An online community is a virtual community whose members interact with each other primarily via the Internet. For many, online communities may feel like home, consisting of a "family of invisible friends". Those who wish to be a part of an online community usually have to become a member via a specific site and necessarily need an internet connection. An online community can act as an information system where members can post, comment on discussions, give advice or collaborate. Commonly, people communicate through social networking sites, chat rooms, forums, e-mail lists and discussion boards. People may also join online communities through video games, blogs and virtual worlds.
Constance Elise Porter from the University of Notre Dame in a paper entitled A Typology of Virtual Communities: A Multi-Disciplinary Foundation for Future Research offers this definition: "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 idea of a community is not a new concept. On the telephone, in ham radio and in the online world, social interactions no longer have to be based on proximity; instead they can literally be with anyone anywhere. The study of communities has had to adapt along with the new technologies. Many researchers have used ethnography to attempt to understand what people do in online spaces, how they express themselves, what motivates them, how they govern themselves, what attracts them, and why some people prefer to observe rather than participate. Online communities can congregate around a shared interest and can be spread across multiple websites.
Some signs of community are:
There is a set of values known as netiquette (or Internet etiquette) to consider as an online community develops. Some of these values include: opportunity, education, culture, democracy, human services, equality within the economy, information, sustainability, and communication. An online community's purpose is to serve as a common ground for people who share the same interest(s).
Online communities may be used as calendars to keep up with events such as upcoming gatherings or sporting events. They also form around activities and hobbies. Many online communities relating to health care help inform, advise and support patients and their families. Students can take classes online and they may communicate with their professors and peers online. Businesses have also started using online communities to communicate with their customers about their products and services as well as to share information about the business. Other online communities allow a wide variety of professionals to come together to share thoughts, ideas and theories.
Fandom is an example of what online communities can evolve into. Online communities have grown in influence in "shaping the phenomena around which they organize" according to Nancy K. Baym's work. She says that: "More than any other commercial sector, the popular culture industry relies on online communities to publicize and provide testimonials for their products." The strength of the online community's power is displayed through the season 3 premiere of BBC's Sherlock. Online activity by fans seem to have had a noticeable influence on the plot and direction of the season opening episode. Mark Lawson of The Guardian recounts how fans have, to a degree, directed the outcome of the events of the episode. He says that "Sherlock has always been one of the most web-aware shows, among the first to find a satisfying way of representing electronic chatter on-screen."
Discussions where members may post their feedback are essential in the development of an online community. Online communities may encourage individuals to come together to teach and learn from one another. They may encourage learners to discuss and learn about real-world problems/situations as well as focus on such things as teamwork, collaborative thinking and personal experiences.
Online communities are dynamic by nature and there are researchers and organizations working to classify them. For example, it is important to know the security, access, and technology requirements of a given type of community as it may evolve from an open to a private and regulated forum. A number of authors have studied online communities to better understand how they are structured. It has been argued that the technical aspects of online communities, such as whether pages can be created and edited by many, as is the case with wikis including Wikipedia, or whether only certain users can post entries and edit them, as is the case with most blogs, can place online communities into stylistic categories. Another approach argues that "online community" is a metaphor and that contributors actively negotiate the meaning of the term, including values and social norms.
Some research has looked at the users of online communities. Amy Jo Kim has classified the rituals and stages of online community interaction and called it the 'Membership life cycle'. Clay Shirky talks about community of practice whose members collaborate and help each other in order to make something better or improve a certain skill. What makes these communities bond is "love" of something as demonstrated by members who go out of their way to help without any financial interest. Campbell et al. developed a character theory for analyzing online communities, based on tribal typologies. In the communities they investigated they identified three character types:
A 2001 McKinsey & Company study showed that only 2% of transaction site customers returned after their first purchase, while 60% of new online communities users began using and visiting the sites regularly after their first experiences. Online communities have changed the game for retail firms, forcing them to change their business strategies. Companies have to network more, adjust computations, and alter their organizational structures. This leads to changes in a company's communications with their manufacturers including the information shared and made accessible for further productivity and profits. Because consumers and customers in all fields are becoming accustomed to more interaction and engagement online, adjustments must be considered made in order to keep audiences intrigued.
It may be beneficial to introduce a term described by Ray Oldenberg called a third place to help classify online communities. A "third place is a generic designation for a great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realm of home and work" (Oldenburg, p. 16). An online community can take on the role of a third place. Third places have characteristics that many online communities exhibit, for example: they provide neutral ground for all parties; they are levelers, easily accessible and highly accommodating; conversation is the main activity; they allow people to keep a low profile, and a few others. While these may be characteristics to help classify online communities, they may not all apply to a specific online community nor does an online community need to embody each of these characteristics.
The four requirements of "virtual settlement" include: interactivity, a variety of communicators, a common public place where members can meet and interact, and sustained membership over time. Based on these considerations, it can be said that microblogs such as Twitter can be classified as online communities.
According to Dorine C. Andrews, author of Audience-Specific Online Community Design there are three parts to building an online community: starting the online community, encouraging early online interaction, and moving to a self-sustaining interactive environment. When starting an online community, it may be effective to create webpages that appeal to specific interests. Online communities with clear topics and easy access tend to be most effective. In order to gain early interaction by members, privacy guarantees and content discussions are very important. Successful online communities tend to be able to function self-sufficiently.
There are two major types of participation in online communities: public participation and non-public participation, also called lurking. Lurkers are participants who join a virtual community but do not contribute. In contrast, public participants, or posters, are those who join virtual communities and openly express their beliefs and opinions. Both lurkers and posters frequently enter communities to find answers and to gather general information. For example, there are several online communities dedicated to technology. In these communities, posters are generally experts in the field who can offer technological insight and answer questions, while lurkers tend to be technological novices who use the communities to find answers and to learn.
In general, virtual community participation is influenced by how participants view themselves in society as well as norms, both of society and of the online community. Participants also join online communities for friendship and support. In a sense, virtual communities may fill social voids in participants' offline lives.
Sociologist Barry Wellman presents the idea of "globalization" – the Internet's ability to extend participants' social connections to people around the world while also aiding them in further engagement with their local communities.
An article entitled "The real value of on-line communities," written by A Armstrong and J Hagel of the Harvard Business Review, addresses a handful of elements that are key to the growth of an online community and its success in drawing in members. In this example, the article which was available on mendeley.com focuses specifically on online communities related to business, but its points can be transferred and can apply to any online community. The article addresses four main categories of business-based online communities, but states that a truly successful one will combine qualities of each of them: communities of transaction, communities of interest, communities of fantasy, and communities of relationship. Anubhav Choudhury, from incrediblogger.net, provides basic descriptions of each of these four types of online communities.
Amy Jo Kim's membership lifecycle states that members of online communities begin their life in a community as visitors, or lurkers. After breaking through a barrier, people become novices and participate in community life. After contributing for a sustained period of time they become regulars. If they break through another barrier they become leaders, and once they have contributed to the community for some time they become elders. This life cycle can be applied to many virtual communities, most obviously to bulletin board systems, but also to blogs, mailing lists (list serve) and wiki-based communities like Wikipedia.
A similar model can be found in the works of Lave and Wenger, who illustrate a cycle of how users become incorporated into virtual communities using the principles of legitimate peripheral participation. They suggest five types of trajectories amongst a learning community:
The following shows the correlation between the learning trajectories and Web 2.0 community participation by using the example of YouTube.
Peripheral (Lurker) – Observing the community and viewing content. Does not add to the community content or discussion. The user occasionally goes onto YouTube.com to check out a video that someone has directed them to.
Inbound (Novice) – Just beginning to engage the community. Starts to provide content. Tentatively interacts in a few discussions. The user comments on other user's videos. Potentially posts a video of his or her own.
Insider (Regular) – Consistently adds to the community discussion and content. Interacts with other users. Regularly posts videos. Either videos they have found or made themselves. Makes a concerted effort to comment and rate other users' videos.
Boundary (Leader) – Recognized as a veteran participant. Connects with regulars to make higher concepts ideas. Community grants their opinion greater consideration. The user has become recognized as a contributor to watch. Possibly their videos are podcasts commenting on the state of YouTube and its community. The user would not consider watching another user's videos without commenting on them. Will often correct a user in behavior the community considers inappropriate. Will reference other user's videos in their comments as a way to cross link content.
Outbound (Elders) – Leave the community. Their interests may have changed, the community may have moved in a direction that they don't agree with or they may no longer have time to maintain a constant presence in the community.
Newcomers are important for online communities. Online communities rely on volunteers' contribution, and most online communities face high turnover rate as one of their main challenges. For example, only a minority of Wikipedia users contribute regularly, and only a minority of those contributors participate in community discussions. In one study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University, they found that "more than two-thirds (68%) of newcomers to Usenet groups were never seen again after their first post". Above facts reflect a point that recruiting and remaining new members have become a very crucial problem for online communities: the communities will eventually wither away without replacing members who leave.
Newcomers are new members of the online communities and thus often face many barriers when contributing to a project, and those barriers they face might lead them to give up the project or even leave the community. By conducting a systematic literature review over 20 primary studies regarding to the barriers faced by newcomers when contributing to the open source software projects, Steinmacher et al. identified 15 different barriers and they classified those barriers into five categories as described below.
Because of the barriers described above, it is very necessary that online communities engage newcomers and help them to adjust to the new environment. From online communities' side, new comers can be both beneficial and harmful to online communities. On the one side, newcomers can bring online communities innovative ideas and resources. On the other side, their misbehavior caused by lack experiences can be also harmful to communities. Kraut et al. defined five basic issues faced by online communities when dealing with newcomers, and proposed several design claims for each problem in their book Building Successful Online Communities.
Although online societies differ in content from real society, the roles people assume in their online communities are quite similar. Elliot Volkman points out several categories of people that play a role in the cycle of social networking, these include:
Successful online communities motivate online participation. Methods of motivating participation in these communities have been investigated in several studies.
There are many persuasive factors that draw users into online communities. Peer-to-peer systems and social networking sites rely heavily on member contribution. Users' underlying motivations to involve themselves in these communities have been linked to some persuasion theories of sociology.
One of the greatest attractions towards online communities is the sense of connection users build among members. Participation and contribution are influenced when members of an online community are aware of their global audience.
The majority of people learn by example and often follow others, especially when it comes to participation. Individuals are reserved about contributing to an online community for many reasons including but not limited to a fear of criticism or inaccuracy. Users may withhold information that they don't believe is particularly interesting, relevant, or truthful. In order to challenge these contribution barriers, producers of these sites are responsible for developing knowledge-based and foundation-based trust among the community.
Users' perception of audience is another reason that makes users participate in online communities. Results showed that users usually underestimate their amount of audiences in online communities. Social media users guess that their audience is 27% of its real size. Regardless of this underestimation, it is shown that amount of audience affect users to self-presentation and also content production which means a higher level of participation.
There are two types of virtual online communities (VOC): dependent and self-sustained VOCs. The dependent VOCs are those who use the virtual community as extensions of themselves, they interact with people they know. Self-sustained VOCs are communities where relationships between participating members is formed and maintained through encounters in the online community. For all VOCs, there is the issue of creating identity and reputation in the community. People can create whatever identity they would like to through their interactions with other members. The username is what members identify each other by but it says very little about the person behind it. The main features in online communities that attract people are a shared communication environment, relationships formed and nurtured, a sense of belonging to a group, the internal structure of the group, common space shared by people with similar ideas and interests. The three most critical issues are belonging, identity, and interest. For an online community to flourish there needs to be consistent participation, interest, and motivation.
Research conducted by Helen Wang applied the Technology Acceptance Model to online community participation. Internet self-efficacy positively predicted perceived ease of use. Research found that participants' beliefs in their abilities to use the internet and web-based tools determined how much effort was expected. Community environment positively predicted perceived ease of use and usefulness. Intrinsic motivation positively predicted perceived ease of use, usefulness, and actual use. The technology acceptance model positively predicts how likely it is that an individual will participate in an online community.
Establishing a relationship between the consumer and a seller has become a new science with the emergence of online communities. It is a new market to be tapped by companies and to do so, requires an understanding of the relationships built on online communities. Online communities gather people around common interests and these common interests can include brands, products, and services. Companies not only have a chance to reach a new group of consumers in online communities, but to also tap into information about the consumers. Companies have a chance to learn about the consumers in an environment that they feel a certain amount of anonymity and are thus, more open to allowing a company to see what they really want or are looking for.
In order to establish a relationship with the consumer a company must seek a way to identify with how individuals interact with the community. This is done by understanding the relationships an individual has with an online community. There are six identifiable relationship statuses: considered status, committed status, inactive status, faded status, recognized status, and unrecognized status. Unrecognized status means the consumer is unaware of the online community or has not decided the community to be useful. The recognized status is where a person is aware of the community, but is not entirely involved. A considered status is when a person begins their involvement with the site. The usage at this stage is still very sporadic. The committed status is when a relationship between a person and an online community is established and the person gets fully involved with the community. The inactive status is when an online community has not relevance to a person. The faded status is when a person has begun to fade away from a site. It is important to be able to recognize which group or status the consumer holds, because it might help determine which approach to use.
Companies not only need to understand how a consumer functions within an online community, but also a company "should understand the communality of an online community" This means a company must understand the dynamic and structure of the online community to be able to establish a relationship with the consumer. Online communities have cultures of their own, and to be able to establish a commercial relationship or even engage at all, one must understand the community values and proprieties. It has even been proved beneficial to treat online commercial relationships more as friendships rather than business transactions.
Through online engagement, because of the smoke screen of anonymity, it allows a person to be able to socially interact with strangers in a much more personal way. This personal connection the consumer feels translates to how they want to establish relationships online. They separate what is commercial or spam and what is relational. Relational becomes what they associate with human interaction while commercial is what they associate with digital or non-human interaction. Thus the online community should not be viewed as "merely a sales channel". Instead it should be viewed as a network for establishing interpersonal communications with the consumer.
Most online communities grow slowly at first, due in part to the fact that the strength of motivation for contributing is usually proportional to the size of the community. As the size of the potential audience increases, so does the attraction of writing and contributing. This, coupled with the fact that organizational culture does not change overnight, means creators can expect slow progress at first with a new virtual community. As more people begin to participate, however, the aforementioned motivations will increase, creating a virtuous cycle in which more participation begets more participation.
Community adoption can be forecast with the Bass diffusion model, originally conceived by Frank Bass to describe the process by which new products get adopted as an interaction between innovative early adopters and those who follow them.
Online learning is a form of online community. The sites are designed to educate. Colleges and universities may offer many of their classes online to their students; this allows each student to take the class at his or her own pace.
According to an article published in volume 21, issue 5 of the European Management Journal titled "Learning in Online Forums", researchers conducted a series of studies about online learning. They found that while good online learning is difficult to plan, it is quite conducive to educational learning. Online learning can bring together a diverse group of people, and although it is asynchronous learning, if the forum is set up using all the best tools and strategies, it can be very effective.
Another study was published in volume 55, issue 1 of Computers and Education and found results supporting the findings of the article mentioned above. The researchers found that motivation, enjoyment, and team contributions on learning outcomes enhanced students learning and that the students felt they learned well with it. A study published in the same journal looks at how social networking can foster individual well-being and develop skills which can improve the learning experience.
These articles look at a variety of different types of online learning. They suggest that online learning can be quite productive and educational if created and maintained properly.
One feature of online communities is that they are not constrained by time thereby giving members the ability to move through periods of high to low activity over a period of time. This dynamic nature maintains a freshness and variety that traditional methods of learning might not have been able to provide.
It appears that online communities such as Wikipedia have become a source of professional learning. They are an active learning environment in which learners converse and inquire.
In a study exclusive to teachers in online communities, results showed that membership in online communities provided teachers with a rich source of professional learning that satisfied each member of the community.
Saurabh Tyagi describes benefits of online community learning which include:
These terms are taken from Edudemic, a site about teaching and learning. The article "How to Build Effective Online Learning Communities" provides background information about online communities as well as how to incorporate learning within an online community.
Online health communities is one example of online communities which is heavily used by internet users. A key benefit of online health communities is providing user access to other users with similar problems or experiences which has a significant impact on the lives of their members. Through people participation, online health communities will be able to offer patients opportunities for emotional support and also will provide them access to experience-based information about particular problem or possible treatment strategies. Even in some studies, it is shown that users find experienced-based information more relevant than information which was prescribed by professionals. Moreover, allowing patients to collaborate anonymously in some of online health communities suggests users a non-judgmental environment to share their problems, knowledge, and experiences.
Online communities are relatively new and unexplored areas. They promote a whole new community that prior to the Internet was not available. Although they can promote a vast array of positive qualities, such as relationships without regard to race, religion, gender, or geography, they can also lead to multiple problems.
The theory of risk perception, an uncertainty in participating in an online community, is quite common, particularly when in the following online circumstances:
Clay Shirky explains one of these problems like two hoola-hoops. With the emersion of online communities there is a "real life" hoola-hoop and the other and "online life". These two hoops used to be completely separate but now they have swung together and overlap. The problem with this overlap is that there is no distinction anymore between face-to-face interactions and virtual ones; they are one in the same. Shirky illustrates this by explaining a meeting. A group of people will sit in a meeting but they will all be connected into a virtual world also, using online communities such as wiki.
A further problem is identity formation with the ambiguous real-virtual life mix. Identity formation in the real world consisted of "one body, one identity", but the online communities allow you to create "as many electronic personae" as you please. This can lead to identity deception. Claiming to be someone you're not can be problematic with other online community users and for yourself. Creating a false identity can cause confusion and ambivalence about which identity is true.
A lack of trust regarding personal or professional information is problematic with questions of identity or information reciprocity. Often, if information is given to another user of an online community, one expects equal information shared back. However, this may not be the case or the other user may use the information given in harmful ways. The construction of an individual's identity within an online community requires self-presentation. Self-presentation is the act of "writing the self into being", in which a person's identity is formed by what that person says, does, or shows. This also poses a potential problem as such self-representation is open for interpretation as well as misinterpretation. While an individual's online identity can be entirely constructed with a few of his/her own sentences, perceptions of this identity can be entirely misguided and incorrect.
Online communities present the problems of preoccupation, distraction, detachment, and desensitization to an individual, although online support groups exist now. Online communities do present potential risks, and users must remember to be careful and remember that just because an online community feels safe does not mean it necessarily is.
The most common problem with online communities tend to be online harassment, meaning threatening or offensive content aimed at known friends or strangers through ways of online technology. Where such posting is done "for the lulz" (that is, for the fun of it), then it is known as trolling. Sometimes trolling is done in order to harm others for the gratification of the person posting. The primary motivation for such posters, known in character theory as "snerts", is the sense of power and exposure it gives them. Online harassment tends to affect adolescents the most due to their risk-taking behavior and decision-making processes. One notable example is that of Natasha MacBryde who was tormented by Sean Duffy, who was later prosecuted. In 2010, Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old New Yorker committed suicide. Trolls pounced on her tribute page posting insensitive and hurtful images of nooses and other suicidal symbolism. Four years prior to that an 18-year-old died in a car crash in California. Trolls took images of her disfigured body they found on the internet and used them to torture the girl's grieving parents. Psychological research has shown that anonymity increases unethical behavior through what is called the online disinhibition effect. Many website and online communities have attempted to combat trolling. There has not been a single effective method to discourage anonymity, and arguments exist claiming that removing Internet users' anonymity is an intrusion of their privacy and violates their right to free speech. Julie Zhou, writing for the New York Times, comments that "There's no way to truly rid the Internet of anonymity. After all, names and e-mail addresses can be faked. And in any case many commenters write things that are rude or inflammatory under their real names". Thus, some trolls don't even bother to hide their actions and take pride in their behavior. The rate of reported online harassment has been increasing as there has been a 50% increase in accounts of youth online harassment from the years 2000–2005.
Another form of harassment prevalent online is called flaming. According to a study conducted by Peter J. Moor, flaming is defined as displaying hostility by insulting, swearing or using otherwise offensive language. Flaming can be done in either a group style format (the comments section on YouTube) or in a one-on-one format (private messaging on Facebook). Several studies have shown that flaming is more apparent in computer mediated conversation than in face to face interaction. For example, a study conducted by Kiesler et al. found that people who met online judged each other more harshly than those who met face to face. The study goes on to say that the people who communicated by computer "felt and acted as though the setting was more impersonal, and their behavior was more uninhibited. These findings suggest that computer-mediated communication ... elicits asocial or unregulated behavior".
Unregulated communities are established when online users communicate on a site although there are no mutual terms of usage. There is no regulator. Online interest groups or anonymous blogs are examples of unregulated communities.
Cyberbullying is also prominent online. Cyberbullying is defined as willful and repeated harm inflicted towards another through information technology mediums. Cyberbullying victimization has ascended to the forefront of the public agenda after a number of news stories came out on the topic. For example, Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide in 2010 after his roommate secretly filmed him in an intimate encounter and then streamed the video over the Internet. Numerous states, such as New Jersey, have created and passed laws that do not allow any sort of harassment on, near, or off school grounds that disrupts or interferes with the operation of the school or the rights of other students.
Trolling and cyber bullying in online communities are very difficult to stop for several reasons:
A lesser known problem is hazing within online communities. Members of an elite online community use hazing to display their power, produce inequality, and instill loyalty into newcomers. While online hazing doesn't inflict physical duress, "the status values of domination and subordination are just as effectively transmitted". Elite members of the in-group may haze by employing derogatory terms to refer to newcomers, using deception or playing mind games, or participating in intimidation, among other activities.
"[T]hrough hazing, established members tell newcomers that they must be able to tolerate a certain level of aggressiveness, grossness, and obnoxiousness in order to fit in and be accepted by the BlueSky community".
Online communities like social networking websites have a very unclear distinction between private and public information. For most social networks, users have to give personal information to add to their profiles. Usually, users can control what type of information other people in the online community can access based on the users familiarity with the people or the users level of comfort. These limitations are known as "privacy settings". Privacy settings bring up the question of how privacy settings and terms of service affect the expectation of privacy in social media. After all, the purpose of an online community is to share a common space with one another. Furthermore, it is hard to take legal action when a user feels that his or her privacy has been invaded because he or she technically knew what the online community entailed. Creator of the social networking site Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, noticed a change in users' behavior from when he first initiated Facebook. It seemed that "society's willingness to share has created an environment where privacy concerns are less important to users of social networks today than they were when social networking began". However even though a user might keep his or her personal information private, his or her activity is open to the whole web to access. When a user posts information to a site or comments or responds to information posted by others, social networking sites create a tracking record of the user's activity.
In the USA, two of the most important laws dealing with legal issues of online communities, especially social networking sites are Section 512c of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Section 512c removes liability for copyright infringement from sites that let users post content, so long as there is a way by which the copyright owner can request the removal of infringing content. The website may not receive any financial benefit from the infringing activities.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives protection from any liability as a result from the publication provided by another party. Common issues include defamation, but many courts have expanded it to include other claims as well.
Online communities of various kinds (social networking sites, blogs, media sharing sites, etc.) are posing new challenges for all levels of law enforcement in combating many kinds of crimes including harassment, identity theft, copyright infringement, etc.
Copyright law is being challenged and debated with the shift in how individuals now disseminate their intellectual property. Individuals come together via online communities in collaborative efforts to create. Many describe current copyright law as being ill-equipped to manage the interests of individuals or groups involved in these collaborative efforts. Some say that these laws may even discourage this kind of production.
Laws governing online behavior pose another challenge to lawmakers in that they must work to enact laws that protect the public without infringing upon their rights to free speech. Perhaps the most talked about issue of this sort is that of cyberbullying. Some scholars call for collaborative efforts between parents, schools, lawmakers, and law enforcement to curtail cyberbullying.
Laws must continually adapt to the ever-changing landscape of social media in all its forms; some legal scholars contend that lawmakers need to take an interdisciplinary approach to creating effective policy whether it is regulatory, for public safety, or otherwise. Experts in the social sciences can shed light on new trends that emerge in the usage of social media by different segments of society (including youths). Armed with this data, lawmakers can write and pass legislation that protect and empower various online community members.
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