Freitag, 30. Mai 2014

Communities of Action: Are Online Activists Different from Offline Activists?

Theoretically, the question whether political online participation differs from offline participation can be answered in two ways [1]:
  • The mobilization thesis argues that due to new information and communication technologies, previously not engaged groups can be reached. Therefore, online activists should be different from offline activists.
  • The reinforcement thesis assumes that the Internet won't change existing patterns of political participation. It might even widen the participatory gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged populations. Or in other words: On- and offline activists should be more or less the same bunch of people.
Oser et al. [2] tried to settle the question analyzing the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s August 2008 survey (Pew Internet and American Life Project 2008). The survey was based on telephone interviews among adults (n = 2.251, age: 18+) who were asked questions regarding online and offline participation. The survey took place during the presidential campaign of 2008 (Obama vs. McCain) which hints to possible limitations of the survey as the Obama campaign was particularly successful at mobilizing traditionally less engaged populations such as young people and women.

The authors used latent class analysis (LCA) and - based on the results - examined the characteristics (age, gender socio-economic status) of the identified participation types. In a latent class model people can be categorized  into different types (latent classes) based on their observable behavior. Participation indicators used in the analysis were:
  • signing a petition (offline, online)
  • donating money (offline, online)
  • contacting a government official in person, by phone, or by letter (offline) or by email (online)
  • starting/joining a political group or group supporting a cause on a social networking site (online)
  • being an active member of a group that tries to influence policy, except a political party (offline)
  • attending a political rally, speech, or organized protest (offline)
  • working/volunteering for a political party or candidate (offline)
The LCA identified four distinct groups: the disengaged (73 % of all respondents), the contacters (10 %), the offline activists (9 %), and the online activists (8 %). All four groups have a different participation repertoire.

Oser, J., Hooghe, M., & Marien, S. (2013). Is online participation distinct from offline participation? A latent class analysis of participation types and their stratification. Political Research Quarterly, 66 (1), 91-101.

Example: The online activist's probability of online donating  is 51.3 % in comparison to 5.6 % in the sample population.

Online participation is a distinct type of participation
The findings provided strong evidence in support of the mobilization thesis. Online activists are a distinct group in comparison to the three other identified participation types. Although online activists prefer online forms of participation, they are also involved in offline participation.

Mixed results for the influence of age, gender and socio-economic status
Mobilization thesis is strongly confirmed regarding age, and it is also confirmed for gender. For socio-economic status, however, the findings suggest a reinforcement of traditional education and income inequalities in online political participation.
  • Age: Young people tend to engage with politics in a new way through online means.
  • Gender: There is no evidence for a gender divide for any of the participation types. Women seem to catch up with mens' early adoption of new technologies, especially regarding the use of social media (note the inclusion of political social media use in the survey).
  • Socio-economic status: The socio-economic stratification is basically the same for the online as for the offline activist type. The advantaged are more active in both online and offline participation, suggesting a reinforcement of traditional education and income inequalities in online political participation and limiting the democratic potential of the Internet for impacting upon patterns of political participation and participatory inequality.
Targeting potential activists for communities of action
A community of action is a group of people brought together by their desire to change something. Often these communities are initiated by non-profit or fundraising organizations. [3] The study of Oser et al. gives certain hints how to optimize the activities:
  • Online activists don't tend to donate offline. So offer them a possibility to donate online.
  • Contacters are relatively inactive in a number of participation acts (e.g., party work, donating offline, demonstrating) or essentially on par with the general population (e.g., active member of an offline and online political or social group and online donating). Therefore, efforts to stimulate other types of engagement in contacters may be futile.
  • Offer possibilities for online participation in order to reach out to younger people and use social media networks in order to reach out to women.
  • The chance of making a difference is higher, when the cause is suited for the mobilization of the advantaged.

[1] Norris, P. (2000). A Virtuous Circle: Political Communications in Postindustrial Societies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 12.

[2] Oser, J., Hooghe, M., & Marien, S. (2013). Is online participation distinct from offline participation? A latent class analysis of participation types and their stratification. Political Research Quarterly, 66 (1), 91-101. Google Scholar

[3] Millington, R. (2014). Types of community and actives within the community. Retrieved May 28, 2014, from

Dienstag, 6. Mai 2014

Sense of Community: Is there a fifth dimensions?

In three papers, Obst et al. [1, 2, 3] published the results of their investigation about the sense of community (SOC). They had asked 359 members of SF fandom attending Aussiecon 3, the 1999 World Science Fiction Convention about the way they feel about the fandom community (a - relational - community of interest with membership from all over the world) and about their neighbourhood (a geographical community). The main research interest was to find out whether McMillan and Chavis' four dimensions of SOC played a role in both community types (relational and geographic) and whether there is a separate fifth factor - conscious ingroup identification. Both assumptions were confirmed by the results.

What is sense of community?
McMillan and Chavis (1986) [4] suggest four dimensions which work together dynamically in order to create and maintain an overall sense of community :
  • Membership: The concept includes emotional safety derived from membership, the sense of belonging and identification with the community, personal investment in the community, leading to stronger bonds, and some kind of common symbol system, which unites a community. These attributes go together in a mutually self-reinforcing way.
  • Influence means a reciprocal relationship between individuals and the community in terms of their impact on one another. Influence is a bi-directional concept, as for a group to be attractive, an individual must feel they have some control and influence over it, while, on the other hand, for a group to be cohesive it must also influence its individual members. McMillan and Chavis (1986) state that pressure of conformity from community members actually comes from the needs of individual members for consensual validation. In turn conformity serves as a force for cohesiveness.
  • Integration and Fulfillment of Needs: Members must perceive the association to the community as rewarding for the individual members (like status of membership, success of the community, and the perceived competence of other members).
  • Shared Emotional Connection: The more people interact, the more likely they are to form close relationships. The more positive this interaction, the stronger the bond developed. 
In 1996 McMillan [5] revisited the theory:
  • Membership was reinterpreted as Spirit, emphasizing friendship and belonging over boundaries.
  • Influence was replaced with Trust, emphasizing the development of community norms leading to order, and the equal distribution of power leading to authority based on principle and clear decision making capacity, all of which allow spirit to grow and flourish.
  • Fulfillment of Needs was replaced with Trade, acknowledging the myriad kinds of rewards individuals gain from belonging to communities. The importance of similarity between members was also highlighted as an important bonding force previously neglected in this dimension.
  • Shared Emotional Connection, was replaced with Art, or collective memories, which McMillan described as stories of shared dramatic moments in which the community shares in common experiences representing the community’s values and traditions. However, the primacy of contact and of quality interaction to emotional connection is again highlighted in McMillan’s reinterpretation.
These dimensions work together to create an overall SOC. Art supports Spirit, Spirit with respected authority becomes Trust, Trust forms the basis of social Trade, and together these elements create a shared history symbolized by Art. In this way, McMillan’s four elements of SOC are linked together in a reinforcing circle.

And the results of Obst et al.?
  • McMillan and Chavis' four dimensions of SOC could be estabished in both communities (SF fandom and neighbourhood).
  • In-group identification was a separate 5th dimension in both community types. These results suggest that separate aspects of identification may relate to different dimensions of SOC. While identification’s more affective components and connection with other members are subsumed within McMillan and Chavis’ theorized dimensions of PSOC, knowledge and awareness of group membership is a separate and important dimension, not included within the SCI.
  • Furthermore, participants reported higher levels of global SOC with fandom than with their geographical communities, a pattern that also emerged across all factors separately. This may be due to the fact that members choose to belong to such communities and are drawn together through a common interest. In the present study this finding is of particular significance, as SF fandom operates on an international basis with fewer geographical connections than in many other relational communities. However, this study is limited in making stronger conclusions in relation to this finding, as participants were in a fannish context (a SF convention) rather than in their local neighborhood. Replication of this research is needed with data collected in a more neutral context.
  • All five dimensions were significant predictors of overall sense of community in both community types.
    • Conscious identification with fandom emerged as the strongest predictor, while in the neighborhood setting it was the weakest predictor. 
    • Belonging was a strong predictor in both communities. This suggests that belonging is an important dimension of sense of community in whatever context we are examining. 
    • Identification, however, seems to be more important in the communities to which we choose to belong than in those communities which we may have made a less conscious decision to join. 
    • Influence was an important predictor in geographical communities, however not at all important in the interest community. This may again be due to the element of perceived choice. If you choose to belong to an association due to common interest the need for influence over that association may be less than the need to feel some control or influence over the area in which you live.

[1] Obst, P., Zinkiewicz, L., & Smith, S. G. (2002). Sense of community in science fiction fandom, Part 1: Understanding sense of community in an international community of interest. Journal of Community Psychology, 30(1), 87-103. Google Scholar.

[2] Obst, P., Zinkiewicz, L., & Smith, S. G. (2002). Sense of community in science fiction fandom, Part 2: Comparing neighborhood and interest group sense of community. Journal of Community Psychology, 30(1), 105-117. Google Scholar.

[3] Obst, P., Smith, S. G., & Zinkiewicz, L. (2002). An exploration of sense of community, Part 3: Dimensions and predictors of psychological sense of community in geographical communities. Journal of Community Psychology, 30(1), 119-133. Google Scholar.

Obst, P. (2004) Community Connections: Psychological sense of community and identifcation in geographical and relational settings. Thesis. Retrieved March 14, 2014 from

[4] McMillan, D., & Chavis, D. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 14, 6-23. Google Scholar.

[5] McMillan, D. (1996). Sense of community. Journal of Community Psychology, 24, 315-325. Google Scholar.

Donnerstag, 1. Mai 2014

Community feedback is likely to perpetuate undesired member behavior

The feedback of other community members is considered to be an important corrective factor in moderating community discussions. Liking a post, voting on a comment, rating are the most common feedback mechanisms. Theoretically, feedback would lead users to behave in ways that benefit the community. But investigating four online sites,
  • (general news),
  • (political news),
  • (computer gaming), and 
  • (Korean entertainment
Cheng et al. [1] found some quite counter-intuitive results.

One commonality of these sites is that users post comments on (news) articles, where each comment can then be up- or down-voted by other users.

From a behaviourist point of view (here: operant conditioning), positive ratings should act as a “reward” and negative ratings as a“punishment”. So one would predict that feedback encourages users to generate better content in the future, and that users with negatively evaluated content will contribute less than rewarded users.

The impact on posting behavior
  • Negative feedback: Authors of negatively-evaluated content contribute more, their future posts are of also lower quality, and perceived by the community as even worse. Further, these authors are more likely to subsequently evaluate their fellow users negatively, percolating these effects through the community. 
  • Positive feedback neither encourages rewarded authors to write more, nor does it improve the quality of their posts. 
  • Users that receive no feedback are most likely to leave a community. 
Interestingly, evaluations polarize the community the most when positive and negative votes are equally split.

The impact on voting behavior

User behavior is largely tit-for-tat: Users with predominantly negative/positive evaluations will negatively/positively evaluate others. But very negatively evaluated people actually respond in a positive direction: The proportion of up-votes they give is higher than the proportion of up-votes they receive. And users receiving many up-votes appear to be more “critical”, as they evaluate others more negatively.

What are we to make of these findings?

The authers conclude that community feedback does not automatically drive behaviour in a direction that is beneficial to the community. Instead, it is likely to perpetuate detrimental behaviour. This, of course, raises the question whether the content evaluation mechanisms currently implemented in social media systems have effects contrary to the interest of the community.

Of course one could blame the theory: Despite of being a fundamental framework in behavioral psychology, there seems to be only limited empirical evidence that operant conditioning has noteworthy effects on human beeings. [2]

But did Cheng et al. investigate communities after all? Probably not. In a very general sense, the term community designates people gathering on a virtual site, even though the term audience would be  more appropriate. In a strict sense, a community comes into existence when users develop a significant sense of (virtual) community (SOVC). According McMillan and Chavis [2], sense of community consists has four components:
  • 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).
So I would expect, that members with a high SOVC but negatively rated contributions are likely to try to do better next time. Members with a low SOVC, on the other hand, may behave like described by the authors in their study or they may leave the community.

[1] Cheng, J., Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, C., & Leskovec, J. (2014). How Community Feedback Shapes User Behavior. Retrieved May 1, 2014, from

[2] Baron, A., Perone, M., & Galizio, M. (1991). Analyzing the reinforcement process at the human level: Can application and behavioristic interpretation replace laboratory research?. The Behavior Analyst, 14(2), 95. Google Scholar.

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

For further information about the SO(V)C concept and possible ways to measure it, see the post: "Sense of community in virtual communities" (12.8.2013)