Accepted by previous editor Maria Bakardjieva
Social Dynamics of Virtual Groups
Can Our Group Survive? An Investigation of the Evolution of Mixed-Mode Groups†
Article first published online: 18 MAR 2014
© 2014 International Communication Association
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication
Volume 19, Issue 4, pages 839–854, July 2014
How to Cite
Lai, C.-H. (2014), Can Our Group Survive? An Investigation of the Evolution of Mixed-Mode Groups. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 19: 839–854. doi: 10.1111/jcc4.12075
- Issue published online: 18 JUL 2014
- Article first published online: 18 MAR 2014
- Manuscript Accepted: 24 FEB 2013
- Manuscript Revised: 5 DEC 2012
- Manuscript Received: 29 APR 2012
- mixed-mode groups;
- voluntary associations;
- mixed modality;
- social network;
- ecology and evolution
- Top of page
- The Ecological and Evolutionary Perspective
Applying an ecological and evolutionary perspective, this study examines the evolution and the sustainability of “mixed-mode groups,” a type of voluntary association created and organized online to interact physically in geographically defined ways. Meetup.com is a website that facilitates the creation and coordination of mixed-mode groups. Analysis of interviews with 34 Meetup group organizers and a longitudinal analysis of 100 randomly selected Meetup groups revealed the evolutionary processes at the group and population level, respectively. Specifically, the ecological factor of population density, the demographic factor of group age, the group's profit orientation, experience of leadership change and shared leadership, and external ties played decisive roles in predicting group survival. Implications of the findings for theoretical and practical contributions are discussed.
People are and always have been oriented towards involvement in voluntary organizations (Anderson 1971; Rainie Purcell & Smith 2011). Participation in associational activities has long been linked to positive outcomes at individual and collective levels such as creation of horizontal social networks and social capital (Putnam 2000) formation of social ties and occupational diversity (Davis Renzulli & Aldrich 2006) and assimilation of democratic values and attitudes (Hooghe 2003). Voluntary associations are characterized by volitional involvement and specialization of interest; they are avocational in nature and are of secondary importance to an individual's daily routine (Warner 1972). To some extent these characteristics highlight the challenges voluntary associations face (e.g relatively limited human and physical resources) for growth and survival over time (Knoke & Prensky 1984).
Interestingly, usage of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has been shown to increase the likelihood of individuals belonging to traditional local voluntary groups such as a neighborhood associations, sports leagues, youth groups, churches, or social clubs (Hampton, Lee, & Her, 2011). Technology also contributes to the creation of new forms of voluntary associations, by integrating physically based and virtual communities of interest (Blanchard & Horan, 1998). The sustainability of voluntary associations seems to have bearing on the intersection of online and physical spaces, a topic that is socially significant but has thus far received little scholarly attention.
Compared to face-to-face voluntary associations, groups created online tend towards a lower level of participation due to easy entry and penalty-free exit. Existing research has treated the growth and survival of online groups, but focus has mostly been on those groups that communicate and organize activities online with occasional face-to-face interaction (e.g., Lazar & Preece, 2002; Postmes, Spears, & Lea, 2000). Given the possibility of linking online groups to physical spaces (Blanchard & Horan, 1998), and the growing pattern of multimodal interpersonal and group behaviors (Baym, 2009), the investigation of voluntary associations that operate across physical and online spaces has become timely. This study aims to shed light on the sustainability of a particular type of voluntary association—groups that are created and organized online to interact physically in geographically defined ways. Considering their mixed use of communication modalities (e.g., the Internet, face-to-face), diverse orientation (e.g., for-profit vs. non-profit, networking, socializing, hobby-based, service), and varying type of structure (e.g., formal vs. informal, small groups and large organizations), these groups are labeled mixed-mode groups.
The term mixed-mode group derives from the concept of mixed-mode relationship (MMR), which refers to the pattern of initiating communication online and moving it offline for further action and interaction (Walther & Parks, 2002). Examples of websites enabling the development of mixed-mode groups are Facebook, Craigslist, Twitter, and Meeetup.com. Variations do exist among these mixed-mode group websites. For instance, an argument could be made that usage of Facebook and Twitter is diverse as compared to Meetup.com, whose primary focus is the creation and organization of groups (based on shared interests and locations) that meet in a physical space. A Meetup group that engages in rock climbing activities in the Boston area might serve as an example. To more precisely examine how mixed-mode groups evolve and traverse online and physical spaces, this study focuses on groups organized on Meetup.com.
Like traditional voluntary associations, mixed-mode groups are characterized by face-to-face voluntary involvement, specialization of interest, and low degree of organization. Further, both types of voluntary associations tend to be privately organized, avocational in nature, and of secondary importance to an individual's regular schedule. What distinguishes mixed-mode groups from their traditional counterpart is the capacity to organize grouping activities across different modalities, a capacity which may help facilitate group outcomes that span online and physical spaces. Additionally, the formation of mixed-mode groups is driven by a combination of shared interests and locations. In contrast, then, with traditional online groups, affiliation with which is wholly interest-based, mixed-mode group affiliation is contingent upon both common interests and place of residence.
Not surprisingly, mixed-mode groups inherit the vulnerabilities of both voluntary associations and online groups. For example, the often transitory nature of mixed-mode groups increases the likelihood that they will exert only a minimal impact. Hence, examining the sustainability of mixed-mode groups can help us to identify and formulate solutions to maintain social dynamics through associational activities in contemporary society. An ecological and evolutionary framework was chosen to illustrate the evolutionary process of mixed-mode groups, as well as their interaction with their environment (which can take both online and offline forms). The ecological and evolutionary perspective examines the process of how groups and organizations pursue the goal of fitness through interacting with other communities and populations, by both developing communication infrastructures and by interacting with the environment (Hannan & Freeman, 1989; Monge, Heiss, & Margolin, 2008).
In this paper, I first provide a review of the existing literature on the ecological and evolutionary perspective in organizational and voluntary association contexts. This review leads to the development of several hypotheses and one research question. I then describe the methods and procedures for analyzing archived data and interviews collected from groups on Meetup.com. Finally, I discuss the results within the context of advancing evolutionary theories applied to mixed-mode groups.
The Ecological and Evolutionary Perspective
- Top of page
- The Ecological and Evolutionary Perspective
Understanding the environment in which a social system is embedded is of paramount importance (Homans, 1950). Towards that goal, one needs to explore how a social organization is influenced by the surrounding environment (selection), and how it acquires resources to adapt itself to the environment (adaptation). These two lines of inquiry reflect the essence of the ecological and the evolutionary perspective, respectively, that is, selection and adaptation, which are now seen as complementary to each other, and which have been integrated in recent research (Baum & Shipilov, 2006).
A combined approach of ecological and evolutionary perspectives helps to explain how social and environmental conditions, as well as interaction within and among populations of organizations, influence organizational founding, failure, and change (Baum & Shipilov, 2006). Specifically, the mechanisms of variation, selection, and retention (V-S-R) are integral to organizational change (Aldrich & Ruef, 2006; Campbell, 1965; McKelvey, 1982). Environmental forces and other organizations are potential sources of variation that might become challenges and opportunities for the focal organization. Over time, useful variations might be selected and retained as part of the organizational practices for survival.
According to Baum and Shipilov's (2006) review, current ecological and evolutionary theory and research address four levels: intraorganizational ecology, demography of organizations, population ecology of organizations, and community ecology. Intraorganizational ecology focuses on the V-S-R mechanisms enacted within organizations in the forms of strategic actions, rules, and norms, and explains how these mechanisms influence the evolution and change of organizations. Demography of organization investigates the regularity of the rates of organizational founding, change, and failure within populations and examines how these relate to organizational characteristics. Population ecology looks at the growth and decline of individual populations and seeks to explain how the vital rates of one population are influenced by factors within the population, interactions with other populations, and environmental changes. Community ecology examines how the interaction among a set of populations influences the persistence and stability of the community as a whole.
The ecological and evolutionary perspective has been applied in the context of traditional face-to-face voluntary associations. McPherson (1983, 1988) proposes an ecological model of affiliation that considers the influence of environmental factors (e.g., time, physical location, and sociodemographic variables) on the survival of voluntary organizations. Compared to groups mainly interacting online, mixed-mode groups are more likely to be subject to influence from outside the group, and to interact with the social and physical environment external to the group. With its characteristic systemic analysis of external and internal influences on the evolution of an organization or a group, the ecological and evolutionary perspective is highly suitable for providing a systematic understanding of how groups, operating across different media modalities, evolve over time. Building on Baum and Shipilov's (2006) discussion and the multilevel feature of evolutionary theory, a set of hypotheses and one research question have been developed with the aim of examining the ecology and evolution of mixed-mode groups at group and population levels.
The Ecological Processes of Groups
At the population level, research has primarily targeted the ecological processes of organizations (e.g., niche, density dependence) and the demography of organizations (e.g., age, size) (Baum, 1999). In ecological process terms, “niche” denotes the notion that organizations and populations possess varied capacities to acquire resources and exploit these resources from the environment in order to survive (McKelvey, 1982; McPherson, 1983; Popielarz & Neal, 2007). The term “niche width” refers to an organization's variance in resource utilization; a dichotomy of generalists (with wide niche) and specialists (with narrow niche) is posited accordingly (Hannan & Freeman, 1977). For example, narrow organizational niches have been found to be positively correlated with mortality rates (Dobrev, Kim, & Hannan, 2001). A second ecological factor is population density. Density dependence theory explains the relationship between competition and the number of organizations in a population, positing that increased competition may contribute to failure rates at different stages of population development (Hannan & Freeman, 1989; Hannan & Carroll, 1992). Indeed, an elevated intensity of competition has been found between organizations with similar resource requirements (Hannan & Freeman, 1989; McPherson 1983). For example, intensity of competition rises between organizations located in the same geographic region and targeting overlapping customers.
It appears that these two ecological factors (niche width and population density) are germane to the evolution of mixed-mode groups. Specifically, one would expect a positive correlation between range of interests and the likelihood that a mixed-mode group would survive over time, and a negative correlation between competition from other online and mixed-mode groups and the likelihood that it would survive. Wang, Butler, and Joyce's (2006) study represents one of the few research efforts concerning this area in the online domain. They found a high attrition rate in groups that shared a great deal of content with other groups (cross-posting groups) and that shared a large proportion of their members with other groups (membership overlap rate). These findings suggest that groups may compete with each other indirectly in the larger online environment, in turn influencing the survival of the focal group. Due to the limited research on the ecology of mixed-mode groups, I made use of existing ecological and evolutionary work on formal organizations to develop two hypotheses that address the relationship between these two ecological factors and the survival of mixed-mode groups:
H1: Width of group niche positively affects the survival of mixed-mode groups.
H2: Population density negatively affects the survival of mixed-mode groups such that groups that experience more competition will have lower rates of survival.
The Demography of Groups
Parallel to the exploration of ecological factors, research has attempted to uncover the influence of different organizational traits on organizational survival. For example, the liabilities of smallness (Aldrich & Auster, 1986) is a well-known demographic prediction that small organizations are, due to the difficulty of acquiring necessary resources for growth and survival, predisposed to failure. Context might play a role, however; it has been argued that group size has less validity as a predictor of group survival in the context of mixed-mode groups. On one hand, group size is often examined as a factor influencing group success in the online group literature. Rothaermel and Sugiyama (2001), for example, argue that the relationship between a virtual community's size and its success is curvilinear; up to a certain point, the incremental addition of new members is positively related to the aggregate value of the community. Beyond a certain point, however, this increase dissipates. However, an argument can be made that because online membership is easy to activate it may be, at least to some extent, deceptive. For example, a group of 500 members may only have 10 people attending face-to-face meetings regularly. In such a situation, the association between group size and group survival is tenuous. Given this concern, the influence of group size on the survival of mixed-mode groups is not examined as a specific hypothesis in this study.
The influence of other organizational traits on organizational survival may, however, be applicable to mixed-mode groups. For example, the liability of newness (Freeman, Carroll, & Hannan, 1983) and the liability of adolescence (Fichman & Levinthal, 1991) suggest that younger organizations fail more often than their more-established counterparts due to an inability to build a solid resource base necessary for growth and survival. Fernandez (2008) studied traditional voluntary associations, and found that the majority of Spanish voluntary associations in Madrid closed due to mission completion and resource insufficiency (human and physical). Chambré and Fatt's (2002) study on nonprofit AIDS organizations also found that new organizations closed due to the inability to secure stable funding sources, as well as lack of experience. Wollebæk (2009) reported that not-for-profit voluntary associations are more likely than for-profit and well-organized organizations to rely on emotional attachment of members and low cost of continued activity, both of which may prevent easy organizational disbanding. I propose two hypotheses that examine the positive relationships between these two demographic factors (age and nonprofit orientation) and group survival.
H3: Older mixed-mode groups are more likely than younger groups to survive.
H4: Not-for-profit orientation positively affects the survival of mixed-mode groups.
Group survival may also hinge on relational aspects such as leadership and configuration of networks. Compared to traditional voluntary associations, mixed-mode groups are easier to create and organize online. Yet in order to survive over time, groups may need a flexible and enduring leadership structure that can help them adapt to change, either within or outside the group. Such flexibility and sustainability may be represented through shared leadership and leadership change, which have been found to be positively related to organizational outcomes and organizational survival (see, for example, Mehra, Smith, Dixon, & Robertson, 2006; Rowe, Cannella, Rankin, & Gorman, 2005). Specifically, shared leadership reflects the advantage of enhancing member commitment and contributing resources to the group (Carson, Tesluk, & Marrone, 2007) while leadership change is considered an effort by groups to learn how to adapt themselves to the environment (Tushman & Rosenkopf, 1996). The next hypothesis examines the positive relationship between these two leadership factors and group survival.
H5: Leadership factors affect the survival of mixed-mode groups such that groups with shared leadership and the experience of leadership change are more likely to survive than those who do not experience shared leadership and leadership change.
Embeddness and Survival
Survival advantages for organizations also accrue from another relational factor: institutional embeddedness. Embeddedness is the notion that economic actions of individuals and organizations are embedded in social relations, and that this network of social relations among organizations affects the operation of each organization involved in the network (Granovetter, 1985; Uzzi, 1999). Such ties to the environment can provide organizations with legitimacy and access to resources (Baum & Oliver, 1991, 1992; Baum, Calabrese, & Silverman, 2000). External ties have also been examined in the context of voluntary association. For example, Fernandez (2008) found that those Spanish voluntary associations which were embedded in collaborative networks of both dense and weak ties to the rest of the nonprofit organizations in the same field (i.e., those possessing social capital) survived longer than those with less social capital (i.e., organizations without direct connections to other nonprofits). Similarly, Wollebæk's (2009) study showed the positive effects of external ties (e.g., linkage with outside funding sources, contact with a municipality, and cooperation with other organizations) on the survival of voluntary organizations. On the basis of these few empirical studies on embeddedness and survival of voluntary associations placed in non-U.S. contexts, the last hypothesis is proposed:
H6: External ties positively affect the survival of mixed-mode groups.
In response to the call for identifying V-S-R mechanisms at different levels of analysis (groups, organizations, populations, community) (Monge & Contractor, 2003; Monge & Poole, 2008), I pose a general research question:
RQ: What are the evolutionary processes of mixed-mode groups in the form of V-S-R mechanisms at (a) the group and (b) the population level?
- Top of page
- The Ecological and Evolutionary Perspective
The research site of this study was Meetup.com, an organization designed to facilitate the formation and coordination of mixed-mode groups. Meetup.com fits the needs of this study because it is the largest network of local voluntary groups in the world (over 140,000 local groups, 15 million users), and because, unlike similar services such as Craigslist and Facebook, it contains a complete history of group structures and activities, both online and offline. The data were drawn from a longitudinal analysis of 100 random Meetup groups over 18 months of observation and in-depth interviews conducted with 34 Meetup group organizers. The choice of these two sources of data reflects the cross-level conceptualization enabled in the ecological and evolutionary perspective. Organizers' account of their groups provided insight into the evolution of individual groups while archived data of 100 groups helped explain the change of a population of groups over time.
Data Collection and Analysis: Archived Group Data
A random sample of 100 Meetup groups was retrieved with the assistance of the research unit of Meetup.com and was observed over an 18-month follow-up period from 1 August 2009 to 1 February 2011.1 On the webpage of each Meetup group, basic information about the group is listed, including group description, group topics, time of creation, membership size, organizer and/or assistant organizers, number and details of group events (e.g., content of activities, locations, cooperating groups or organizations). Related to RQ(b) and six hypotheses, operationalizations of the key variables are detailed as follows.
Group niche was measured by member requirements. Referencing Baum and Singh's (1994) definition of organizational niche based on the ages of children that day care centers are licensed to enroll, member requirements were used to measure the niche of a Meetup group. A group was coded 1 (narrow niche) if it had specific demographic requirements (i.e., gender, age, marital status, ethnicity and race, language), professional orientation (i.e., occupation, professional status) and others (i.e., specific social roles), and coded 2 (wider niche) if no requirements existed. Efforts were made to review the group description and group events to determine the profit orientation of a group. If the group sold products associated with the organizer's own business (e.g., dancing class, coaching services, PR training services), then this group was coded as for-profit (code = 1). Otherwise, it was coded as not-for-profit (code = 2).
Leadership change was examined on the basis of the bio page of the group organizer. If the time he/she was listed as organizer differed from the time the group was created, the group was coded as experiencing leadership change (code = 2). Otherwise, a group was coded as without leadership change (code = 1). Leadership team was measured by going over the information listed under the organizer section of each Meetup group. If only the organizer was listed, then the group was coded as without a leadership team (code = 1). If a number of organizers, assistant organizers and/or event organizers were listed, it was coded as having a leadership team (code = 2).2
A content analysis of each group event formed the basis of the evaluation of external ties. In the event section, if a group mentioned contacts outside of the group, such as other Meetup or non-Meetup groups as part of the group event, other organizations listed as the sponsor or the recipient of the event, or guest speakers invited from outside for group event, the group was coded as with external ties (code = 2). Otherwise, it was coded as without external ties (code = 1). These different external ties were further coded into 22 types of organizations and groups, which will also be used in the analysis reported later.3 A high degree of interrater reliability was attained for coding these five variables, with Cohen's Kappa ranging from 0.85 to 0.97. Last, population density was obtained by recording the number of Meetup groups within a radius of 25 miles (Density I) and 10 miles (Density II) using the search function on Meetup.com. These two distances represent the default search parameters on Meetup.com. The two variables were analyzed after being log-normalized to better approximate a normal distribution.
Geographic factors in the forms of urban proximity, residential density, and population change have been found to be linked to growth and survival of voluntary associations (see, for example, McPherson, 1988; Wollebæk, 2009). Hence, local population size and residential mobility were included as the control variables. Using the location in which a Meetup group is listed (e.g., Boston, MA), information about local population size and residential mobility was retrieved from U.S. Census Bureau's online database (i.e., 2009 estimate and 2005–2009 community survey).4 To test the hypotheses, Cox regression analysis was used.5 Group survival was the censoring variable that indicates whether the group is still alive at the end of the study (1 = No, 0 = Yes).
Data Collection and Analysis: Interviews
Among the 34 participating organizers, 14 group organizers were selected from 100 randomly sampled groups, which were provided by the research unit of Meetup.com. All of the organizers of these 100 groups were contacted through the contact function of Meetup.com, but only 14 organizers were followed up and participated in the interview. In addition to the random sample, interviews were conducted with another 20 group organizers who were selected through purposive sampling.6 Interviews, which were semistructured and conducted mainly over the phone, ranged in length from 14 to 114 minutes (M = 39.67, SD = 22.04). The initial interviews took place from July 2009 through January 2010, but 10 organizers were followed up through July 2011 after observing conspicuous group development (e.g., group closure, spin-off groups).
All of the 30 audio-recorded interviews were transcribed. The transcripts, including the four interviews that were not audio-recorded, were entered in ATLAS ti and analyzed through a series of coding processes (Strauss & Corbin, 1990).7 Note that because interviews were conducted mostly following the order and structure of the questions as listed in the protocol, the decisions of where to code and which codes to apply were relatively straightforward, and so were the comparisons of interviewees' responses under different categories.8 RQ(a) was answered through the query tool provided by the ATLAS. ti computer program, which searched the entire corpus for the sentences and paragraphs of quotes that had been coded with the established categories.
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- The Ecological and Evolutionary Perspective
The Evolutionary Process of Meetup Population
After 18 months of observation, 46 out of 100 Meetup groups were found to have closed down. That is, 46 groups were uncensored (experienced the target event, group closure) while the rest were right-censored (did not experience the target event). This percentage of censoring (54%) was considered acceptable in ensuring reasonable statistical power (Singer & Willett, 1991). Since all of the 100 groups were observed as intact cases, no left-censoring occurred. Among the 46 groups that closed down, 38 groups (82.6%) were aged one year or younger. A significant age difference was found between ongoing groups (M = 40.91, SD = 22.06) and defunct groups (M = 15.04, SD = 11.67) (t(83) = 7.48, p < .001); H3 was thus supported, suggesting that older groups had a greater likelihood of survival than younger groups. To test the rest of the hypotheses, all the variables were entered in the Cox regression model. The results revealed that the number of other Meetup groups existing within a radius of 25 miles (H2) (B = .953, p = .058), with a not-for-profit orientation (H4) (B = −1.614, p < .001), leadership team (B = −1.094, p < .05), the experience of leadership change (H5) (B = −1.455, p < .01), and external ties (H6) (B = −1.935, p < .001) significantly influenced group survival (see Table 1). In other words, proximity to other Meetup groups increased the probability of group closure. On the other hand, a not-for profit orientation, the existence of a leadership team with the experience of leadership change, and possession of external ties reduced the probability of group closure. Member requirement was not a significant predictor of survival time (H1) (B = .197, p > .10). Hence, all hypotheses, with the single exception of H1, were supported. Due to space limitations, the survival function (a graphical representation of the cumulative survival distribution) is not shown in the paper. Based on the survival function, at the mean of the predictors, the survival rates of a group at 1-year, 2-year, and 3-year thresholds were 88%, 73%, and 65%, respectively.
|Model 1||Model 2|
|Local Population Size||−.077||.615||.926||.025||.908||1.025|
|Density I (log)a||.953||.058||2.592|
|Density II (log)||−.724||.120||.485|
|Leadership Change (lagged)b||−1.455||.001||.233|
Does, then, the evolutionary process of Meetup groups at the population level reflect the V-S-R mechanisms (RQb)? The above-noted results suggest that it does. Specifically, variations were observed to occur in different dimensions, including group niche, population density, group age, group type, leadership factors, and network configurations. Over time, older and not-for-profit groups living under low-population density, surviving with a leadership team with an experience of leadership change, and maintaining external ties with other groups or organizations (be they inside or outside the population of Meetup groups), were more likely to be selected and retained within the population of Meetup groups. A visualization was drawn using NetDraw (Figure 1), which illustrated that local businesses were the most-cited source of external ties by surviving groups, followed by local nonprofit organizations, national and international nonprofit organizations, and local voluntary organizations. Within Meetup.com, groups with goals such as socializing, pursuit of hobbies, and sports and recreation were common targets for collaboration.
The Evolutionary Process of Meetup Groups
Analysis of interview data revealed the evolutionary processes of groups (RQa). Specifically, the V-S-R mechanisms were represented in different aspects of internal group processes as well as external interaction with the environment. When a group was first created, organizers focused mainly on recruitment and advertising; the strategies they used included a combination of traditional word-of-mouth and unique online search affordances. For example, an organizer of a philosophy group (MDThinkGroup 1) described his multimodal advertising efforts:
I know when I talk with them, they, of course, I tell them about my group and a lot of groups and a lot of people join, ‘cause we do some cool things. So, just pretty much, other than the Meetup page, I've talked to people at other Meetup groups.
As groups developed, the strategies that organizers found initially useful might be selected and retained as part of organizing routines, or subjected to later modifications. The organizer of a walk group (MIWalkGroup) mentioned that instead of actively contacting prospective members through numerous e-mails, she later relied on the search function provided on Meetup.com to do the work for her to attract members. It appears that the technological affordances of search engines played a pivotal role in determining the niche a group could occupy in the population. The organizer of a social philosophy group (OHThinkGroup) mentioned the effect of online search engine functionality on the growth of the group:
And the bigger we get, the easier it is to search us. Because more and more people talk
about the group, then they find Meetup and they keep using words that will pull out
for a search engine. And that makes it easier for people to then find our group through
these words that they use. They don't even realize they're doing it.
Different organizing structures took shape, depending on the nature of group topic. In groups with focused activities (e.g., concert going or rock climbing), help from assistant organizers was minimal, since the organizer could easily handle the planning and organizing work. In groups whose activities were diverse (e.g., social groups), organizers used the expertise of their assistant organizers in a variety of ways. If no help was available from inside the group, organizers would solicit help from their personal networks, such as workplace colleagues or friends, at least to generate ideas for events. It is worth mentioning that among the 34 participating organizers, 17 were not the originators of their groups. Yet, thanks to the selected and retained strategies, those groups were able to sustain themselves with routine self-organizing accomplished by several assistant organizers, even when the organizer left.
It seems that the personal relationships that were observed to develop among members might have served as a motivation for members to continue participating in group activity. As some organizers pointed out, though, these relationships sometimes led to a shift of communication and activity away from the group level to a smaller and more private level—these members no longer attended group meetings. In response to this issue, organizers sometimes created subgroup activities. For example, members of a women's social group (ORWSocialGroup) organized among themselves a separate dancing Meetup group. The organizer of a language group (CAESLGroup) witnessed this pattern in her group, but she chose to refrain from responding to it.
Organizers reported that they were well received in local venues, and some groups were actively sought out by local businesses. It was not uncommon for local establishments to reserve meeting space for groups or provide them with group discounts. An organizer of a new technology group (COTechGroup) had local businesses that reached him through Meetup.com serve as group sponsors. Relationships with these businesses varied in nature; depending on the group, the connection might turn out to be a one-time business transaction, with no deeper ties cultivated.
Certain groups organized joint events with other Meetup groups on the basis of direct mutual ties. That is, if multiple Meetup groups shared organizers or assistant organizers, these individuals would either cross-post events on both groups’ pages or organize events together. Locale and characteristics of the group also played a part in the initiation and implementation of joint events. For example, an organizer of a classics book club (MIBookGroup) mentioned that she was welcomed by the local community and was contacted by local organizations (e.g., the library). Another organizer of an adventure group (MIADGroup) described her personal links with other local cultural groups that facilitated intergroup links:
I go to the tabling events that all the clubs and organizations have every year, which is
how I found them. And then because they're closer to my age and they are just as
active – and basically invited them to some of the meetups, or we do our own thing with
In sum, findings from the interviews suggest that Meetup group organizers engaged in V-S-R processes at different stages of group development to build and strengthen the fitness of the group. At the group-formation stage, online and offline recruitment efforts were made; later, connections for logistic arrangements were built both within and outside of the group. In turn, these connections resulted in various advantages and disadvantages: group transition as a result of leadership change, formation of subgroup activities and/or spin-off groups due to the development of personal relationships, joint events with other groups, and interaction with local communities.
- Top of page
- The Ecological and Evolutionary Perspective
Applying an ecological and evolutionary perspective to understand the growth, survival, and disbanding of mixed-mode groups, this study extends the existing evolutionary research, which mainly treats formal and well-structured organizations, to the domain of technology-mediated voluntary associations. There are similarities between the ecological and evolutionary processes of mixed-mode groups and those that have been previously studied. For example, results of age-dependence and group survival are consistent with the prediction of “liability of newness” as explored in work and traditional face-to-face voluntary organizations (e.g., Fernandez, 2008; Hager, Galaskiewicz, & Larson, 2004). The positive effects of shared leadership and leadership change on survival of mixed-mode groups are also reported in existing studies on work organizations (e.g., Carson et al., 2007; Mehra et al., 2006; Rowe et al., 2005).
Consistent with research demonstrating the usefulness of institutional embeddedness and interorganizational linkages for organizational survival (Baum et al., 2000; Selle & Øymyr, 1992), this study's findings point to the key role played by external ties in the growth and survival of mixed-mode groups at group and population levels. Specifically, the network visualization shown in Figure 1 demonstrates that Meetup groups tend to have interorganizational links with other Meetup groups as well as with local organizations; these links can provide sources of networking and collaboration and contribute to group survival. Similarly, analysis of the interview data also suggests that group organizers engage in different ways to build and strengthen their fitness over time through cooperation with other Meetup groups, as well as by interacting with local establishments and the community. This study enriches the ecological and evolutionary perspective by considering the technological affordances of mixed-mode communication and organizing. That is, the environment of those Meetup groups can take both online and offline forms, from which groups build and maintain their communication infrastructures and acquire resources for operation.
In fact, the result of a nonsignificant effect of group niches (measured by member requirements for group topics) on survival raises the question of the applicability of the measures used in existing ecological and evolutionary research to mixed-mode groups. Niche refers to the varied capacities that organizations or populations possess to procure resources and exploit these resources in the environment (McKelvey, 1982; McPherson, 1983; Popielarz & Neal, 2007). Future research is needed to provide a more fine-grained conceptual and methodological approach to investigating the multimodal resource environment of mixed-mode groups. For example, search engines were commonly mentioned by interviewed organizers as a useful mechanism for deciding how groups attract potential members. It suggests that niches of a mixed-mode group may be better measured by group topics as well as the online searchable range within which a group can recruit members.
The advantage of the ecological and evolutionary perspective is its ability to explain phenomena using the same theoretical process at different levels (Monge et al., 2008). The cross-level conceptualization also allows for the investigation of V-S-R processes enacted within and outside the organization (Aldrich & Ruef, 2006; Monge et al., 2011a). Interview data revealed that Meetup group organizers were involved with different aspects of group development, including recruitment, leadership issues, and choice and location of activities. In other words, group organizers play a pivotal role in influencing the internal evolutionary process of the group. Indeed, as Miner (1994) points out, an organizational manager's job is to monitor how the evolutionary processes at the higher level affect the whole organization, and to influence the internal evolutionary process. The behavior of the Meetup group organizers under study exemplified this description.
In response to a call for more efforts to make the level of analysis as explicit and inclusive as possible (Monge & Contractor, 2003), this study used a mixed approach of interviews and archived group data, which afforded me the ability to articulate which level of the ecosystem is being investigated. Regarding group disbanding, cost was a major reason singled out by a number of participating organizers leading to the decision for group closure. For example, two organizers (NJPRGroup & NMChannelingGroup) explained that they closed their groups on Meetup.com because they did not find a Meetup presence helped achieve their set goals to recruit new members to their existing business activities. Another organizer of a sports watching group (COSportsGroup) mentioned that her group migrated to Facebook, another population of mixed-mode groups, because it costs nothing, whereas she paid the subscription fees to Meetup.com as the single organizer of her group. The traits of these “less fit” individual groups may together reflect the niche attributes at the population level of Meetup.com. It can be argued that Meetup.com is carving out its macropopulation niche and coexists with other free-of-charge populations of mixed-mode groups, such as Facebook and BigTent, in the larger environment. Further, the selection event of group closure on Meetup.com and group creation in another population can be described as a cross-level V-S-R process, because the selection at the lower group level reflects the adaptations and transformations at the higher level of populations (Monge et al., 2011b).
On the basis of this multilevel conceptualization of evolutionary processes, future research might examine how different populations of mixed-mode groups interact with each other in the form of commensalism; that is, how organizations or groups from similar populations engage in competition and/or cooperation with one another (Aldrich & Ruef, 2006; Monge & Contractor, 2003). Another avenue of inquiry might be the phenomenon of group migration among similar (e.g., from Meetup.com to Facebook) or dissimilar populations (i.e. from Meetup.com to a business networking website) as this would provide insight into the evolutionary dynamic at group, population, and community levels.
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This study is limited in three ways. First, analyses from interviews and archived data did not differentiate the reasons for group decline and closure; caution should thus be used when interpreting the results. Second, because the study drew on interviews with group organizers using Meetup.com, findings may be biased, as the participating organizers were likely to be successful organizers. Extra efforts were made, however, to prompt the organizers to share their thoughts about the less active groups they organized. Third, the evolution of Meetup groups may not adequately represent the general phenomenon of mixed-mode groups. Future research would do well to encompass different populations of mixed-mode groups.
Despite these shortcomings, this study makes a major contribution to the understanding of the sustainability of mixed-mode groups by viewing the issue through an ecological and evolutionary lens. Overall, the results of this study are convergent with existing research on organizational ecology and evolution, suggesting that factors such as population density, group age, profit orientation, leadership, and external links are vital to predicting the survival of mixed-mode groups. The cross-level conceptualization allows for interpretation that the V-S-R processes can take place across group and population levels. Most importantly, considering technological affordances of mixed-mode communication and organizing, this study sheds light on the role of technology in facilitating the organization of voluntary associations in different phases of evolution, such as the effortless accomplishment of online recruitment and the initiation of collaboration with other groups and organizations, be they online or offline. The growing use of the Internet for face-to-face and geographically-defined grouping activities demands that the phenomenon of mixed-mode groups will both garner attention and spur future research.
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The author would like to thank James Katz, Marya Doerfel, Jennifer Gibbs, and two anonymous reviewers for their most helpful comments and invaluable feedback on the earlier drafts of this manuscript
These 100 groups were randomly selected from the database of all the ongoing groups listed under Meetup.com when the request was made.
The assumption that groups coded with no leadership team had no leadership team before was based on a pilot study observing another 12 Meetup groups over 8 months.
Groups and organizations involved in group events were defined as external ties. In total, 22 types of external ties were identified, including academic organization, local business, state/national/international business, individuals, media organization, Meetup social group, Meetup art and entertainment group, Meetup business and career group, Meetup cultures and languages group, Meetup education group, Meetup hobbies group, Meetup parenting and family group, Meetup religion and beliefs group, Meetup sports and recreation group, local non-profit organization, state non-profit organization, national/international non-profit organization, political organization, public agency, local voluntary organization, state voluntary organization, and national/international voluntary organization.
Local population size was further classified based on the four categories of metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) (http://www.census.gov/population/www/metroareas/mastand.html), that is, Level A MSAs corresponding with 1 million or more local population, Level B MSAs with 250,000 to 999,999, Level C MSAs with 100,000 to 249,999, and Level D MSAs with less than 100,000. The locale data related to the 100 random groups represent 42% of Level D MSAs, 18% of Level C, 23% of Level B, and 17% of Level A.
External ties, leadership team and leadership change (in lagged form) variables were analyzed as covariates representing “state” in the Cox regression model. These variables were meant to indicate whether a group has ever experienced the target event, that is, whether a group has constructed an external tie, has shared leadership, or has experienced leadership change over the course of group development. Thus they were not recorded at various points in time. Two assumptions related to Cox regression analysis were tested. First, squared multiple correlations (SMC) were conducted to check for evidence of multicollinearity. No SMC exceeded the recommended threshold of .90 (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2001); thus it was concluded that the variables under study were nonredundant. The assumption of proportional hazards required in the Cox regression model was also tested by adding to the model interaction of time with all the variables, and then assessing the effect of these interactions (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2001). None of the covariates significantly interacted with time. Hence, it was considered that the assumption of proportionality was not violated. Tabachnick, B. G., & Fidell, L. S. (2001). Using multivariate statistics (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Please refer to the author's other paper for more details about the implementation of purposive sampling and details about these interviewed groups. Lai, C.–H. (2014). Understanding the evolution of bona fide mixed-mode groups: An example of Meetup groups.First Monday, 19(1). Available at: http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4681/3810
In addition to the 30 interviews, three other interviews were completed via email upon the participants' request, and one face-to-face interview was performed without the use of the recording device due to ambient interruptions.
The interview protocol and the coding categories are available upon request.
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