, 1993; Wind and Mahajan, 2002).

Individuals use virtual communities of transaction to buy, sell or learn more about products and services (Hagel & Armstrong, 1997). In these communities, content is less social due to the community's commercial orientation. However, individuals also can use virtual communities to discuss shared interests (communities of interest), to develop social relations (communities of relationships) and to explore new identities (communities of fantasy) (see Hagel & Armstrong).

Firms can also benefit from using virtual communities to fulfill business goals. Many have begun to integrate virtual communities into their online strategies in search of the following benefits:

Additionally, virtual communities that are devoted to consumption-related topics could be an important source of marketing research data (Kozinets, 2002). There is a growing body of literature that addresses a consumer's willingness to exchange personal information with a marketer (Schoenbachler & Gordon, 2002; Milne, 1997; Phelps, Nowak, & Ferrell, 2000; Sheehan & Hoy, 2000). Indeed, Mathwick (2002) found that some virtual community members are more willing than others to give feedback to marketers.

Also, firms have used virtual communities to support new product development efforts (Moon & Sproull, 2001). Participation in a virtual community could motivate consumers to cooperate with a marketer in such efforts. Indeed, Nambisan (2002) puts forth several typologies of customer roles and interactions in virtual communities that are focused on developing new products.

Finally, virtual communities could facilitate stronger relationships between firms and their customers (Barnatt, 1998; Brown, Tilton, & Woodside, 2002; Hagel & Armstrong, 1997). The enjoyment gained from participation enhances a member's desire to participate in virtual communities (Bagozzi & Dholakia, 2002; Dholakia, Bagozzi & Pearo, 2004). A customer's desire to participate could stimulate his or her intention to revisit the community and, en masse, this behavior among customers could lead to increased site ‘stickiness.’ Indeed, virtual community members can become loyal customers (Mathwick, 2002).

Despite the fact that both individuals and firms could derive value from virtual communities, there is a lack of consensus among researchers regarding the appropriate definition (Komito, 1998) and categorization (Preece, 2000; Stanoevska-Slabeva, 2002) of these communities. Defining and systematically organizing virtual communities would be beneficial to researchers (see Hunt, 1991). First, most research on virtual communities is descriptive and based on anecdotal rather than theoretically based, generalizable data (Blanchard, 2004; Wellman & Gulia, 1999). A rigorous classification scheme could be the first step toward developing strong theory to help understand this relatively new phenomenon. Second, a typology with broad acceptance would support the accumulation of scientific knowledge about virtual communities by facilitating programmatic research agendas. Finally, a parsimonious and useful typology would benefit not only academic researchers, but also practitioners by enhancing their understanding of the various types of virtual communities that could be valuable to their businesses.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Objectives
  5. Defining Virtual Communities
  6. A Typology of Virtual Communities
  7. Evaluation of the Typology
  8. Usefulness: The Ultimate Criterion
  9. References

The central objective of this paper is to develop a classification system that is useful to researchers from various disciplinary perspectives. This classification system is intended to serve as a foundation for broad-based theory construction and testing in a variety of research settings. The remainder of the paper will address three points in support of the overall objective. First, a definition of virtual community is put forth. Second, a typology of virtual communities is proposed and enriched by the explication of an attribute-based description of such communities. Finally, the strength of the typology is assessed using five criteria proposed by Hunt (1991).

Defining Virtual Communities

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Objectives
  5. Defining Virtual Communities
  6. A Typology of Virtual Communities
  7. Evaluation of the Typology
  8. Usefulness: The Ultimate Criterion
  9. References

The term community “means many things to many people, and it would be hard to find a definition of community that would be widely accepted” (Komito, 1998, p. 101). Indeed, Hillery (1955) uncovered ninety-four different definitions of community. There is a similar lack of consensus regarding the appropriate definition of the term “virtual community” (Komito).

A virtual community is defined herein as an aggregation of individuals or business partners who interact around a shared interest, where the interaction is at least partially supported and/or mediated by technology and guided by some protocols or norms. This definition embraces key components of definitions put forth in existing literature by including elements such as interacting groups of people, shared interest and technology mediation (see Lee et al., 2003; Preece, 2000). However, the proposed definition makes four substantive improvements to prior definitions.

First, the proposed definition is more inclusive than prior definitions in that it recognizes that communities aggregate individuals and/or business partners. The majority of researchers have studied communities of individuals. Yet, the majority of studies on relationship marketing are in a business-to-business relationship context (e.g. Morgan & Hunt, 1994). This gives credence to the notion that networks of interfirm relationships that are mediated by technology could be conceptualized as virtual communities.

Second, by including the phrase “at least partially supported and/or mediated by technology,” the proposed definition is more inclusive than prior definitions in that it acknowledges that virtual communities could be completely virtual or only partially virtual. Many definitions of virtual community imply that member relationships are mediated fully by technology (see the discussion by Lee et al. (2003) of definitions). However, virtual communities have differing degrees of “virtualness” (Virnoche & Marx, 1997). In these so-called fluid communities (Wilson & Peterson, 2002), member relationships sometimes are facilitated via face-to-face encounters and, at other times, are mediated by technology. Fluid communities are important and relevant, particularly for firms that interact with customers both in a physical store environment and in a virtual setting.

Third, the proposed definition embraces advanced technologies that are not computer-based. While many definitions include the term “computer-mediated,” the proposed definition acknowledges that interaction in a virtual community could be mediated by any technology—not only computer technology (see Rheingold's 2002 discussion of how mobile technology supports virtual communities). Thus, the proposed definition is expected to remain relevant in a technologically dynamic environment.

Finally, the notion of roles, protocols, policies and/or norms is missing from many of the existing definitions of virtual communities but it is included in the definition proposed here. Much of the existing research on virtual communities can be found in the information systems literature (see Lee et al., 2003), where the concept of norms and roles is less studied than in other disciplines. However, anthropologists understand the importance of social norms within the community structure. These researchers suggest that traditional communities (Brint, 2001) and virtual communities (Wilson & Peterson, 2002) have roles, protocols, policies and/or norms. Researchers from other disciplines such as psychology, marketing and management also have begun to include norms and roles as a defining requirement of virtual communities (see Armstrong & Hagel, 1995; Blanchard, 2004; Krishnamurthy, 2003; Rothaermel & Sugiyama, 2001).

A Typology of Virtual Communities

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Objectives
  5. Defining Virtual Communities
  6. A Typology of Virtual Communities
  7. Evaluation of the Typology
  8. Usefulness: The Ultimate Criterion
  9. References

As with the definition of the term “virtual community,” there is no single, widely supported typology of virtual communities. Researchers tend to categorize virtual communities based on a single variable that is of primary importance to their discipline (Preece, 2000; Stanoevska-Slabeva, 2002). For example, information systems researchers often categorize virtual communities based on the supporting communication technology design such as chat, bulletin board system or user functional requirements (see Stanoevska-Slabeva; see Preece). Others have taken a sociological perspective by using the structure of interaction such as small group or network (Bagozzi & Dholakia, 2002; Butler, 1999) or the location of interaction such as virtual or physical space (Virnoche & Marx, 1997) as a categorization variable. Business researchers have categorized virtual communities based on the community's purpose such as revenue generation (e.g. Krishnamurthy, 2003), or how virtual communities help to fulfill consumer needs such as fantasy, interaction or transaction (Armstrong & Hagel, 1995).

At times, virtual communities have been partitioned based on more than one variable of interest. For example, Jones and Rafaeli (2000) delimit virtual communities and virtual publics based on social tie strength and the public versus private nature of membership/interaction. Still others take an interdisciplinary view, drawing upon sociological, psychological, and anthropological perspectives by categorizing virtual communities as types of societies. For example, Komito (1998) proposes that virtual communities can be categorized as moral, normative, proximate or fluid.

A Proposed Typology of Virtual Communities

The proposed typology of virtual communities includes two first-level categories: Member-initiated and Organization-sponsored (see Figure 1). Member-initiated communities are those where the community was established by, and remains managed by, members. Organization-sponsored communities are communities that are sponsored by either commercial or non-commercial (e.g. government, non-profit) organizations (see Lauden & Traver, 2003). Sponsoring organizations have key stakeholders and/or beneficiaries (e.g. customers) that are an inherent part of the sponsoring organization's mission and goals.


Figure 1. A typology of virtual communities

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At the second level of the typology, virtual communities are categorized based on the general relationship orientation of the community. Relationship orientation refers to the type of relationship fostered among members of the community. Member-initiated communities foster either social or professional relationships among members. Organization-sponsored communities foster relationships both among members (e.g., customers, employees) and between individual members and the sponsoring organization.

The proposed typology is consistent with existing typologies but makes substantive improvements. For example, the proposed typology draws upon Markus' (2002) typology where virtual communities are categorized based on their social, professional and commercial orientation. In social communities, personal relationships of a non-professional nature are fostered. Often, these communities evolve around leisure activities, hobbies or other non-professional interests. In professional communities, member relations are formed around shared professional interests. These communities include expert-based knowledge networks and student-based learning communities. However, the concept of the organization-sponsored community extends beyond Markus's notion of commercial communities by recognizing that communities could also be sponsored by non-profit organizations and government agencies.

Similar to the social and professional communities described by Markus (2000), some virtual communities are described as social while others are described as task-oriented (e.g. see the discussion by Wellman et al. of work groups as computer-supported cooperative work or telework groups; see Stanoevska-Slabeva, 2002). Furthermore, while several typologies also include fantasy communities (Hagel & Armstrong 1997) and virtual worlds (Stanoevska-Slabeva), in the proposed typology these communities would be categorized as either member-initiated or organization-sponsored based on how the community was established.

After reviewing several proposed typologies, Lee et al. (2003, p. 52) concluded that “none of the classifications of virtual community covers every aspect, or fits under every circumstance.” However, establishing a common ground classification scheme would support the goal of facilitating interdisciplinary research agendas. The proposed typology establishes such a common ground by building on the foundation provided in the existing literature, while addressing substantive conceptual gaps.

For example, most researchers have focused on member-initiated communities (Muniz & O'Guinn, 2001) and member-generated content (see Lee et al., 2003, and Kozinets, 2002), rather than on virtual communities that are sponsored by organizations. These types of virtual communities are increasing in popularity among firms (see Bughin & Zeisser, 2001; Balasubramanian & Mahajan, 2001). The proposed definition embraces communities that are member-initiated and those that are organized by external organizations. In the latter type of community, both members and organizational sponsors could contribute content to the community and participate in relationship building. Since the proposed typology is intended to be useful for researchers across many disciplines, including both types of communities is necessary.

Because researchers from several disciplines recognize the importance of relationships in the context of virtual communities, relationship orientation (e.g. social, professional) is the second partitioning variable used in the proposed typology. At this second level, any other categorization variable would render a single disciplinary perspective dominant (e.g. incorporating ‘supporting technology’ primarily reflects an information system research perspective). This would be inappropriate for a typology intended for use by researchers across multiple disciplines.

Attributes of Virtual Communities

This section addresses the various attributes of virtual communities. While disciplinary perspectives are muted intentionally in the proposed definition of virtual community, they take center stage in the discussion of attributes. Indeed, this author contends that the role of attributes in understanding virtual communities is where discipline-focused researchers could contribute to the generation and testing of hypotheses.

The literature suggests that five attributes could be used to characterize virtual communities: (1) Purpose, (2) Place, (3) Platform, (4) Population Interaction Structure, and (5) Profit Model. Conceptualizing virtual communities as having essential attributes gives researchers a consistent and practical way to describe virtual communities. From a managerial perspective, virtual communities with unique combinations of attributes are likely to have different critical success factors and associated outcomes for both members and organizational sponsors.

The proposed typology is based on a review of literature and on observations of design and activity in actual virtual communities. The approach used to develop the proposed typology embraces Hunt's (1991) description of an inductive grouping procedure to form categories. This grouping procedure typically results in polythetic classes of phenomena (Hunt). This means that virtual communities within a given class are likely to share common attributes, but no individual community must possess all of the attributes commonly associated with that class. The classification variables, establishment (first level) and relationship orientation (second level), distinguish one type of virtual community from all others. Thus, the attributes described in the following section could be used to describe any virtual community regardless of its type.

Attribute #1: Purpose (content of interaction)

The notion of purpose is central to the functioning of a virtual community in that communities are defined by shared purpose among community members (Gusfield, 1978). However, given the proposed definition and typology of virtual communities presented here, it is clear that virtual communities can be formed around an infinite number of shared interests. Indeed, the purpose attribute is analogous to the concept of “discourse focus” (Jones and Rafaeli, 2000, p. 218) —the subject that forms the basis of interaction in a virtual community (e.g. golfing, living with diabetes, parenting techniques).

Attribute #2: Place (extent of technology mediation of interaction)

The notion of place in virtual communities is an important but troublesome concept for researchers because of the aspatial nature of such communities (see Jones, 1997). Traditional communities often are associated with a specific, geographically bounded location. Within such a location, community-based interaction leads members to feel a sense of belongingness, shared values and understandings. Thus, the notion of community implies both something structural (e.g. a bounded location) and something socio-psychological (e.g. a sense of shared values developed through interaction with members).

Harrison and Dourish (1996) describe the structural properties of virtual communities as those that deal with the community's “space” (i.e. physical structure) and the socio-cultural properties of virtual communities as those that deal with the community's “place” (i.e. socio-cultural). They suggest that a virtual space is to a virtual place as a house is to a home that dwells within its physical boundaries. In essence, a house is a home insomuch as its members are aware that they possess the socio-cultural bonds of relationships among household members. Harrison and Dourish suggest that a house only has physical properties that could shape the development of a home. Likewise, they say that a virtual space only presents only the opportunity for a virtual place to develop (see Harrison and Dourish 1996).

Despite the clarity of the nomenclature presented by Harrison and Dourish (1996), other researchers have not fully adopted their perspective or terminology. Indeed, the notion of space and place are often conflated in the literature. For example, Blanchard (2004) suggests that a community member's perceived sense of place is influenced by perceptual cues in the virtual environment (e. g. type of access, timing of interaction and membership boundaries). She suggests that members use such cues to determine where community interaction occurs, where they “are” in the flow of conversations with other members and whether other members are present. She contends that each community member has a sense of place, even if individual diffferences in perception lead members of the same virtual community to different senses of place.

Blanchard (2004) uses a different concept of “sense of place” than that used by Harrison and Dourish (1996). Blanchard's notion of “sense of place” is one that is based on a member's psychological awareness of the location or co-presence of others in a particular location. Thus, it is more consistent with Harrison and Dourish's structural conceptualization of “space.”

Mitra and Schwartz (2001) suggest that a virtual space is comprised of both a sense of presence and location. Thus, they use the term “space” to describe Blanchard's notion of “sense of place.” Consistent with Harrison and Dourish's (1996) concept of “space”, Mitra and Schwartz suggest that technological properties can influence a community member's sense of presence. Furthermore, they suggest that the use of metaphors to the physical world (e.g. “Internet address” and “website”) enhances members' sense of location in virtual environments.

Other scholars question the appropriateness of the distinction between “space” and “place.” Some suggest that interaction in virtual communities is not confined to only virtual or only physical realities (see Bernard, 1973; Rothaermel & Sugiyama, 2001, citing Tönnies, 1967). These scholars suggest that cyberspace is conceptually embedded in physical space (Mitra & Schwartz, 2001) and that human interaction is framed by both physical and virtual space (see Harrison and Dourish's discussion on hybrid spaces). Furthermore, the fact that virtual community members use multiple modes of communication including face-to-face, telephone and mail (Blanchard, 2004) suggests that virtual and physical communities can coexist. In sum, Wilson and Peterson (2003, p. 456) suggest that “the distinction of real and imagined or virtual community is not a useful one.”

In this typology, Harrison and Dourish's (1996) socio-cultural notion of place is included, appropriately, in the definition of a virtual community. The definition put forth in this paper includes the explicit notion that interaction in a virtual community is guided by protocols or norms. A virtual community is defined, therefore, by its sense of place, as described by Harrison and Dourish.

While the distinction between “place” and “space” might prove valuable for particular types of research, for the purpose of this typology, the “place” attribute embraces the notion of “degree of virtualness” put forth by Virnoche and Marx (1997). Virnoche and Marx take a location-based approach by suggesting that communities can be categorized based on the extent to which community members share virtual space and/or physical space on an ongoing or intermittent basis. In a world where individuals maintain relationships with others in physical space, many virtual communities are composed of members who share a virtual space and, intermittently, physical space.

Virnoche and Marx (1997) define virtual extensions as real, physically based relationships that are extended into virtual space. Thus, the location attribute is conceptualized as having two levels: (1) hybrid (exists in both physical and virtual space) and (2) virtual (exists only in virtual space and never in physical space). The few researchers that have examined differences between these levels have found no significant differences in structural interactions between members of communities with the latter two levels of the location attribute (see Butler, 1999), but more research is warranted.

Attribute #3: Platform (design of interaction)

Synchronicity is an important concept related to interaction in virtual communities. Synchronicity is the degree to which a medium enables real-time interaction (Hoffman & Novak, 1996). Most researchers use the term to describe the technological design of interaction dichotomously: (1) synchronous or (2) asynchronous. For example, chat room technology supports real-time communication (i.e. synchrononous interaction) whereas email-based forums allow members to view and respond to messages at their convenience rather than in real time(i.e. asynchronous interaction) (see Preece, 2000 and Blanchard, 2004 for detailed descriptions of various technical community designs).

The fact that interaction is integral to the value of synchronous technologies gives credence to the importance of research on interactivity (see Rafaeli, 1988), particularly in electronic environments (see Zack 1993). In the context of computer-mediated communication, interactivity is conceptualized as “dependency among messages in threads” (Rafaeli and Sudweeks, 1997) as measured by thread length, depth and/or breadth (see Preece, 2001; Rafaeli & Sudweeks; Whittaker et al., 1998). Unlike the dichotomous description of synchronicity, interactivity is viewed as a continuum (Rafaeli & Sudweeks).

Synchronicity can be valuable for virtual communities provided that members actually take advantage of the synchronous technology design by interacting (Blanchard, 2004). Indeed, a highly interactive environment can enhance a member's perception of social presence, co-presence and sense of place (Blanchard, 2004). It also can facilitate the construction of social reality for members (Rafaeli & Sudweeks, 1997). However, in virtual communities, “interactivity is made possible, but not always exercised” (Rafaeli & Sudweeks, p. 2). In other words, a virtual community might have a particular design for interaction that does not necessarily result in interactivity.

Therefore, it is important to understand both the design for interaction (synchronicity) and the actual pattern of interaction (i.e., interactivity). Interactivity is addressed by the population attribute of the proposed typology (see the discussion of attribute #4 below), to the extent that not only thread length, but also the pattern of interaction among members could be a measure of interactivity. The platform attribute, therefore, focuses only on the technical design for interaction. Since the primary factor that distinguishes the capabilities of various community technologies (e.g. bulletin board, short messenger services) is synchronicity, the platform attribute is conceptualized as having three levels (1) synchronous and (2) asynchronous and (3) hybrid—where a particular community has elements of both synchronous (chat) and asynchronous communication (email forum) design.

Attribute #4: Population interaction structure (pattern of interaction)

Although there is no single taxonomy that is used to describe the pattern of interaction among members of virtual communities, three related research streams approach this issue: (1) virtual communities as computer-supported social networks (CSSNs), (2) virtual communities as small-groups or networks and (3) virtual publics versus virtual communities.

Virtual communities as CSSNs.

Virtual communities are a form of CSSN that support strong, weak and stressful social ties among members (Garton et al., 1997; Wellman et al., 1996; Wellman et al., 1997). According to Wellman et al., strong ties emerge as a result of frequent and supportive contact among socially connected members of virtual communities. Weakly tied members also demonstrate supportive and reciprocal behavior, despite the fact that they are socially and/or physically distal. However, when communication among members becomes anti-social (e.g. flaming, spamming) these relations are described as stressful ties.

Virtual communities as small-groups or networks.

Researchers also study whether the small group or network metaphor is appropriate for empirical investigations of virtual communities. For example, Dholakia, Bagozzi and Pearo (2004) use a two-tiered typology of small groups and networks to conceptualize virtual communities. They characterize small-group-based virtual communities (e.g. Harley Owners Group) as having socially close relationships among members, high group interaction, and a focus on maintaining specific relationships within the group. Alternatively, networked-based community members are geographically and socially dispersed and focus on the functional benefits of the community such as information acquisition or problem solving (Dholakia et al., 2004). Relationships in networked-based communities are often of short duration and driven by utilitarian needs.

Furthermore, Butler (1999) found that in large communities based on email lists, interaction requires active encouragement by sponsors. Indeed, these communities are analogous to the network-based communities discussed by Dholakia et al. 2004. Accordingly, Butler suggests that high interaction is not the norm in such virtual communities and would not occur without intentional efforts on the part of a community sponsor.

In sum, prior literature suggests that there are different interaction patterns in small groups versus large networks. Small groups tend to have fixed and limited memberships, are highly interactive during sessions of limited duration and have well defined activities. Alternatively, networked social structures typically have large and variable memberships with uneven and less-active communications among members.

Virtual communities as virtual publics.

Jones and Rafaeli (2000, p. 216) contrast virtual publics with virtual communities. They suggest that virtual publics are “computer-mediated spaces, whose existence is relatively transparent and open, that allow groups of individuals to attend and contribute to a similar set of computer-mediated interpersonal interactions.” Furthermore, these virtual publics (1) might or might not be considered CSSNs, (2) can be supported by a variety of technologies, (3) can serve a variety of purposes and (4) can be owned by an organization. The concept of virtual publics is consistent with Komito's (1998) concept of virtual communities as foraging societies. In such societies, relationships serve functional or utilitarian purposes, membership is often temporary/unstable and there is less commitment and loyalty among members.

In sum, the population attribute is conceptualized as having three primary levels: (1) small group (where strong ties tend to dominate), (2) network (where weak ties are prominent and stressful ties are likely) and (3) publics (where interaction is variable and likely to include strong, weak and/or stressful ties). Some virtual communities will share attributes of both small groups and networks. As suggested by Butler (1999), a metaphor that blends small group and network attributes might best explain relationships in virtual communities, particularly organization-sponsored communities that have a large number of members. This is consistent with the concept of virtual public.

Attribute #5: Profit model (return on interaction)

The profit model attribute focuses on whether a virtual community creates tangible economic value. Although this attribute would apply most frequently to organization-sponsored communities that are commercial, it is possible that other types of communities create economic value. For example, some communities that are member-initiated could invite companies to place targeted advertisements in the community. In this example, the community would earn advertising fee revenue, while the advertisers would gain access to potential customers.

Krishnamurthy (2003) classifies virtual communities according to one of three business models: community enablers, trading/sharing communities and communities as a website feature of corporations. Community enablers host various types of communities with a variety of topical interests and often earn income via advertising and/or subscription fees (e.g. America on Line and Yahoo! groups and clubs). Trading/Sharing Communities facilitate the exchange of products or services among community members and often earn revenue via transaction fees (e.g. EBAY and Napster). Finally, firms that feature communities on their website own the community property and use it in order to generate interaction and, ultimately, revenue-generating transactions (e.g. retailer-based customer community). In sum, the profit model attribute is conceptualized as having two levels: (1) Revenue-generating (e.g. Host, Facilitator, Owner) and (2) Non-revenue generating.

The Five Ps of Virtual Communities

The previous discussion of the key attributes can be summarized as the Five Ps of Virtual Communities. The Five Ps are summarized below:

  • 1
    Purpose (Content of Interaction)—This attribute describes the specific focus of discourse, or focal content of communication, among community members.
  • 2
    Place (Extent of Technology Mediation of Interaction)—This attribute defines the location of interaction, where interaction occurs either completely virtually or only partially virtually.
  • 3
    Platform (Design of Interaction)—This attribute refers to the technical design of interaction in the virtual community, where designs enable synchronous communication, asynchronous communication or both.
  • 4
    Population (Pattern of Interaction)—This attribute refers to the pattern of interaction among community members as described by group structure (e.g. small group or network) and type of social ties (e.g. strong, weak, stressful).
  • 5
    Profit Model (Return on Interaction)—This attribute refers to whether a community creates tangible economic value where value is defined as revenue-generation.

It is expected that virtual communities of different types (i.e. based on establishment and/or relationship orientation) might tend toward certain attribute levels. Within the general type of virtual communities, it is expected that these communities would serve similar purposes. For example, two types of organization-sponsored virtual communities are described in Table 1: commercial and nonprofit. Although each community is sponsored by a different type of organizations, these two “organization-sponsored” virtual communities have similar purposes: to provide purposeful content (i.e. product information, disease information) and to provide member support (i.e. customer support, patient support). Also, given the increasing convergence of online and offline worlds, it is not surprising that both communities highlighted in Table 1 share the hybrid level for the “place” attribute.”


Figure 1. Attribute-based descriptions of two organization-sponsored virtual communities

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However, even among communities that are sponsored by organizations, it is expected that communities would differ significantly as to how the communities are described based on platform, population interaction structure and profit model. In Table 1, for example, while the palmOne community ( members have the option to communicate either synchronously or asynchronously, members of The Wellness Community ( only interact synchronously. Furthermore, it is expected that the palmOne community's population interacts as a virtual public due to the hundreds of thousands of customers that use the palmOne products that potentially interact in the community. Interaction among The Wellness Community members, however, is likely to resemble a small group. Although there is no information posted online regarding the size of interacting groups in their physical facilities, The Wellness Community website suggests that online group meetings are limited to eight participants.

It is unclear why cross-community attribute differences exist and whether the differences are significant from an academic or practical perspective. Indeed, one of the objectives of this paper is to clarify the phenomena such that meaningful research questions could be generated and pursued empirically. However, from a practical perspective, sponsors of virtual communities are likely to have different organizational objectives and would benefit from understanding how the five attributes of virtual communities could be managed in order to meet these objectives.

Evaluation of the Typology

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Objectives
  5. Defining Virtual Communities
  6. A Typology of Virtual Communities
  7. Evaluation of the Typology
  8. Usefulness: The Ultimate Criterion
  9. References

According to Hunt (1991), five criteria should be used to justify whether a typology is adequate. These five criteria are: (1) Is the phenomenon to be classified adequately specified? (2) Is the classification characteristic adequately specified? (3) Are the categories mutually exclusive? (4) Is the typology collectively exhaustive? (5) Is the typology useful? In this section, Criteria 1-4 will be used to assess the adequacy and strength of the proposed typology. The final criterion of usefulness is considered most vital in an evaluation of a typology (Hunt, 1991). Thus, it will be addressed in a separate section.

1. Is the Phenomenon to be Classified Adequately Specified?

A good typology of virtual communities would be considered specified adequately if it were to elucidate and encompass the complete universe of virtual communities. Therefore, an assessment of how well the proposed typology meets this first criterion requires critical evaluation of how well the underlying definition of virtual communities aligns with the universe of virtual communities that the typology purportedly classifies. The proposed definition maintains traditional elements of technology mediation, interaction, and aggregations of individuals/partners as essential to virtual community formation. However, it improves upon prior definitions in that it: (a) recognizes virtual communities that are both purely virtual and partially virtual, (b) acknowledges the emergence of non-computer-based technologies that can support virtual communities and (c) makes explicit the importance of roles, protocols, policies and/or norms to the functioning of virtual communities. In sum, the proposed definition is enduring and inclusive, rather than limited.

2. Is the Classification Characteristic Adequately Specified?

Whether the classification characteristic of a typology is specified adequately rests on the answers to two questions: First, “Is the variable used to classify the phenomenon appropriate?” In other words, can the categorization variable be applied consistently throughout the typology? Second, “Is the typology intersubjectively certifiable?” Both establishment (i.e. member-initiated or organization-sponsored) and relationship orientation (e.g. social, professional) are the central categorization variables for the proposed typology and each can be applied consistently across the typology.

The broader issue of whether establishment and relationship orientation are appropriate categorization variables is intersubjectively certifiable. For example, regarding relationship orientation, most virtual communities have a dominant orientation (Hagel & Armstrong, 1997). It would be possible to validate a virtual community's dominant relationship orientation via surveys, interviews and observation of members of different virtual communities (see Zack, 1993 for a case study approach) or via content analyses of virtual community content (see Rafaeli & Sudweeks, 1998; Burnett & Buerkle, 2004).

3. Are the Categories Mutually Exclusive?

The assessment of whether the categories put forth in the typology are mutually exclusive is based on whether categorization variables (i.e. establishment and relationship orientation) support sufficiently distinct types of virtual communities. As previously mentioned, content analysis has been conducted successfully in the study of virtual communities (see Rafaeli & Sudweeks 1998; Burnett & Buerkle, 2004), and this method could be used to provide evidence of the mutual exclusivity of the categories based on establishment type and relationship orientation. According to Hunt (1991, p.188), however, the fact that a given typology does not fully meet the standard of mutually exclusive critera is “not a mortal blow.”

4. Is the Typology Collectively Exhaustive?

Indeed, every virtual community should have a “home” in the proposed typology (Hunt, 1991, p. 188), indicating that the typology is collectively exhaustive. The typology implies that (1) every virtual community can be categorized as member-initiated or organization-sponsored based on how it was established, (2) membership-initiated virtual communities foster either personal or professional relationships and (3) organization-sponsored virtual communities are sponsored by commercial, nonprofit or government organizations. The ultimate test of whether the proposed typology has a set of categories that is collectively exhaustive will occur over time, when future empirical evidence could suggest that other categories are appropriate.

In member-initiated virtual communities, interaction is often facilitated via technology services that are provided by commercial firms such as Internet Service Providers (e.g. America Online) or Internet Portal Groups (e.g. Yahoo Groups). These firms often provide such services free of charge to individuals who form communities online. Indeed, Bagozzi and Dholakia (2002) surveyed individuals who were members of these types of groups. Furthermore, the fact that member-initiated groups can be social or professional is evidenced by the titles of such groups (for example, see the Yahoo!Groups website at

Regarding organization-sponsored virtual communities, these virtual communities have been less studied by scholars but are increasingly popular. In general, such communities could be subdivided beyond the categories of commercial, nonprofit and government to include customer relationship communities, gaming/fantasy communities, lifestyle communities, knowledge-based/collaborative learning communities, support/advocacy communities and citizen outreach communities. In Table 2, an example of how each of the three main types of organization-sponsored virtual communities could be further subdivided is provided, along with references to actual virtual communities that serve as representatives of each type.

Table 2.  Examples of organization-sponsored virtual communities
Customer Relationship Communities •Products, Services & Brands PalmOne (  Accenture Government Online Community ( •Customer Service & Support Dell Gaming/Fantasy Communities Sony Online Entertainment ( Search Communities •Social ( •Professional ( •Informational (; Lifestyle Communities PlanetOut Partners, Inc. ( ( Knowledge-based/ Collaborative Learning Communities SAP ( Support/Advocacy Communities Witness Justice ( Envirolink ( The Wellness Community ( Knowledge-based/ Collaborative Learning Communities SRI International ( American Association of Higher Education ( CharityChannel ( Communities United States White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (http;// Knowledge-based/ Collaborative Learning Communities Australian Government ( Citizen Outreach Communities Armenian Government (visit:

Usefulness: The Ultimate Criterion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Objectives
  5. Defining Virtual Communities
  6. A Typology of Virtual Communities
  7. Evaluation of the Typology
  8. Usefulness: The Ultimate Criterion
  9. References

Of the five criteria by which typologies should be evaluated, the usefulness criterion is “first among equals (Hunt, p. 188).” The usefulness criterion suggests that the proposed typology should compare favorably with competing typologies by reconciling issues or resolving problems with regard to competing typologies. Secondly, the typology should serve its intended purpose.

Comparison to Competing Typologies

As stated earlier, the proposed typology compares favorably with existing typologies in that it embraces the best of those categorical schemes while making substantive improvements. The first of these improvements was made possible by establishing an appropriate definition for virtual communities. However, a significant contribution to the usefulness of the typology is that it reconciles problems posed by other researchers.

Heretofore, attributes such as technology platform or population were used to define virtual communities. However, as previously discussed, these attributes are not appropriate categorization variables to serve interdisciplinary research agendas because they are narrowly focused around disciplinary areas of interest. The proposed typology suggests that attributes are descriptive of virtual communities of any type. Therefore, attributes would be difficult to apply consistently as a categorization variable. Instead, the proposed typology uses establishment and relationship orientation as the key categorization variables.

Also, the typology is simple and pragmatic enough to provide for a basic understanding of the virtual community phenomenon by both scholars and practitioners. First, there are only two types of virtual communities in the proposed typology: member-initiated and organization-sponsored. So, the typology is simple at the first-order level. This simplicity is appealing for scholars across many disciplines that need a unified view of the universe of virtual communities. It is also appealing for practitioners who need more basic understanding of the phenomenon before they can generate fruitful research questions.

Comparison to Intended Objective

The central objective of developing this typology is to develop a classification system that is useful to researchers who seek to pursue programmatic research and theoretical advancement from a variety of disciplinary areas. Regarding programmatic research, each type of virtual community has associated with it unique research questions that could form the foundation for systematic investigations. For example, researchers of member-initiated, social communities might conduct programmatic research to understand the extent to which member interaction supports or extends theories of social influence and word-of-mouth marketing (Bansal & Voyer, 2000; Brown & Reingen, 1987; Reingen & Kernan, 1986). Also, in organization-sponsored, business-to-business communities, researchers could conduct studies that examine the extent to which the use of technology enhances or detracts from trust development in the context of relationship marketing strategies. For example, how does interaction among business partners in commercially oriented, organization-sponsored virtual communities extend the theories of swift trust and social identification (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998) as well as relationship marketing (Morgan & Hunt, 1994)?

Finally, the reconciliation of the role of attributes as descriptor versus partitioning variables leads to additional opportunities for identifying fruitful research streams: building research streams that examine the role of attributes as antecedents or moderators of meaningful outcome variables at the disciplinary level. For example, psychologists and/or sociologist might be interested in developing programmatic research to investigate antecedents of perceived interactivity in network-based versus small-group communities. These researchers could also investigate how attributes such as trust develop among members of less interactive environments, given that trust is often associated with high levels of interaction. Indeed, there are many potential research studies that could be designed to enhance our understanding of how various attributes of virtual communities influence community member behavior and strategies/outcomes for community sponsors.


The central objective of developing this typology was to develop a classification system that is useful to researchers from various disciplinary perspectives such that the classification system might be used as a foundation for theory construction. The proposed typology serves its intended purposes well and compares well against criteria put forth by Hunt (1991). The proposed typology uses establishment type and relationship orientation as the key categorization variables and reconciles problems posed by existing typologies. The categorization scheme is simple, pragmatic for practitioners and useful for researchers seeking to develop interdisciplinary theoretical understanding of the virtual community phenomenon.

As with any typology, its true strength will be revealed over time. Inevitably, researchers will continue to debate the relevancy and appropriateness of the proposed definition and typology of virtual communities. It is hoped that this debate is enriched by knowledge generated from empirical studies that are, in part, inspired by the typology proposed here.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Objectives
  5. Defining Virtual Communities
  6. A Typology of Virtual Communities
  7. Evaluation of the Typology
  8. Usefulness: The Ultimate Criterion
  9. References
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