Online Communities: Design, Theory, and Practice
This special thematic section of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication brings together nine articles that provide a rich composite of the current research in online communities. The articles cover a range of topics, methodologies, theories and practices. Indirectly they all speak to design since they aim to extend our understanding of the field. The variety shown in these articles illustrates how broad the definition is of this rapidly growing field known as ‘online communities.’
Community has become the ‘in-term’ for almost any group of people who use Internet technologies to communicate with each other. Depending on whether one takes a social perspective or a technology perspective, online communities tend to be named by the activity and people they serve or the technology that supports them. For example the same community might be called a ‘breast cancer patient support community’ and a ‘bulletin board community.’ There is much angst about use of the term ‘community,’ especially when researchers from a range disciplines come together, each wanting to place a stake in the ground to support their own goals and research paradigm. Sociologists, social psychologists and anthropologists are the guardians of the term but for more than 50 years, they been have defining and redefining the concept of community (Wellman, 1982).
Until the advent of telecommunications technology, definitions of community focused on close-knit groups in a single location. Factors such as birth and physical location determined belonging to a community. Interaction took place primarily face-to-face; therefore, social relationships took place with a stable and limited set of individuals (Gergen, 1997; Jones, 1997). This way of defining community became less useful as the development of modern transportation and telecommunication systems increased personal mobility and reduced the costs of communicating across distances. Newcomers hankering after definitive definitions, and failing to find them, created their own. Researchers now consider the strength and nature of relationships between individuals to be a more useful basis for defining community than physical proximity (Hamman, 1999; Haythornthwaite & Wellman, 1998; Wellman, 1997; Wellman & Gulia, 1999a).
Pioneers of online community development and research Howard Rheingold (1993) and Roxanne Hiltz (1985) used the term ‘online community’ to connote the intense feelings of camaraderie, empathy and support that they observed among people in the online spaces they studied. Other researchers have attempted to operationalize the term so that it is useful in the analysis, design, and evaluation of community software platforms and management practices (de Souza & Preece, 2004; Maloney-Krichmar & Preece, 2005; Preece, 2000). These researchers focus on ‘the people who come together for a particular purpose, and who are guided by policies (including norms and rules) and supported by software.’ Others researchers have identified key parameters of community life and then looked for their presence online.
However, as Amy Bruckman pointed out at a recent meeting “much ink has been spilled trying to work out which online communities are really communities” (Bruckman, 2005). Bruckman proceeds to argue that expending energy and time on developing definitions may not be the best way to proceed. She suggests that a more productive approach may be to accept community as a concept with fuzzy boundaries that is perhaps more appropriately defined by its membership. This can be done by noting the similarities and differences of each new member and comparing them with the characteristics of members who are regarded as being within the community. In many respects this approach lends itself more readily to the way most of us think about the communities that make up our everyday lives. While such approaches to definition might be hard for some academics to accept, they may encourage us to concentrate on more substantive issues such as how communities are created, evolve or cease to exist online.
A related issue is ‘how do we define community boundaries online?’‘Online community’ is a legacy term that is engrained in Internet culture. But increasingly it is accepted that online communities rarely exist only online; many have off-line physical components. Either they start as face-to-face communities and then part or all of the community migrates on to digital media, or conversely, members of an online community seek to meet face-to-face. Communication is hardly ever restricted to a single medium; usually several media are used depending on what is most convenient at the time, which can make doing research in this field difficult. Populations tend not to be bounded, so getting a clear picture of the community's context can be difficult, and sampling is tricky and prone to error.
In order to study online communities, researchers have had to adapt methodologies for use online. Ethnography was used by many early researchers (Baym, 1993, 2000; Hine, 2000) to try to understand issues such as what people do in online spaces, how they express themselves, what motivates them, how they govern themselves, what attracts people to participate, and why some people prefer to observe rather than contribute. Ethnography was an obvious candidate for developing a broad understanding of online behavior within particular contexts. Content and linguistic analysis techniques were modified for analyzing computer-mediated communication (Herring, 1992, 2004) and social network analysis (Wellman & Gulia, 1999a, 1999b) was also applied to online populations, often supported by visualizations that enable researchers to view the network from different perspectives (Sack, 2000). A variety of other creative and innovative visualization techniques have emerged more recently that enable researchers to see and explore community activity at a glance, such as a tool called history flow which reveals the chronology of authorship in wikipedia (Viégas, Wattenberg, & Dave, 2004). Online interviews and questionnaires are also fundamental tools for online community research, despite problems associated with drawing scientific samples and low response rates (Andrews, Nonnecke, & Preece, 2003). Data logging has also been popular.
Just as researchers have borrowed and adapted methods for online work, theories from long-standing traditional research fields have also been applied in online community research, as can be seen from several of the articles in this special collection. These theories have been drawn mostly from the social sciences, particularly sociology, anthropology, social psychology and linguistics. No particular theory or set of theories currently dominates research on online communities. Rather we see the application of different theories that have been selected based on the disciplinary training of the researchers applying them. As new and novel practices emerge within the online community environments, researchers broaden their perspectives as they seek to understand and explain online community dynamics and their effects on people, organizations and cultures.
The call inviting contributions for this special collection identified design, theory and practice as key issues for authors to address. Over sixty abstracts were received from authors working in 13 different countries. These researchers belong to a range of disciplines including: advertising, business, communications, information studies, information systems, psychology, sociology, and research and development groups in companies. The range of topics covered speaks of the broad and growing number of researchers who are now working on this topic.
The abstracts were reviewed and the authors of nineteen were invited to submit full manuscripts. Each of these nineteen manuscripts was then reviewed by three or more reviewers and rated using the JCMC reviewer guidelines. The final nine articles that were accepted went through yet another round of revisions before being accepted for publication. The articles that follow provide a rich slice of the current research in online communities. They cover a range of topics, methodologies, theories and practices. Indirectly they all speak to design since they aim to extend our understanding of the field, though few attempt to directly address practical design issues, which is an important topic for future research. The variety shown in these nine articles illustrates how broad definition is of this rapidly growing field known as ‘online communities,’ as can be seen from the brief introduction to each that follows.
Articles in this Collection
Fayard and DeSanctis use a qualitative approach to study developmental stages and the mechanisms that shaped and sustained an online forum (KMforum) for information systems professionals in India in their article Evolution of an Online Forum for Knowledge Management Professionals: A language Game Analysis. Their analysis shows how a loose collection of professionals with a common interest can develop a rhythm of conversation that allows the development of sustainable and meaningful online interaction, and reveals evolutionary dynamics in the life cycles of the forum suggestive of the developmental phases of offline groups. The article ends with useful suggestions about ways of improving community dynamics online.
Using longitudinal data, Kavanaugh, Carroll, Rosson, Zin, and Reese, in Community Networks: Where Offline Communities Meet Online, provide a deeper understanding of the use and social impact of a mature networked community, the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV). Their work investigated whether Internet-based technologies made a difference in the extent to which individuals become involved and participate in local social life. The analysis and discussion provided in this article of exogenous and mediating variables helps explain the relationship between community involvement and the use of the Internet to support the community. It appears from this study that education, extroversion, and age are significant variables for explaining people's involvement in this type of Internet communities.
Taking another approach, Laura Robinson examines the discussion produced in an online newspaper forum dedicated to the topic of the events of September 11th, 2001 in Brazil, France, and the United States in In Debating the Events of September 11th: Discursive and Interactional Dynamics in Three Online Fora. The study describes the ways in which interactional, social-behavioral, and semantic characteristics of each forum affected the simultaneous building of consensus and passionate conflict within each. One aspect of Robinson's findings is that regardless of the cultural environment, certain characteristics are associated with ideological divisiveness. In addition, cultural differences in interactional styles are carried from offline to the online environment, and affect the level of ideological antagonism expressed in each forum. These findings have special significance in the present global environment.
The work of Rodgers and Chen, Internet Community Group Participation: Psychosocial Benefits for Women with Breast Cancer, asserts that the needs of breast cancer patients and survivors are dynamic and change over time. This longitudinal study analyzed over 33,200 postings to a breast cancer bulletin board and 100 life stories of participants on the bulletin board to develop a profile of the women with breast cancer who were participating in the online support community. One important finding was a positive correlation between amount of participation in the group and psycho-social well-being over time. This has important implications for researchers and health care practitioners seeking ways to help those facing health challenges.
Much of the research on online patient support communities has addressed communities originating in the English-speaking Internet. In Evaluation of a Systematic Design for Virtual Patient Community, Leimeister and Krcmar describe an evaluation of the design elements of a virtual community for German cancer patients that was launched in 2001. In addition they examine design features that support trust development among participants, which they identify as an important contributor to the community's success. This study is an example of how design and evaluation can be tightly coupled as a community develops.
Turner, Smith, Fisher and Welser's work, Picturing Usenet: Mapping Computer-Mediated Collective Action, describes the vast and complex Usenet landscape through a variety of visual representations provided by Netscan, a tool designed for mining and visually representing relationships. Using this tool, the authors investigate how newsgroup hierarchies vary, how interaction within them varies and how participants' contributions vary by exploring large data sets of millions of entities. Netscan enables latent but invisible patterns in conversational data sets to become visible and provides a strong quantitative foundation for interpretive studies of patterns of communication on Usenet.
The article by Piller, Schubert, Koch, and Möslein, Overcoming Mass Confusion: Collaborative Customer Co-Design in Online Communities, seeks to transfer and apply current research on online communities to the manufacturing and mass customization arena. Their article describes an in-depth analysis of six case studies dealing with collaborative customer co-design projects in which mass confusion is an inherent problem. The study identifies sources of mass confusion and online community applications to help overcome these challenges. Three general solution paths are suggested: offering customers support to achieve their initial designs so that they can avoid having to struggle with starting from scratch; fostering joint creativity and problem-solving; and reducing the perception of risk by supporting trust.
The online panel, a type of organizational-sponsored virtual community, is the topic of Organizational Virtual Communities: Exploring Motivations Behind Online Panel Participation by Daugherty, Lee, Gangadharbatla, Kim, and Outhavong. Using Functional Theory as a framework for examining the complex way that attitudes function to influence motivation, this study seeks to determine if a person's attitudes toward joining an online panel varies by the functional source of their motivation and if their attitudes are based on a perceived sense of community stemming from their own membership.
Finally, in Using Social Psychology to Motivate Contributions to Online Communities, Ling, Beenen, Ludford, Wang, Chang, Li, Cosley, Frankowski, Terveen, Rashid, Resnick and Kraut designed and implemented a study to test design principles based upon social psychology theories. Their work points out that the fundamental challenge when using these theories to inform design is the differences in the goals and values of social psychologists and HCI/CSCW researchers. The authors demonstrate how mining social science theory can be used as a source of principles for design innovation and suggest that this is fertile ground for further research.
Our belief, having reviewed and selected articles for this special collection on online communities, is that the work represented reflects current research trends in this field reasonably well. Since research on online communities in the early 1990s, the research agenda has moved beyond characterizing participation of one or a few communities using a single medium such as Usenet or bulletin boards. The field is now much more diverse, and typically the communities being studied communicate via different modalities that include blending online and offline interaction. As in other maturing fields of study, there appears to be a progression from reporting on scattered, individual cases, through generalizing across examples, to applying and developing theories that explain what is observed. Research in online communities draws on methods, theories and practices from many disciplines, making this an exciting and challenging field.
We thank Heather Halpin from the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, who tracked the reviewing of the articles from submission of initial abstracts through to the final versions. We also thank Weimin Hou from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and the reviewers who provided the thoughtful comments that enabled us to select the best articles and supported the authors in improving their work.