TAO/Handbook/What is an Online Community?

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

An online community enables persons with common interests and values who use the internet and other communication technologies to share thoughts or work on joint projects on a regular basis and independently from their place of residence. Members of online communities may develop mutual attachments (Döring, p. 12, quoted from Schaffert & Wieden-Bischof, 2009, p. 11), leading to personal empowerment, increasing social inclusion, or resulting in improved psychological wellbeing (i2 media research, 2010, p. 44).

There is no commonly agreed on definition of online community. A broad definition by Preece (2001) defines online community as "any virtual social space where people come together to get and give information or support, to learn, or to find company. The community can be local, national, international, small or large" (p. 3). Online communities are virtual communities because they use the computer as medium to carry out the activities that define their community. From Preece's definition we can derive that what all online communities have in common is:

  • The provision of a virtual social space where people come together
  • The possibility to engage in multipersonal social communication

Today's online communities provide users with the facilities to produce “significant social activity” (Butler, 2001, p. 346). Ideally, the activity of a critical mass of users leads to organic growth of information or even collective intelligence. Persons with information needs can pose fully phrased questions to a community. This clearly differs from the search process applied to a search engine where frequently the format of the required information must be defined beforehand (Godfrey & Johnson, 2008, p. 638).

Recommendations[edit | edit source]

Please insert findings of TAO or other projects.

Established practices in online communities[edit | edit source]

  • Leverage interests of existing social groups with an urge to communicate/collaborate/participate online
  • Communicate the benefits of the membership clearly
  • Make joining up easy
  • Make participating easy
  • Follow guidelines on accessibility and usability for older adults
  • Bridge intergenerational gaps in knowledge or norms
  • Provide a constant stream of useful information
  • Nurture social reciprocity

Solutions to common challenges[edit | edit source]

  • Disparity in main interests between generations
  • Disparity in social norms between generations
  • Inadequate ICT infrastructure in country of origin
  • Low ICT skill among new members

Examples[edit | edit source]

One criterion by which online communities can be distinguished – at least to a certain extent – is their function. Accordingly, one could ask for the main purpose that an online community is supposed to fulfill.

  • Community of business: Information about products, business partners and customers is the focal point of communities of business. They provide value for both clients/customers and businesses and thereby facilitate communication between the two groups. Common examples revolve around customer support, product information, product usage, or marketing campaigns.
  • Community of interest: Exchange of information and/or support usually takes place inside the boundaries of specific topics in which the members of a community share a common interest (e.g. health). Hagel & Armstrong (1997) used the term community of interest for communities with that kind of main purpose. While learning is certainly an aspect of communities of interest it need not be their main function.
  • Community of knowledge: Communities of knowledge (Bürbaumer & Mellacher, 2009), on the other hand, can be defined as just that, namely communities who engage in communication in order to acquire and provide knowledge – usually about a specific topic.
  • Community of practice: Communities of practice (Wenger et al., 2002) can be localized at the borderline of online communities of interest and online communities of knowledge. Their main purpose is, on the one hand, to provide information and support among a like-minded group of persons (often professionals) and, on the other, to facilitate mutual learning. The term "practice" indicates that members of the community engage in a common – usually rather complex and frequently professional – activity.
  • Community of relationship: What draws members to online communities of the mainly socially interactive kind is the possibility to get into and stay in contact with persons they know and like and to meet new persons who appeal to them. Often members are offered the chance to follow up and comment on each others' activities. Hagel & Armstrong (1997) would call these "communities of relationship".
Type of online community Main function Predominant form of communication Content Examples
Business Creation of value for businesses and customers Professional; client-customer communication Information about products, business partners and customers smallbusinessonlinecommunity.bankofamerica.com/index.jspa
Interest Exchange of information and support concerning a specific topic or a cause Informal; personal Advice, reports mostly based on personal experience; potentially unreliable progressiveexchange.org


Knowledge Collection and retrieval of information; knowledge management Formal; expert; impersonal Structured, reliable, factual information community-of-knowledge.de
Practice Exchange of information and support and mutual learning concerning a profession or a practice Formal; expert discussion How-to-information; instructions, guidelines; best practices myplan.com/careers/chiropractors/community-29-1011.00.html
Relationship Staying in touch; making new social contacts Formal; expert; impersonal Personal information; conversations; potentially unreliable facebook.com
  • Online social network: Some communities of relationship are limited to specific societal groups. For instance, there are online communities aimed specifically at older persons. This relationship-oriented type of online community is sometimes also referred to as an online social network. Online social networks are online communities that emphasize affiliations of its members (geographical, shared background, common social interests) more strongly than their topical interests. Online social networks can also be characterized in terms of their form of information exchange. It is “ad hoc, informal, personal, often anecdotal, largely unregulated and potentially unreliable” (Godfrey & Johnson, 2008, p. 638). Nevertheless, Godfrey & Johnson (2008) believe that online social networks have the “potential for empowering individuals and citizens and developing and strengthening communities...” (p. 638).

Theoretical Information[edit | edit source]

Omoto & Snyder (2002) define a community as a psychological entity or conceptualization, rather than a geographically bounded area. An important feature of such a psychological community is the existence of a sense of community, which can be described as a feeling of belonging, connection, confidence and esteem that is attached to a psychologically identifiable community or grouping. Although the academic debate about what defines a "sense of community" is ongoing, it is advantageous to consider communities in such a psychological way. This conceptualization comprises the aspects of membership (sense of belonging), influence (refers to mutual influence among members), integration and need fulfillment (the community fulfills members' needs, including need for status, success and protection) and shared emotional connection (value of shared experiences). The sense of community contributes to individual and collective action: members tend to feel obligated to work on behalf of the community, and to be good team players. Moreover, a sense of community increases people's readiness to engage in volunteer activity (Omoto & Snyder, 2002). McMillan & Chavis' (1986) model of Sense of Community has sparked a large amount of research and is empirically well validated. Recently, Peterson, Speer & McMillan (2008) delivered evidence through confirmatory factor analysis for the four dimensions of the model, which include needs fulfillment (the community meets members needs), group membership (best characterized as a feeling of belonging), influence (the sense, on the one hand, that one can make a difference and, on the other hand, that the community is important to its members), and emotional connection (a feeling of attachment, which is based on members‟ shared history and experience). In a reappraisal of McMillan & Chavis‟ (1986) model, McMillan (1996, p. 315) mentions the following four elements as characteristic of a sense of community.

  1. a spirit of belonging together,
  2. a feeling that there is an authority structure that can be trusted,
  3. an awareness that trade, and mutual benefit come from being together, and
  4. a spirit that comes from shared experiences that are preserved as art.

Art, in this sense, symbolizes a collective heritage (e.g. in song and dance). The spirit of belonging together is dominated by a feeling of friendship between members of the community. This creates a setting which allows community members to express unique aspects of their personality (McMillan, 1996, p. 315). Members of a community can be themselves and can see themselves mirrored in the eyes and responses of others (p. 316). McMillan (1996, p. 316) believes that “the first task of a community is to make it safe to tell “The Truth””. This is dependent on a number of preconditions, namely community empathy, understanding, and caring. In a community that is built on trust there exists a certain order (McMillan, 1996, p. 319). It is a community that has norms, rules, or laws. This order allows members to predict, plan, and commit. In fact, a sense of personal mastery (McMillan, 1996, p. 319) is only possible if one knows a community's norms and laws. McMillan (1996, p. 321) makes it clear that communities establish a “social economy”, which is based on shared intimacy. The unit of exchange in this economy is self-disclosure. The value of a trade can be measured according to the personal risk involved in self-disclosure. McMillan (1996) is convinced that this risk is only taken on if community members feel safe from shame.

References[edit | edit source]

Bürbaumer, C. & Mellacher, D. (2009). Virtuelle Communities: Identifikation von Erfolgsfaktoren und Prüfung ihrer Bedeutung. Hamburg: Diplomica Verlag.

Butler, B. S. (2001). Membership size, communication activity, and sustainability: A resource-based model of online social structures. Information Systems Research, 12(4), 346-362.

Godfrey, M., & Johnson, O. (2009). Digital circles of support: Meeting the information needs of older people. Computers in Human Behavior, 25(3), 633–642. doi:doi: DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2008.08.016

Hagel, J. & Armstrong, H. (1997). Net Gain: Expanding Markets through Virtual Communities. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

i2 media research (2010). Next Generation Services for Older and Disabled people. Available online: http://www.ofcom.org.uk/files/2010/09/ACOD-NGS.pdf

McMillan, D. W. (1996). Sense of community. Journal of Community Psychology, 24(4), 315–325. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1520-6629(199610)24:4<315::AID-JCOP2>3.0.CO;2-T

McMillan, D. W., & Chavis, D. M. (1986). Sense of Community - A Definition and Theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 14(1), 6–23. Omoto, A. M., & Snyder, M. (2002). Considerations of community - The context and process of volunteerism. American Behavioral Scientist, 45(5), 846–867.

Peterson, N. A., Speer, P. W., & McMillan, D. W. (2008). Validation of A brief sense of community scale: Confirmation of the principal theory of sense of community. Journal of Community Psychology, 36(1), 61–73. doi:10.1002/jcop.20217

Preece, J. (2001). Sociability and usability in online communities: Determining and measuring success. Behavior and information technology journal, 20(5), 347–356.

Schaffert, S., & Wieden-Bischof, D. (2009). Erfolgreicher Aufbau von Online-Communitys: Konzepte, Szenarien und Handlungsempfehlungen. Salzburg: Salzburg Research Forschungsgesellschaft m.b.H.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. A., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Harvard Business Press.

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