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.

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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: http://www.rheingold.com/vc/book/intro.html.

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".