Donnerstag, 23. Januar 2014

Social information behaviour as a Driver of Online Communities

The need for information is one of the reasons why people participate in communities and information exchange (like giving and receiving support) is a social phenomenon. But very often, seekers of information are seen as individuals and the focus in many studies lies on individual information behaviour - omitting socials aspect. Reddy & Jansen [1], on the other hand, argue that more emphasis should be put on these social aspects in information behaviour, that is why they investigate the driving forces that lie behind social information

Individual information behavior

Information behaviour is conceptualized as individual mainly for two reasons: the emphasis on individual rather than collaborative work needs and the interest for the interaction of a single user with some kind of information technology. The most common model  type is the database query model in which a single user issues - according to her/his goal - a specific query against a data repository in order to gain meaningful results. The steps can be described as follows (Marchionini, 1995):

  • information problem identification
  • problem definition
  • search system selection
  • query formulation
  • search execution
  • results examination
  • information extraction
  • reflection/reiteration/stop
This type of model has been criticized on the individual level because many users don’t have clearly defined goals and well-formulated queries and the social context is totally omitted.
A less technological and somewhat more emphatic model is Kulhthau's Information Search Process (1991). The following description is taken from Wikipedia ( It is a literal quote because the description is so vivid:

  • Initiation: During the first stage, initiation, the information seeker recognizes the need for new information to complete an assignment. As they think more about the topic, they may discuss the topic with others and brainstorm the topic further.This stage of the information seeking process is filled with feelings of apprehension and uncertainty.
  • Selection: In the second stage, selection, the individual begins to decide what topic will be investigated and how to proceed. Some information retrieval may occur at this point. The uncertainty associated with the first stage often fades with the selection of a topic, and is replaced with a sense of optimism.
  • Exploration: In the third stage, exploration, information on the topic is gathered and a new personal knowledge is created. Students endeavor to locate new information and situate it within their previous understanding of the topic. In this stage, feelings of anxiety may return if the information seeker finds inconsistent or incompatible information.
  • Formulation: During the fourth stage, formulation, the information seeker starts to evaluate the information that has been gathered. At this point, a focused perspective begins to form and there is not as much confusion and uncertainty as in earlier stages..Formulation is considered to be the most important stage of the process. The information seeker will here formulate a personalized construction of the topic from the general information gathered in the exploration phase.
  • Collection: During the fifth stage, collection, the information seeker knows what is needed to support the focus. Now presented with a clearly focused, personalized topic, the information seeker will experience greater interest, increased confidence, and more successful searching.
  • Search closure:In the sixth and final stage, search closure, the individual has completed the information search. Now the information seeker will summarize and report on the information that was found through the process. The information seeker will experience a sense of relief and, depending on the fruits of their search, either satisfaction or disappointment.


Social information behavior


Social or collaborative information behaviour, on the other hand, comprises activities that a group or team of people undertakes to identify and resolve a shared information need. According to this definition the authors' (qualitative) studies focused on two teams of individuals in a hospital context (a surgical intensive care unit and an emergency department).
The authors distinguish two information environments:

  • the behavíoural environment (ranging from information searching to information seeking with the characteristics: problem [simple, complex], agents [single, multiple] and interaction [direct, conversational]) and
  • the contextual environment (ranging from individual to collective information behaviour).

In this model an external trigger can lead to a direct search by the individual that expects the problem to be simple and that is that. But during the search the individual may feel the need to ask others because she/he initially underestimated the problem and so the whole team engages in collective information behaviour by pooling the individual expertise using different kinds of information technology.
The triggers that shift a mainly individual to a collaborative behaviour are:
  • complexity of information need
  • fragmented information resources (environments where information resources are in several, dispersed systems)
  • lack of domain expertise (the individual has not the required knowledge and needs help)
  • lack of immediately accessible information

The following table summarizes the model:

Possible conclusions for communities with with participants showing strong social information behaviour:
  • Make sure that the community members can see which other members are available at that moment.
  • Facilitate 1:1-communication (messengers, chat, video conferencing).
  • Allow for team-communication (video conferencing).
  • Make sharing the results possible.
  • Visualize the users search process and the contributions of the collaborators.

Addendum (24.1.14): I've just stumbled across Jelly, an app for Android an iOS which seems to be designed exclusively in order to support social information behavior. See for yourselves, here is the link:

[1] Reddy, Madhu C., and Bernard J. Jansen. "A model for understanding collaborative information behavior in context: A study of two healthcare teams."Information Processing & Management 44.1 (2008): 256-273. Google Scholar

[2] Marchionini, Gary. Information seeking in electronic environments. No. 9. Cambridge University Press, 1995. Google Scholar

[3] Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process>