Montag, 31. Dezember 2012

Why People Hang Out Online in Virtual Communities - Information Exchange, Support and Socializing

In this exploratory study, Ridings and Gefen (2004) investigate the reasons why people participate in virtual communities (here: bulletin boards). The term “virtual community” is definded as “groups of people with common interests and practices that communicate regularly and for some duration in an organized way over the Internet through a common location or mechanism.” A community member is anyone who participates in a community by either posting or reading messages regardless of frequency.

Motivations to join a (face-to-face) group

Research in social psychology has revealed different motivations for individuals to join traditional, face-­to-­face groups which can be extended to examine membership in virtual communities:
  • Exchange Theory/Interdependence Theory (Thibaut and Kelley, 1959): Humans have a need to belong and be affiliated with others, because groups provide individuals with a source of information; they help in achieving goals and give rewards.
  • Social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978; Turner, 1978, 1985): People form a social identity of values, attitudes and behavioural intentions from the perceived membership in distinct self­inclusive real or imagined social groups.
Information Exchange
The most frequently cited reason in the literature is to access information (Furlong, 1989; S. G. Jones, 1995; Wellman et al., 1996). What makes virtual communities special in this regard is the magnitude and impact of “weak ties,” i.e., relationships with acquaintances or strangers to obtain useful information through online networks (Constant, Sproull, & Kiesler, 1996). A virtual community can be an ideal place to ask relative strangers about information. Virtual communities tend to focus on very specific topics with relationships among members being mostly intended for information exchange about specific topics (Baym, 2000; Wellman and Gulia, 1999a).

Social Support Exchange
House (1981) offers a specific definition of social support: “a flow of emotional concern, instrumental aid, information, and/or appraisal (information relevant to self­ evaluation) between people”. Consistent with this definition, many studies suggest that virtual communities are places where people go to find emotional support, sense of belonging, and encouragement, in addition to instrumental aid (Furlong, 1989; Hiltz, 1984; Hiltz and Wellman, 1997; Korenman and Wyatt, 1996; M. A. Smith, 1999; Sproull and Faraj, 1997; Wellman, 1996; Wellman et al., 1996). Indeed, the structure of the Internet, with its searching capabilities and various virtual community forums, makes it easier to find others in similar situations and get emotional support, social support, a sense of belonging and companionship (Wellman & Gulia, 1999a).

The feeling of being together and being a member of a group of friends comes with the notions of being part of a group, spending time together, companionship, socializing, and networking. Friendship in this context is about the value of being together, unlike social support that deals with seeking emotional help or helping others. While friendships may also provide information and social support, seeking these exchanges does not necessarily indicate the desire for friendship. Research shows that people use the Internet to contact others with similar interests simply for the purpose of making friends and “hanging out” together (Parks and Floyd, 1995; Rosson, 1999).

Another reason why people participate in virtual communities is the recreation they provide. The use of the Internet in general has become a new form of recreation similar to that of watching TV (Jackson, 1999). Arguably, the entertainment value of the Internet applies to virtual communities as well (e.g.on  online gaming sites).

Method & Results

This research focused specifically on communities that interact using bulletin board technology. The study included only active communities with a minimum traffic volume, a minimum number of different users posting, and a high proportion of messages with responses. No effort was made to exclude lurkers as their behaviour was interpreted as silent but active participation. The 27/33 communities providing useful results were put into five broad categories:
  • heath/wellness, 
  • personal interests (hobbies), 
  • pets,
  • professional/occupational,
  • sport/recreation.
Participants were asked only one openended question about their reason for joining. Based on a literature review a priori to the data collection procedure, the above mentioned four categories of reasons were developed (information exchange, social support exchange, friendship, recreation and other). Two independent raters categorized the responses into the categories and they agreed that there were enough common themes to develop two additional categories (“common interest” and “technical reasons”). And these are the results: 
  • information exchange (257, 49.8%),
  • friendship (124, 24.0%),
  • social support exchange (56, 10.9%),
  • recreation (45, 8.7%),
  • technical reasons or common interest (9, 1.7%),
  • "other" [including original misspellings, punctuation and grammar errors, etc.]: (16, 3.1%) 
A closer look (Chi-square test) revealed an interesting aspect: The five types of communities above could be regrouped into two overall categories with
  • topics of importance beyond members' free choice (health and professional): Individuals also sought information in the first place but cited social support as the second most popular reason.
  • freely chosen topics of interest ([special] interest, pets, and recreation): Information exchange was cited most often with friendship being the second most popular reason.
Implications for community management
The authors suggest some practical recommendations for virtual community managers/community sponsors:
  • Mind your members' (co-)motivation because it might vary with the topic of the community. Although information is a strong motivation (for joining a bulletin board community!), social aspects like support or friendship are second in place, depending, so it seems, on whether the objective of the community is centered on members' freely chosen topics of interest (friendship) or whether it is centered on topics of importance beyond their free choice (support).
  • Facilitate the access to and the efficiency of information exchange: Here, several things can be done, e.g.:
    • Provide a clear structure/meaningfull naming for the community/sub-communities so that members can find the appropriate place for their posting — and therefore exchange information more efficiently. 
    • include advanced searching capabilities for locating specific threads of interest, 
    • provide additional links to non-­member­ generated material related to the community topic,
    • win  “experts” in a particular area to interact with community members on either a periodic or ongoing basis.
  • Ease the development of friendship and social support among community members:  The authors cited one member who mentioned that he liked the format of the particular community because he could see who responded to each post, and the simple fact of who responded told him a lot about the post. He also mentioned other communities he did not like as much because they were not constructed in this way. If this can be generalized, the display of the messages and replies, including the ID of the poster, could be important in building connections among members — connections that could lead to friendship. It would allow members to more easily identify conversations among their friends in the community. Other features of the community such as the ability to search for all posts by a particular member or access to member profiles could aid in friendship building.

(From: Ridings, C. M. and Gefen, D. (2004), Virtual Community Attraction: Why People Hang Out Online. Journal of Computer­Mediated Communication, 10: 00. doi: 10.1111/j.1083­6101.2004.tb00229.x, via Google Scholar)

Mittwoch, 26. Dezember 2012

Antecedents of Successful Virtual Communities

In this review paper, Anita L. Blanchard [1] ties together several studies on one of the most interesting issues in virtual community research: What makes a virtual community successful? Virtual community success is defined as the ability for the virtual community
  • to sustain itself while 
  • meeting its members’ needs and
  • maintaining member satisfaction within the community.

Objective indicators - the virtual settlement

Jones [2] argues that objective components of the community’s existence go hand in hand with its success forming a virtual settlement (A virtual settlement is distinct from a virtual community like buildings are distinct from a village. However, once a virtual settlement has been found one is likely to have identified a virtual community). The components of a virtual settlement are:
  • a minimal level of interactivity, 
  • by a variety of communicators,
  • with a minimum level of sustained membership, and 
  • interacting in a common public space. 

Social processes indicating a successful community

A different line of research enquires into the social processes which support the functioning of virtual communties such as
  • the exchange of socio-emotional and informational support between members,
  • the development of trust between members, 
  • the development of behavioural norms and their enforcement via
  • e-collaboration techniques.
Exchange of information and support
  • Organizational citizenship behaviour - Constant et al. (1997) [3] found that members who provide online help and support to others in a work virtual community are more likely to have a higher regard for and to be good citizens of the sponsoring work organization (organizational citizenship behavior = prosocial extra-role behavior that helps organizational functioning). 
  • Status/demonstration of expertise - Wasko & Faraj (2005) [4] have found that members provide information when it enhances their status and demonstrates their expertise.
Trust between members
The development and maintenance of trust is also very important in virtual communities (e.g., Boyd, 2002) [5] because deception is so easy online (Joinson & Dietz-Uhler, 2002) [6]. Social processes addressing this issue include having members interact using their own name and their “real” e-mail addresses, as well as following the history of member’s posts. One of the more successful modes for developing trust is when virtual community members meet face-to-face (Joinson, 2001; McKenna & Green, 2002) [7]. Even members who do not actually meet face-to-face but hear of others who do, believe that the group is more trustworthy (Blanchard & Markus, 2004) [8].

Behavioural norms
Norms of behaviour include topics of conversation and styles of conversation in the group. But what makes group members follow the norms? Spears & Lea (1992) [9] argue that virtual community members either identify as a member of the group (social identity is salient) or they identify as a unique individual within the group (individual identity is salient). Members are going to be more susceptible to group processes when their group identity is salient. Thus, the member's willingness to follow the group’s norms has to do with the salience of the group member’s social or individual identity.

E-collaboration technologies
Although the social processes in virtual communities are important, the technological features available for e-collaboration are clearly important, too.
  • Walther (1996, 1997) [10], for instance, has a rather deterministic approach neglecting social processes: If the technology is configured in a particular way, then a virtual community will likely develop upon it.
  • Markus (2005) [11] emphasizes the interaction between the social processes and the technology that affect virtual community success. According to this view technology does not cause behavior online, but certain technological features can support (or hinder) particular types of interaction, and, by extension, support (or hinder) the success of the virtual community.

[1] Blanchard, A. L. (2008). Definition, antecedents, and outcomes of successful virtual communities. Retrieved December, 15, 2009. Google Scholar.

[2] Jones, Q. (1997). Virtual‐Communities, Virtual Settlements & Cyber‐Archaeology: A Theoretical Outline. Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication, 3(3), 0-0. Google Scholar.

[3] Constant, David, Lee Sproull, and Sara Kiesler. "The kindness of strangers: The usefulness of electronic weak ties for technical advice." Organization science 7.2 (1996): 119-135. Google Scholar.

[4] Wasko, M. M., & Faraj, S. (2005). Why should I share? Examining social capital and knowledge contribution in electronic networks of practice. MIS quarterly, 35-57. Google Scholar.

[5] Boyd, J. (2002). In community we trust: Online security communication at eBay. Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication, 7(3), 0-0. Google Scholar.

[6] Joinson, A. N., & Dietz-Uhler, B. (2002). Explanations for the perpetration of and reactions to deception in a virtual community. Social Science Computer Review, 20(3), 275-289. Google Scholar.

[7] Joinson, A. N. (2001). Self‐disclosure in computer‐mediated communication: The role of self‐awareness and visual anonymity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31(2), 177-192. Google Scholar.

McKenna, K. Y., & Green, A. S. (2002). Virtual group dynamics. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 6(1), 116. Google Scholar.

[8] Blanchard, A. L., & Markus, M. L. (2004). The experienced sense of a virtual community: Characteristics and processes. ACM SIGMIS Database, 35(1), 64-79. Google Scholar.

[9] Spears, R., & Lea, M. (1992). Social influence and the influence of the'social'in computer-mediated communication. Harvester Wheatsheaf.

[10] Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication research, 23(1), 3-43. Google Scholar.

Walther, J. B. (1997). Group and interpersonal effects in interactional computer mediated collaboration. Human Communication Research, 23, 342-369. Google Scholar.

[11] Markus, M. L. (2005). Technology-shaping effects of e-collaboration technologies: Bugs and features. International Journal of e-Collaboration (IJeC), 1(1), 1-23. Google Scholar.

Mittwoch, 12. Dezember 2012

How firms might leverage online communities to create value for themselves

Porter & Donthu (2008) conducted an empirical study (using structural equation modeling techniques) aimed at providing quantitative evidence that explains how the efforts of a community sponsor might create value. In contrast to previous research that put the focus on the benefits that customers could derive from being a member of a sponsored community this study wants to reveal the benefits for the sponsor.

The central premise is that a virtual community’s value to a sponsoring firm depends on the sponsor’s ability to cultivate trust with the community members. In this model the community member's beliefs about and trust in a community sponsor are influenced by three exogenous key variables: the members' perception of the sponsor's efforts to
  • provide access to quality (= believability, accessibility, relevance, level of value-added) content (particularly content that is unbiased and controllable by customers), 
  • foster member embeddedness (e.g. granting members access to sponsor representatives, facilitating contact between the sponsor and members, providing customers with legitimate roles, and allowing members to influence community policies),
  • encourage member interaction (e.g. hosting moderated discussions).
Trust, then, will motivate members to 
  • share personal information with the community sponsor and
  • show desired behaviors  (e.g., intention of loyalty and willingness to cooperate in new product development) that are the result of trust-based relationships between firms and customers. 
The members will do so because
  • trust based on a sponsor’s integrity (= acceptable behaviour) and good judgment (= furthering the sponsor's interests as well as the interets of the members) motivates members to take risks by sharing personal information with the firm and
  • trust based on the sponsor's benevolence will foster a sense of moral obligation in the member and motivate him/her to perform acts of reciprocity in order to restore equity in the relationship with the firm.
The perception of the sponsor's efforts and the member's trust in the sponsor are linked by beliefs about the sponsor's
  • sense of shared values, 
  • sense of respect for the community members and 
  • sponsor opportunism.
Figure 1 shows the theoretical model.

The respondents to the two pretests and the online survey (multi-item, seven-point, Likert-type scale items) were sourced from a general panel of consumers  that was managed by a professional marketing research firm. The sampling of the respondent pool was designed in order to ensure that the pool included community members of all activity levels and that their communities were appropriate for inclusion in this study. The respondents then assessed the community to which they belonged. Table 3 shows the results.

Grosso modo, the theoretical model was consistent with the empirical data. But there are some points that are noteworthy:
  • Content may be king, embeddedness is emperor: Perceived efforts to foster member embeddedness have a greater impact on customer beliefs about the sponsor's sense of shared values and sense of respect than do efforts to provide quality content. However, efforts to foster member embeddedness are a double-edged sword for sponsors because on the other hand they also result in stronger member beliefs about sponsor opportunism. This suggests that members attribute a firm’s efforts to foster member embeddedness not only to the firm’s altruistic motivations (i.e., sense of shared values and respect), but also to the firm’s selfish motivations (i.e., opportunism).
  • Interaction is the figurehead of a community, embeddedness and content are at the very heart of it: There is no significant relationship between perceived effort to encourage interaction and any of the three belief variables. But according to the authors, this result should not dissuade sponsors from encouraging member interaction because prior research suggests that interaction helps to attract and retain virtual community members. 
  • A "transparent opportunist" is more trustworthy than a "nebulous public benefactor": Interestingly, there was no significant (negative) relationship between belief about sponsor opportunism and trust in a sponsor and rather a positive than a negative  relationship between perceived effort to foster member embeddedness and belief about sponsor opportunism. Thus, community members seem to expect/accept (to a certain degree) a community sponsor's self-serving motivations.
  • Trust in the sponsor's fairmindedness shapes the members' willingness of self-disclosure and cooperation: Trust is not only significantly associated with a customer’s willingness to share information with their community sponsor. Trust also motivates willingness to cooperate in new product development and loyalty. This demonstrates greater forms of reciprocity on the part of customers.
CAVEAT: The study suggests that trust will motivate members to show desired behaviors like loyalty and willingness to cooperate in new product development. But social-psychological research shows that there is a huge gap between motivation/attitude/intention on one side and actual behaviour on the other (cf. Fishbein & Ajzen, Theory of Planned Behaviour; for an intuitive description see:  The Attitude-Behaviour Gap: Why We Say One Thing But Do The Opposite).

Porter, C.E. & Donthu, Naveen (2008). Cultivating Trust and Harvesting Value in Virtual Communities. Management Science, 54(1), 113–128. Google Scholar

Donnerstag, 6. Dezember 2012

Six functional building blocks of social media platforms

In their paper "Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media" Kietzmann et al. (2011) present a (honeycomb) framework that defines social media by using seven functional building blocks. The blocks are intended to provide a better understanding of the audience of a particular social media platform and their engagement needs:
  • Identity represents the exent to which users reveal their identities in a social media setting.
  • Conversations represents the extent to which users communicate with other users in a social media setting.
  • Sharing represents the extent to which users exhange, distribute, and receive content.
  • Presence represents the extent to which users can know if other users are accessible.
  • Relationships represents the extent to which users can be related to other users.
  • Reputation represents the extent to which users can identify the standing of others, including themselves, in a social media setting.
  • Groups represents the extent to which users can form communities and sub-communities.
The functionality of the six building blocks and the implications are visualized in two honeycombs:

This graphical representation can be used to contrast the functionality of different platforms: Facebook would be all about relationship and not so much about sharing or groups, whereas for LinkedIn, the focus lies on identity, reputation and relationship.

For those who wish to develop strategies for monitoring, understanding, and responding to different social media activities the paper offers a guideline — the 4 Cs: cognize, congruity, curate, and chase:

  • Cognize is an intense monitoring process of the social media landscape in which the company and its competitors operate.
  • Congruity refers to the match between the company's objectives and the honeycomb pattern of a social media platform.
  • Curate covers two aspects: the understanding of how often and when a firm should chime into conversations on a social media platform and the curation of content from different sources. 
  • Chase represents the dynamic aspect: the constant chase for information about social media activities of customers for example, about platform evolution and migration flows between old and new platforms and the reaction of competitors.
Kietzmann, J.H., Hermkens, K., Ian P. McCarthy, I.P., Silvestre, B.S. (2011). Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media. Business Horizons 54, 241 - 251. Google Scholar.

Montag, 3. Dezember 2012

Mixed lessons from using social psychology to foster activity in an online community

In this article Kraut et al. describe their attempt to apply some basic social psychology to the participants of a movie rating platform in order to enhance the activity level on the platform. The four experiments were performed with active members of the community MovieLens. The various conditions of the experminents were realized by emails.

Starting point was the collective effort model (Karau & Williams, 2001) which was developed to explain social loafing. Karau and Williams' (1993) collective-effort model claims that people work hard when they think their effort will help them achieve outcomes they value. The collective effort model identifies conditions under which people will socially loaf less. These include, among others believing that their effort is important to the group's performance and that their contributions to the group are identifiable, and liking the group they are working with.

Uniqueness of contribution: In accordance with the the collective effort model, subjects posted more messages, when they were given personalized information about how their knowledge of movies differed from others. Thus, people seem to contribute more to online communities when given personalized information showing that their contributions would be unique. If they believe that their contributions are redundant with those that others in the group can provide, then there is little reason to contribute, because their contributions have little likelihood of influencing the group.

Homogeneity: In contrast to the model, subjects posted fewer messages when conversing in groups constructed so that members had similar tastes in movies than in groups with heterogeneous members. Thus, people seem to contribute more to online communities when they believe that they are dissimilar rather than similar to others in the group.

The authors summarize the findings as follows. "Both posting and rating data show that people contributed more when they were made to see themselves as having unique information to contribute. In retrospect, the finding that subjects posted more to the conversation forum when they were least similar to those they were talking to may also reflect the influence of uniqueness. Subjects in groups with similar others may have run out of topics of conversation, while those in the heterogeneous groups could have lively disagreements."

Salience of benefit: Does reminding the participants of the potential benefits enhance the contribution rate? In order to answer the question, the benefit manipulation contained four conditions: no benefit, only benefit to self, only benefit to others, and benefit to both self and others. Once again participants were sent a personalized email. Participants who received
  • the self-benefit message/the other-benefit message reduced their number of ratings,
  • both self-and other-benefit messages increased their number of ratings almost to the level of the control condition.
This was contrary to the expectations of the researchers who had hypothesized that users would rate more movies when the personal benefit/the benefit provided to the community is made salient.

Intrinsic motivation: Surveys of MovieLens members suggested that they rate primarily to improve the accuracy of recommendations that they receive from the system and because the acts of remembering movies and rating them are intrinsically fun, and to a lesser extent, to help other subscribers. The researchers therefore predicted that participants who were reminded of their intrinsic motivation for ratings (“It's fun”) would rate more than participants that did not receive this message. Although participants who received the intrinsic motivation message rated more movies than those who did not, this effect did not approach statistical significance.

A possible explanation for this might be that the researches had simply run up against a limited ability to manipulate the relevant psychological states using just email messages. The majority of MovieLens users reported intrinsic benefit as their greatest motivation when asked; however, email messages saying that it is fun to rate may not be an effective way to evoke intrinsic benefit.

Challenging goals: The final experiment drew upon goal setting theory (Locke & Latham) according to which goals that are difficult to achieve and specific tend to increase performance. The hypothesis which predicted members given individual goals would rate more movies than those with group goals, was not confirmed. This unexpected result was perhaps due to the fact that feedback was included in the experiment as specified by goal-setting theory, by telling participants that they would receive an accounting at the end of the campaign of the number of movies they and their group had rated. In this case, the researches might have observed the effect of social facilitation (an effect whereby the real or imagined presence of evaluative others results in greater effort on a group task,). Finally, participants made the most ratings when they received intermediate goals, but made fewer when they were given an unchallenging goal of only a few ratings or the most challenging goals.


Ling, K., Beenen, G., Ludford, P., Wang, X., Chang, K., Li, X., Cosley, D., Frankowski, D., Terveen, L., Rashid, A. M., Resnick, P. and Kraut, R. (2005), Using Social Psychology to Motivate Contributions to Online Communities. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10: 00. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2005.tb00273.x)

Suggestions for further reading: