Mittwoch, 27. November 2013

Why People Participate in Online Communities

Why do people hang out online and what motivates them to participate in online communities? There are two very interesting studies that provide some insight into the answers of these questions.(continue reading on The Community Manager)

Mittwoch, 25. September 2013

Social Presence, Social Identity and Participation in Online Communities

In an empirical study from 2006, Shen et al. [1] combined two important concepts - social presence and social identity - in order to investigate their effect on community participation. The structural model revealed that social presence is a decisive factor in creating social identity and that the influence of social presence and social identity on participation is bigger than the fulfillment of information needs (one of the primary reasons why people join a community).

1. Social presence theory [2], [3]

In “The social psychology of telecommunications” (1976), Short, Williams, and Christie analyzed the effect of telecommunications media on communication. They conceptualized social presence as  the degree of salience between two communicators using a communication medium. Social presence varies with the type of communication media and plays an important role in how people interact. Some media have a higher degree of social presence (e.g., video, audio) others do not (e.g., text) - depending upon the extent to which nonverbal and relational cues common to face-to-face communication are filtred out. A medium with a high degree of social presence is perceived as being sociable, warm, and personal, whereas a medium with a low degree of social presence is seen as impersonal.

Subsequently, several other important conceptualizations were developed: for example social presence as:

  • the degree to which a person is perceived as a real person in mediated communication (Gunawardena, 1995);
  • the ability of participants in a community of inquiry to project themselves socially and emotionally, as real people (i.e., their full personality), through the medium of communication being used (Garrison et al., 2000);
  • the degree of feeling, perception, and reaction of being connected by computer-mediated communication to another intellectual entity through a text-based encounter (Tu & McIsaac, 2002);
  • a student’s sense of being in and belonging in an online course and the ability to interact with other students and an instructor (Picciano, 2002).

These definitions appear to be on a continuum between the feeling that someone is perceived as being present that is, simply there or real at one end and the existence of an interpersonal emotional connection between communicators at the other. The differences in how researchers define social presence have significant consequences on how they conceptualize it.

2. Social identity theory [4]

Whereas personal identity is an individual's concept of personal attributes that are not shared with others, an individual's social identity is developed  on the basis of group membership and consists of a shared definition of what attributes the group has and how it differs from others.

The basis of social identity is social categorization, the continuous interplay between how we see ourselves, how we see others and how we are seen by them. Assigning others to a certain social category not just tells us things about them but we find out things about ourselves.

To identify with any given group of people, whether it is an ethnic group or an online organization, we look for similarities between the group members and ourselves. By categorizing ourselves as members of a specific group and identifying ourselves with it, we tend to accept the group’s influence on us and we comply to its norms. On the other hand, as active group members we try to make our influence to  be felt in the group as well. Group norms not only prescribe attitudes and perceptions, they also influence behaviour.

If a group member strongly believes in the group she or he may even work harder to reach the group's goals instead of loafing. Members with a strong identification with the group may become very influential in the group and exert some kind of leadership because other member see them as very prototypical. On the other hand, less prototypical members have less influence and risk to stay on the fringes of the community.

3. The influence of social presence and social identity on participation [1] 

As mentioned in the introduction, Shen et al. combine both concepts and analyze their effect on participation in four different virtual communities of interest. The content of these communities is mainly contributed and only accessed by registered members. The basic functions are browsing, searching, synchronous and asynchronous discussion, multi-media exchanging and voting. Members can attach animated icons (e.g., facial expressions) to better express their feelings, as well as audio and video to enrich their exchanges.

For each individual, they collect the total number of postings, the number of different threads where the postings were made, and the number of new threads created. The participation measures were gathered for a period of two weeks and were scaled by the averages of the associated communities.

The other variables were measured with an online survey using validated scales.

  • For social presence, they used a reflective measurement which consists of 7-point bipolar items such as social - unsocial, sensitive - insensitive and warm - cold. 
  • As for social identity, they adapted the “organizational identity” instrument which consists of reflective items rated on a 7-point Likert scale, ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”. A sample item is “when someone criticizes this forum, it feels like a personal insult”.

Social presence positively affects the social identity of community members: High social presence makes it more likely to build social relationships among members due to its capability to reduce discomfort, increase predictability and raise the level of affection toward others, thus increasing the possibility to develop attachment to the virtual community.

Social presence directly influences virtual community participation: According to Shen et al. some individual factors may mediate the effects of social presence on community participation, e.g., extrinsic and intrinsic motivation or satisfaction and trust. Furthermore, social presence may exert a direct influence on community participation - a strong sense of social presence makes a virtual community more similar to a real one, the salient social stimuli presented in the virtual community may activate the direct access processing of existing goals or trigger an automatic perceptual interpretation.

Social identity has a positive influence on virtual community participation: In order to maintain a positive self-defining relationship with other virtual community members, he or she will be motivated to engage in behaviors as the other members expected. For a virtual community, a large part of such behaviors is to actively participate in the social interaction and contribute to the community.

4. Managing an Online Community of Interest

Social classification as a prerequisite for social identification can be achieved quite easily in face-to-face communities. A scarf with the logo of a football team is sufficient. In virtual communities much depends on the already more active members. Their communication behaviour and the expressiveness of their profiles shape the perception of the level of social presence in the community and they are the basis for the decision of others to participate.

Interestingly, the influence of information fulfillment on participation is relatively low, even though information seeking is one of the primary reasons why people join a community. But: information fulfillment has a high impact on how social presence is perceived. Unfortunately, this point was not discussed any further in the study. My guess is that the perception of other community members as socially present increases with their willingness to provide information readily. Presumably, it is not even necessary that the information can be used immediately, it is more important that the individual member gets the impression that - if needed - it would get help quickly.


[1] Shen, K. N., Khalifa, M., & Yu, A. Y. (2006, December). Supporting Social Interaction in Virtual Communities: Role of Social Presence. In  AMCIS (p. 527). Google Scholar
[2] Lowenthal, P. R. (2010). The evolution and influence of social presence theory on online learning. Online education and adult learning: New frontiers for teaching practices. Hershey, PA: IGI Global. Google Scholar
[3] Lowenthal, P. R. (2009). Social presence. Encyclopedia of distance and online learning Google Scholar
[4] Code, J. R., & Zaparyniuk, N. E. (2009). Social Identities, Group Formation, and the Analysis of Online Communities. Handbook of research on social software and developing community ontologies.   Google Scholar

Freitag, 30. August 2013

Gamification – What is the benefit for community management?

Gamification is a very young and hot debating topic. The term was not existent before 2010,  a fact that might explain that there are so few empirical studies on this subject. Furthermore, the available studies show mixed results. Apparently the effectiveness of gamification depends on a whole set of interrelated factors (community topic, community type, community size, cultural factors, members' motives and appraisals, the design of the reward system itself etc.). This multitude of determinants makes it difficult to decide whether gamifying one’s own community site may be such a good idea after all ...

Read the complete article on (

A companion to FeverBee's Community Management Course, Community Geek is an exclusive community of practitioners dedicated to sharing knowledge about how to grow and curate successful online communities.

Montag, 12. August 2013

Sense of community in virtual communities

Sense of community (SOC) is a concept in community psychology with far ranging implications for the management of face-to-face communities. It is applied to geographical communities (i.e. neighbourhoods, blocks, colleges) as well as to relational communities of interest where members are brought together primarily by social interaction and not by territorial demarcation. If you google for instance „developing sense of community“ you will see that SOC is a desirable thing because individuals and institutions devote a lot of energy to its creation. So, can this concept be made operational for the management of virtual communities?

1. Conceptualisation of sense of (virtual) community
One of the most prominent conceptualisations of sense of community was introduced by McMillan and Chavis (1986). It was developed for face-to-face communities and it includes components such as
  • membership (feelings of emotional safety with a sense of belonging and identification),
  • influence (exertion of one's influence on the community with reciprocal influence of the community on oneself),
  • integration and fulfillment of needs (beeing supported and giving support, thereby reinforcing one to behave in a manner acceptable to the community),
  • shared emotional connection (positive affect related to community membership, shared history).
People asked about their SOC might give answers like these:
  • Membership: „It is the diversity of people that makes this neighbourhood so unique. There are so many different flavors here and it is these flavors coming together that makes living here so valueable.“
  • Influence: „I have the feeling that it really matters when I say something and that my opinion is taken seriously.“
  • Integration and fulfillment of needs: „I'm drawn to this neighbourhood because we are all connected with one another. The size of our community allows me to see and deal with people that I know. When I need help doing maintenance work i.e. I can always ask a neighbour for help or advice.“
  • Shared emotion connection: „I've been living here for more than twenty years and so do a lot of us in this area. We raised our kids together!“
Researchers like Blanchard and Marcus (2004) extended the SOC-concept to virtual communities, calling the result: sense of virtual community (SOVC). They found similarities, including
  • feelings of membership,
  • integration of needs, and
  • shared emotional connections,
as well as differences:
  • Members reported that recognizing others and relationships with specific other members were important to them.
  • They did however not report feeling that they exerted influence on/were influenced by others.

2. What are the benefits of SO(V)C? (cf. Pretty et al., 2007)
One way of understanding sense of community is as a process in which community members interact, draw parts of their identity from this participation, give as well as receive social support, and by contributing to the common good foster the development of SOC.

On the other hand, sense of community is seen as some type of positive end state and end in itself. And there are some impressive examples of how SOC (SOVC) has a significant role in the health, well-being, and mental health outcomes of populations and sub-groups.

A third aspect is to see it as a predictor of other positive or negative - outcomes. A strong SOC is associated with well functioning communities that are supportive, even though one may not have personal relationships with each individual member. Furthermore, members may continue to have a SOC even though individuals come and go. Hence, sense of community can be an illusive cognition and affect which is not necessarily based on experiencing individual- level transactions.

This is particularly important for communities where members are not attached to one another by personal bonds but where the member is attached to the community as a whole This refers to the distinction of common identity vs. common bond: The distiction is based on the member's attachment either to the group as a whole [common identity] or to particular members of the community [common bond] (cf. Ren et al., 200?).

But communities with a strong SOC may also develop a tendency to turn inward, to exclude members that are different especially in times of need.

3. What are the antecedents of SOVC?
Blanchard reported the results for a model she had tested in two studies in which
  • the identity of other members and themselves (-> membership)
  • observing exhange of support within the community (-> reinforcement/integration of needs), and
  • interacting with other members of the community outside of the virtual community via email
contributed to the SOVC either directly and/or mediated by group norms. McMillan & Chavis had already emphasised the importance of shared values (= norms) for the exchange of support in a community:

"When people who share values come together, they find that they have similar needs, priorities, and goals, thus fostering the belief that in joining together they might be better able to satisfy these needs and obtain the reinforcement they seek. (...) The extent to which individual values are shared among community members will determine the ability of a community to organize and prioritize its need-fulfillment activities. (...) A strong community is able to fit people together so that people meet others’ needs while they meet their own."

4. How can I assess the SO(V)C of my community?
A measure of sense of community is the Sense of Community Index (SCI: Perkins, Florin, Rich, Wandersman & Chavis, 1990; Long & Perkins, 2003). Several other questionnaires have been developed mostly for residential community research (e.g. Sense of Community Index 2). Blanchard developed a questionnaire for assessing the SOVC. An alternative approach was taken by using the reparatory grid technique, a quantitative, phenomenological approach originally developed by Kelly (1955). This involves communities selecting their own constructs for analysis, and residents’ ratings being based on these elements.

So in principle, you could take Blanchard's questionnaire, use a 5 or 7 point likert-type scale and ask your community. Let us suppose for a moment you've done that and the mean value is 2.2. What does it tell you? Not much, unless one knows the mean value of similar communities or unless you have repeated the survey in your community several times which will give you at least an information on the trend. To my knowledge and unfortunately there is no reference database yet.

5. How can I improve the SOVC of my community?
Possible measures for the improvement of SOC can be categorised in line with its determinants although there isn't always an exclusive 1:1 attribution. Please read Richard Millington's blogpost „How to use transferable elements to develop a strong sense of community.“ (


Blanchard, Anita L. (2007) "Developing a sense of virtual community measure. "CyberPsychology & Behavior 10.6: 827-830.

Blanchard, Anita L. (2008). Testing a model of sense of virtual community. Computers in Human Behavior 24: 2107–2123. See also :

Blanchard, Anita L. and Markus, M. Lynne (2004). The Experienced "Sense" of a Virtual Community: Characteristics and Processes. Database for Advances in Information Systems; Winter 2004; ABI/INFORM Global p. 65. See also:

McMillan, David W. and Chavis David M. (1986). Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory. Journal of Community Psychology Volume 14, 6-23.

Ren, Y., Kraut, R. , Kiesler, S. (200?). Identity and bond theories to understand design decisions for online communities.See also:

Pretty, Grace, et al. (2007) "Psychological sense of community and its relevance to well-being and everyday life in Australia." The Australian Community Psychologist 19.2: 6-25.

Freitag, 12. April 2013

Why Knowing Your Community Type is Important

Should you ban off-topic discussions in your community? Is it always a good idea to promote growth? Does a large number of anonymous members threaten your community? Three different questions it seems—but the answers have one thing in common: the way the member is attached to the community. Two basic types of communities can be distinguished: members may be attached primarily either to the community as a whole, or to other members. This has some interesting implications (continue reading on The Community Manager).

Mittwoch, 27. März 2013

The effect of community type on member attachment, motivation and participation

Should community management ban off-topic discussions? Is it always a good idea to promote growth? Does a large number of anonymous members threaten the community?Although it isn't obvious at first glance, the three questions have some sort of common denominator: the kind of attachment the member feels for the community.

Common-interest vs. common-bond
Ren, Kraut & Kiesler [1] describe two groups in terms of social psychology:
  • In common-identity groups, members feel more attached to the group as a whole. Identity means that a member feels commitment to a group’s purpose or topic. Seeking and providing information is a primary driver (e.g.: a movie-talk group).
  • In common-bond groups, a member feels socially and emotionally attached to particular members as well as to the group as a whole. Here, the focus lies on social interaction (e.g.: pupils who meet after class in a social network).
Both types can coexist: The most active members of an interest-based community may form a bond-based subgroup for instance. And community type can change over time.

The antecedents of common identity and common bond
Antecedents of common identity on a group-level are:
  • Social categorization: Very few is needed and people let themselves categorize into groups. Even a random assignment to an arbitrary category will do.
  • Interdependence: Four types of interdependence create a sense of group identity: a joint task, a common purpose, common fate, and joint reward.
  • Out-group presence: Similar to social categorization very few is needed. A statement implying the existence of other groups to trigger in-group/out-group differentiation successfully.
The antecedents of common bond shift the focus from the group to the individual:
  • Social interaction: The frequency of prior interaction is a major determinant of the extent to which people build relationships with one another. As the frequency of interaction between two persons increases, their liking for one another also increases.
  • Personal information: Self-disclosure and self-presentation shift attention from the group as a whole to individual members. People are more trusting of those who have a shared acquaintance among their in-group members. So, a friend’s friend is also a friend in cyberspace.
  • Interpersonal similarity: People are likely to become close to the extent that they perceive they are similar to each other in preferences, attitudes, and values. In several studies we reviewed, similarity was used to manipulate interpersonal attraction by asking participants to complete a personality and friendship questionnaire, and then telling participants that they were assigned to a group whose members probably would become close friends.
Converging and diverging consequences
In both community types attachment leads members to perceive a group as cohesive and to have a good opinion about the group and its members. It increases participation and the likelihood that the member will remain in the group. But there are also diverging consequences: Both types differ in their effects on
  • social loafing (common-bond groups tend to be more tolerant with loafers but members are less likely to compensate for other's under-participation);
  • the experience of newcommers (bond-attachment-based groups tend to set up bigger obstacles for newcomers);
  • the compliance with group norms (which is stronger in common-interest groups);
  • the topics people talk about (engagement in and tolerance for off-topic discussions are more stronger in common-bond groups);
  • the amount and type of reciprocity/social exchange of information and support (members with identity-based attachment are more likely to help any member and not just those who have helped them);
  • the robustness or salience of community membership (members tend to perceive each other as interchangeable in common-interest groups).
Questions and answers
After having assessed whether one's community is based on interest-attachment or bond-attachment one can now answer the questions of the introductory paragraph:
  • Off-topic discussions: In an interest-based community attachment to the group should decrease with discussion drifting away from the core topic. Here, ?-ing on-topic discusions is to the benefit of all members whereas in common-bond communities off-topic chitchat is essential because it offers an opportunity of conveying personal information.
  • Growth may be a problem for bond-based groups because attachment should decrease with membership turnover. For common-interest communities - on the other hand - growth is more likely to be benefical.
  • Anonymity: Interest-based communities may cope even with a large number of anonymous members, but bond-based communities profit from repeated interaction of its members. This requires that member's actions are visible to each other, that people meet frequently. Public and private communication will also enhance the likelihood of forming ties. These prerequisites are not compatible with anonymity.
Further research: motivation and participation
The distinction between attachment to the group as a whole and attachment to particular members is also decisive in the context of motivation and participation.

Motivation: Dholakia, Bagozzi & Klein Pearo [2] found that, in general, participants of a network-based VC, where members show identification with the online site itself and not so much with particular members, are more purpose-oriented, they seek information and expect the community to bring them together with others who will provide this information. In small-group based VCs, where members maintain a dense web of relationships with other members and identify with them in the first place, interpersonal connectivity and engagement in social interactions are the drivers of participation. This holds true for business-sponsored communties and for member-initiated communities.

Participation: Yeow, Johnson & Faraj [3] develop their typology in the context of lurking. Lurking is considered to be either an online form of social loafing or a phase in which the member-to-be learns the community norms by observing the community. The authors distinguish two types:
  • Transactional-commerce-oriented VCs are often business-sponsored and the primary driver behind participation is search for and exchange of information (e.g. product support group).
  • In relational-interest oriented VCs, the focus lies on relationship and interactions among members. Often, they are initiated by members themselves.
In both types, social loafing motivation as a cause for lurking is more dominant on average but there is a dampend effect within relational-interest VCs: Social learning by observation is more relevant in relational-interest oriented VCs.

Suggestion for further reading

  • For a concise version, see the post "Why knowing your community type is important" on The Community Manager

[1] Ren, Y., Kraut, R. , Kiesler, S. (200?). Identity and bond theories to understand design decisions for online communities. Google Scholar
[2] Dholakia, U.M., Bagozzi, R.P., Klein Pearo, L. (2004). A social influence model of consumer participation in network- and small-group-based virtual communities. International Journal of Research in Marketing 21 (2004) 241 – 263. Google Scholar
[3] Yeow, A., Johnson S.L. , Faraj, S. (2006). Lurking: Legitimate or illegitimate peripheral participation? 27th Conference on Information Systems, Milwaukee 2006. Pre-Publication-Draft

Sonntag, 10. März 2013

The sources of sense of virtual communitiy: Identity, support and norms

McMillan & Chavis (1986) defined sense of community [SOC] - in the context of face-to-face communities - as a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to
one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through
their commitment to be together. Sense of community has four elements:
  • Membership: the feeling of belonging or of sharing a sense of personal relatedness.
  • Influence: a sense of mattering, of making a difference to a group and of the group mattering to its members. 
  • Reinforcement: integration and fulfillment of needs - a feeling that members’ needs will be met by the resources received through their membership in the group. 
  • Shared emotional connection: the commitment and belief that members have shared and will share history, common places, time together, and similar experiences. 
Usually, a strong SOC is considered to be desirable because it fosters pro-social behaviour of community members and helps dealing with external challenges/threats. But there is a caveat too: One precondition for membership are boundaries against non-members/out-groups.

From SOC to sense of virtual community (SOVC)
In 2004 Blanchard & Markus (cf. post in this blog) examined the concept of SOC in a virtual newsgroup. They found similarities, including
  • feelings of membership, 
  • integration of needs, and 
  • shared emotional connections, 
as well as differences:
  • Members reported that recognizing others and relationships with specific other members were important to them. 
  • They did however not report feeling that they exerted influence on/were influenced by others.
Their research led Blanchard & Marcus to the related concept of sense of virtual community (SOVC). They explained the differences with the member's concerns about the truth of others’ identities in a virtual setting and assumed that, online, people are less likely to be aware of their own influence or the influence of others.

Testing the model
Four years later, Blanchard (2008) reported the results for a model she had tested in two studies in which
  • the identity of other members and themselves (-> membership)
  • exhange of support within the community (-> reinforcement/integration of needs), and
  • interacting with other members outside of the virtual community via email
contributed to the SOVC - either directly and/or mediated by group norms. McMillan & Chavis had already emphasised the importance of shared values (= norms) for the exchange of support in a community:

"When people who share values come together, they find that they have similar needs, priorities, and goals, thus fostering the belief that in joining together they might be better able to satisfy these needs and obtain the reinforcement they seek. (...) The extent to which individual values are shared among community members will determine the ability of a community to organize and prioritize its need-fulfillment activities. (...) A strong community is able to fit people together so that people meet others’ needs while they meet their own."

Identity and SOVC
Theoretically, the impact of cues to others’ identity may either increase or decrease SOVC. In the context of this model, it was hypothesized that, generally, cues to others’ identity and correspondingly creating one's own identity are positively related to SOVC via norms. Through learning others members’ identity, people inductively create a social identity, and subsequently develop norms about what this group does and what its particular characteristics are.

Both studies supported that creating identity leads to norms and then to SOVC. However, neither study found that learning others' identites was related to group norms (or to SOVC directly).

This suggests that as people perceive they are ‘‘known’’ in the group, they are likely to perceive group norms of behavior and feel a SOVC. This in turn, makes them feel somehow accountable for what they do or gives them the feeling of beeing accepted. Study 2  added in a behavioral measure, the use of technical features to create and learn identity, for which norms also mediated the relationship to SOVC.

Exchange of support and SOVC
A fundamental assumption of social exchange theory is that people develop certain rules of exchange which serve as guidelines for people’s interactions. In line with social exchange theory, exchanging support in a virtual community should be positively related to SOVC and mediated by norms.

Both studies confirmed that, in general, the exchange of support positively affects SOVC - directly as well as indirectly via norms. Observing others exchange support seems to be more important in this mediation process than  participating in the public exchange of support oneself. This suggests that active involvement in publicly exchanging support has less of a relationship in developing group norms than would have been expected.

Furthermore, observing support and publicly participating in exchanging support have direct relationships to SOVC.

However, unlike in study 1 and in other previous research (cf., Blanchard & Markus, 2004), the private exchange of support through email was not related to SOVC. One explanation may have been the low level of using email to exchange support as reported by the participants in study 2. This suggests that when email is used, it positively affects SOVC. However, emailing support is not necessary for a SOVC.

Possible implications for community management
  • Why is a strong SOVC desirable? As mentioned above, community members with a strong SOVC are more likely to show active pro-social behaviour (complying with the norms and giving support -> participation). They make personal investment in order to earn a place in the group, and as a consequence, membership will become more meaningful and valuable to them, increasing the likelihood that they will remain in the group. 
  • How can community managment support the creation of SOVC? The community manager should study the community members' needs carefully and their possible integration especially in the process of creating a new community (or sub-community). Other possible interventions are:
    • making those needs salient to members and newcomers, 
    • encouraging compliance to the norms, 
    • facilitating the experience of sharing information,
    • having an open eye on barriers to entry for newcomers (boundaries)
    • watching out for changes in community members' needs. 
  • Do business-sponsored communities need a SOVC? The answer depends on the company's goals.  If the company is interested in bringing together potential buyers in some sort of "virtual outlet", then SOVC does'nt seem to be needed. Trust in the vendor's reputation is more important. On the other hand: If the company wants to establish a product support community where customers give support to other costumers, then a strong SOVC is helpful.
  • How about SOVC in social networks for professionals? Many insights stem from studies of social groups with personal-interest topics and not from studies of groups for professionals. Experience suggests that professional communities may be less likely to have a SOVC when people only seek information  (they are very likely to remain lurkers) or when they use the community as a platform for offering their services. However, when professionals with a common interest engage in more interactive exchanges, the above mentioned model may be appropriate.
  • In the discussion about participation and lurking it is argued that observing others exchange support may promote slacking from other participants and prevent lurkers from participating. However, the model shows that there is a counterbalancing effet: observing others exchange support helps create norms of behavior which lead to SOVC and subsequently to an increase in participation.

David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis (1986). Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory. Journal of Community Psychology Volume 14 (1986), 6-23. Google Scholar

Anita L. Blanchard (2008). Testing a model of sense of virtual community. Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008) 2107–2123, via Google Scholar

Samstag, 9. Februar 2013

From lurking to posting - a community participation framework

Are lurkers beneficial or detrimental to a community? Does it make sense to try to convert lurkers into participants or is it just a waste of time and of ressources that would be better allocated e.g. in taking care of new members? Opinions are divided and like in so many cases the answer to both questions is: It depends. Interventions targeted at delurking aren't outright useless. But it seems, that much can already be achieved by setting the right framework for participation.

1. What are the benefits and costs of lurking?
Lurkers are users on the fringe of a community, who observe but  don't interact. Here, the word 'community' is used in a wider sense and designates any virtual meeting place where people with common interests communicate. A sense of virtual community is not required.

Some research points to the existence of potential benefits to the community:
  • Lurkers may be silent individuals but nevertheless they are an audience for the community's concerns.  [1]
  • 'Active' lurkers on the fringe of one community may spread information as contributors to another. [2]
  • Lurkers use the available information and by doing so relieve the community from answering the same questions over and over again. [3]
  • On the other hand, lurkers are viewed as free-riders or social loafers who let others do the job and - worst case - who keep the community from reaching a self-sustaining level. [4]
But all things considered, a healthy community should not fear lurkers and profit from the beneficial effects.

2. Why do people lurk online?
In several studies [5, 6, 7], lurkers, their reasons for lurking and their relationship with the community have been examined. Here are some of the results:
  • Whether a person joins a public (special interest) community depends mainly on his/her personal reasons (other reasons may be work- or school- related.)
  • There are some reasons for joining an online community that lurkers and participants have in common (e.g. getting a general understanding of the community, reading conversations/stories). But participants seem to be much more attracted by the prospect of engagement in the community (be a member, make friends, offer one's expertise, get empathetic support).
  • A person may contribute to one community and be a lurker in another. The behavioural outcome is dependent on the person's overall engagement (a trait!) and strongly modified by the person’s attitude toward the topic, the community or the task. [8]
  • Futhermore, lurkeers seem to have much less satisfying experiences with the community and report that they get less than the expected benefit. This of course results in a lesser sense of community and lurkers are less likely to consider themselves as community members.
One study [5] from 2006 offers interesting details. In checkbox questions and open-ended questions lurkers were asked to tell more about their reasons.

Reasons why lurkers don't post (Checkbox Questionnaire; % of respondents [N = 219])

  • Didn’t need to post
    • Just reading/browsing is enough (53.9)
    • No requirement to post (21.5)
    • Had no intention of posting (13.2)
  • Needed to find out about the group
    • Still learning about the group (29.7)
  • Thought I was being helpful
    • Nothing to offer (22.8)
    • Others have said it (18.7) Others respond the way I would

  • Couldn’t make the software work
    • Not enough time to post (9.1)
    • Do not know how to post to this group (7.8)
    • There are too many messages already (4.6)

  • Didn’t like the group (poor dynamics/fit)
    • Shy about posting (28.3)
    • Want to remain anonymous (15.1)
    • Of no value to me (11.0)
    • Poor quality of messages or group/community (7.8)
    • Wrong group (7.3)
    • [observed] Long delay in response to postings (6.8)
    • Concern about aggressive responses (5.9)
    • Fear of commitment/If I post, I am making a commitment(4.1)
    • Group treats new members badly (1.4)
Two aspects should be highlighted:
  • Only 13.2 % of those questioned had no intention to post from the outset. From this, one can infer that there is a considerable number of users who loose interest in contributing while lurking although they even might have had the initial intention to participate.
  • Not every reason for lurking can be targeted by community management (e.g. not enough time to post). And many reasons that can be influenced (e.g. long delay in response to postings) are certainly already on the agenda of every committed community manager.
3. A community participation framework
The framework [9] has four different levels. It starts with the lurker's motivation which influences the goalsetting and the expectations. The perception of the community has the final say whether the lurker thinks that his/her expectations will be met and his or her goals will be reached. It is important to keep in mind that this is not a statistically tested and proven model. It rather aims at showing potential intervention points for community managment. It hopefully helps design, structure and prioritize programs and policies for  guiding a silent user towards participation.

The four levels are connected in two ways:
  • Top-down: A specific user motivated by a special interest (e.g. a health care issue) looks for an appropriate community. The intention is to find out more about a special treatment and to ask questions about it. Browsing the community he/she matches his/her expectations with what the community has to offer. If there is a match the user will stay and further investigate the community and eventually become an active participant.
  • Bottom-up: The reaction of the community to the newbie's participation, in turn, confirms or modifies the perception of the community and the user's expectations. This might lead to a change in the user's goals and ultimately in his/her motivation.
Although, theoretically, community management could try to adopt measures to intervene on each level (e.g costly sweepstakes to foster extrinsic motivation), its main approach should be well-designed contact points where the users and the community meet (e.g. an easy-to-use technology, intuitively structured community sites, a open-minded ambiance, motivating posts for newbies, community members who are tolerant in their dealings with one another etc.).

4. Can community management convert lurkers to posters?
According to social learning theory (=people learn from one another, via observation, imitation, and modeling) a new community member will start as a lurker or with relatively few contributions. Over time, the new member gains knowledge and confidence, and begins to contribute. The contributions increase as the member develops competence and confidence.

One such 'evolutionary path' could be described in this way: A new member would start as a visitor (lurker). Becoming a novice he/she learns the norms of the community, builds an identity and, later on, becomes a regular, who participates reliably in community life or even a leader who keeps the community running. The highest achievable position would be an elder, a long-time regular and/or leader who is estimated for sharing his/her knowledge. [10]

This sounds very promising because it seems to offer an opportunity to develop one's community in some kind of life cycle model. To my knowledge - and unfortunately - the prerequisites for a successful conversion of lurkers to contributors have not yet been examined. In my opinion once again the person's overall engagement and attitude toward topic/community/task are the decisive factors.

Suggestion for further reading

  • For a concise version, see the post "Can community managment influence lurking behaviour?" on The Community Manager

[1] Rafaeli S., Ravid G., Soroka, V. (2004). "De-lurking in virtual communities: a social communication network approach to measuring the effects of social and cultural capital". Proceedings of the 37th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. Google Scholar
[2] Takahashi, M., Fujimoto, M., & Yamasaki, N. (November 2003). "The active lurker: influence of an in-house online community on its outside environment". international ACM SIGGROUP conference on Supporting group work. pp. 1–10. Google Scholar
[3] Lakhani, K., von Hippel, E. (2003). "How open source software works: Free user to user assistance". Research Policy 32. Google Scholar
[4] Kollock, P., Smith, M. (1996). "Managing the virtual commons". Computer-mediated communication: Linguistic, social, and cross-cultural perspectives: 109–128. Google Scholar
[5] Nonnecke, B., Andrews, D., Preece, J. (2006). "Non-public and public online community participation: Needs, attitudes and behaviour." Electron Commerce Res 6, p. 7-20. Google Scholar
[6] Nonnecke, B., Andrews, D., Preece, J., Voutour, R. (2004). "Online Lurkers tell why." Proceedings of the Tenth Americas Conference on Information Systems, New York, New York, August 2004. Google Scholar
[7] Nonnecke, B. & Preece, J.. (2001). "Lurker demographics: Counting the silent." Proceedings of CHI 2000. The Hague: ACM. Google Scholar
[8] Muller, M. (2012). “Lurking as Personal Trait or Situational Disposition? Lurking and Contributing in Enterprise Social Media.” CSCW 2012, February 11–15, 2012. Google Scholar
[9] I adapted this framework from Bishop,  J. (2007) ["Increasing participation in online communities: A framework for human–computer interaction". Computers in Human Behavior 23 (4), p. 1881–1893. Google Scholar] and Preece, Nonnecke, Andrews, Voutour (2004).
[10] Kim, Amy Jo (2000). “Community building on the web.” Berkely; Peachpit Press. Google Books

Dienstag, 5. Februar 2013

Can Community Management Influence Lurking Behavior?

Most online communities have lurkers. Lurkers are users on the fringe of a community—they observe what happens, but don’t interact, post, or contribute. Most CMs have likely wondered how they can turn lurkers into regular contributors. There’s some academic research that dives into this topic. (continue reading on: The Community Manager)

Freitag, 18. Januar 2013

Sense of Virtual Community: Antecedents and Implications for Community Management

In 2004 Blanchard & Marcus presented their qualitative study of an online community (a member-initiated newsgroup for multiple sport enthusiasts) and introduced the concept of "sense of virtual community" (SOVC). SOVC in a virtual setting is basically the equivalent of McMillan and Chavis' (1986) sense of community observable in real neighbourhoods and face-to-face communities of interest, but there are some differences.

Dimensions of SOC

 (McMillan & Chavis, 1986) 

Dimensions of SOVC

(Blanchard & Marcus 2004)
Feelings of membership
(belonging to, and identifying with,
the community = sharing in group identity)
Recognition of members (1)
(Who are the others?)
Feelings of influence
(having influence on, and being
influenced by the community)
(no equivalent)
Feelings of integration
and fulfillment of needs
(being supported by others in the
community while also supporting them)
Exchange of support (2)
(exchange of information and exchange of
socio-emotional support)
Feelings of shared emotional connection
(relationships, shared history,
 and a “spirit” of community)
Emotional attachment (3)
(connection to the community qua community)

Obligation (4)
(a need to “give back to a group from which" one has "received so much")

Identity (self) and identification (of others) (5)
(emerging members creating identities that would be accepted by the group, established participants and leaders trying to distinguish themselves from the group = individuation from group identity)

Relationship with specific members (6)
(the experience of personal connections with specific people)

Dimensions of SOVC
Based on participant observations and semi-structured interviews Blanchard & Marcus identified five dimensions of SOVC.
  • Recognition (1): A first important stepp towards experiencing SOVC has been reached when members recognize other members (e.g. members’ names in postings).
  • Exchanging Support (2): Exchange of information and exchange of socio-emotional support have different effects. Information exchange creates the impression that membership in the community is useful for meeting members’ needs.  Public exchange of socio-emotional support points to personal relationships among group members. Self experienced public and private socio-emotional support contributes to the belief that one is an accepted and valued community member.
  • Emotional Attachment (3): Attachment to the community itself can occur on various levels and is influenced by the member's activity level and his/her perception of personal benefit.
  • Obligation (4): Obligation to the community comes on different levels too. In this particular newsgroup leaders expressed greater obligation than the less active participants or lurkers. However, the observed level of the leaders’ high obligation is considered an important part of the community by less active participants or lurkers.
  • Creation of identity and the identification (5) McMillan and Chavis described identification with the community, Blanchard & Marcus observed members creating their identity within the group and members’ ability to identify individual members in the group. Emerging members, for example, created identities that would be accepted by the group, more established participants and leaders tried to distinguish themselves from the group. 
  • Relationships with individual community members (6). In the anonymous world of the Internet, the experience of personal connections with specific people is an important ingredient of a virtual community and distinguishes it from a virtual meeting place.
McMillan and Chavis’ “feelings of influence” did not feature prominently in the newsgroup's sense of community. One possible reason for this might be that the community members strictly obeyed to the community norms and that the influence of the "core group" was not perceived as hierarchical or not particularly salient to members. Nonetheless, virtual communities need facilitators who provide a good deal of public communication to the group, shape the virtual community’s culture and norms, create a public conversation and encourage and reward others’ contributions.

The Creation of SOVC and the Production of Trust

As to the creating process of SOVC, three interrelated social processes are important: the exchange of support, the creation of identity and the making of identifications, and the production of trust. Exchanging information and emotional support is the starting point for community formation. But members must trust the support they receive, and trust requires belief n the support-giver’s identity.

In this newsgroup, indicators for trustworthyness were:
  • the use of real names either in the email address or in the signature,
  • public discussions of face-to-face interactions with other community members,  
  • the tonality of the posts (members’ posts had to “ring true”).
Allthough in some virtual settings (e.g. health support groups), participant anonymity may be desirable, with regard to the production of trust and of member legitimacy, members should be encouraged to participate under their real names and provide enough personal information to support relationship formation. Furthermore members need a safe environment in which they can participate without fear, can identify other members’ individual voices, and can learn to trust others.

Implications for organization-sponsored communities

The findings of Blanchard & Marcus contradict the simplistic assumption in some parts of the e-business literature: It is not enough to build a virtual meeting place and a community will come by itself. Members may participate in an organization-sponsored virtual meeting place but they do not share automatically a sense of virtual community, they do not form online or offline personal connections, nor do they exchange socio-emotional support. And it is questionable whether an e-business strategy requires a virtual community. A virtual meeting place may be sufficient to meet the business objectives. A virtual community might even be counterproductive for the sponsor: The sporting goods vendors in the newsgroup were expected to be community members first and a vendors second. They had to be careful that their involvement was perceived as benefiting the virtual community, not solely their business.


Blanchard, Anita L. and Markus, M. Lynne (2004). The Experienced "Sense" of a Virtual Community: Characteristics and Processes. Database for Advances in Information Systems; Winter 2004; ABI/INFORM Global p. 65; Google Scholar

Suggestion for further reading

Freitag, 4. Januar 2013

Congrats! 2013 is the 20th anniversary of Howard Rheingold's book "The Virtual Community"

For people who haven't yet read the book, here is the link to the html-version on Howard Rheingold's homepage:

My favourite part of the book is chapter 10: Disinformocracy. And this is how it opens:

"Virtual communities could help citizens revitalize democracy, or they could be luring us into an attractively packaged substitute for democratic discourse."

In 1987 Howard Rheingold wrote the article "Virtual Communities - exchanging ideas through computer bulletin boards". It seems that this article is the first known publication of the term "virtual community".