In this chapter, the authors suggest how measures of “social network health” can be used to evaluate the status and progress of a virtual community. Using social capital theory as a foundation, the authors describe community health as the general condition of a community leading toward its advancement or decline, and show how social network analytical measures can be applied to existing virtual community archives to measure social network health. They describe the metric development and validation process and use their empirical study of 143 open source software project communities to illustrate how this process can be applied. Their hope is social network health metrics will be devised and integrated into host platforms for various types of virtual communities, thus providing socio-technical system designers and community managers with a valuable new diagnostic tool for tracking the status and progress of their communities.
Social network analysis can provide an X-ray of the way in which work is or is not occurring in these informal networks.
—Cross, Parker, Prusak, and BorgattiTop
The Health Of Virtual Communities
While various definitions have been offered in the literature, a simple definition is adopted for the purposes of this chapter:
A virtual community is a population of individuals with shared or complementary interests who interact across a host platform.
Viewed from a socio-technical system perspective, our definition makes explicit the social aspect and the technical aspect. The social aspect is the population of individuals and their interests and needs. In some cases, the members of the population may have a single shared interest as in a socializing community where the members are generally seeking friendship and a social experience. In other cases, the population may consist of individuals with two different but complementary interests or needs, as with a knowledge sharing community where some members have an interest in providing knowledge while other members have a need to seek knowledge.1
The technical aspect of the virtual community is the web-based host platform which is provided by a hosting organization. We view this host platform as including not only the enabling technologies, such as wikis, blogs or databases, but also the rules and policies which govern the behavior of community members. The host organization will typically provide some general policies while individual community managers will often provide more specific policies geared to the needs of their particular community.
Combining a population and a platform, a set of interactions will emerge and in some respects the community itself is defined by this set of interactions. In this context, the notions of “community” and “interaction” are broadly interpreted and can involve either direct interactions among individuals (e.g. as in threaded conversations) or indirect interactions through the collective creation, modification, and use of persistent digital goods (e.g. as in interactions through a digital repository such as the Wikipedia). Taken together, the technology and policy components of the platform provide a protocol of interaction for the virtual community. This protocol essentially represents a set of affordances and constraints which can have a significant influence on the nature and success of the community that emerges.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Social Network Health: A type of community health involving the structure of relationships and information flows within a community, where this structure can be represented as a social network.
Social Network Analysis: A large collection of methodologies, measurements, and tools that can be used for the description and analysis of graph-based social networks.
Host Platform: A web site or network-based portal which enables interaction among virtual community members, including both technological components and policy components.
Social Capital: Social attributes of a group which are of value to the group or to an individual within the group.
Community Health: The general condition of a community which may lead towards its advancement or decline. Community health can also be viewed as the absence of dysfunctional structures or processes.
Social Network: A graph theoretical representation of the relationships between social entities, in which the social entities are represented as a set of nodes and the relationships are represented as a set of ties which connect the nodes.
Virtual Community: A population of individuals with shared or complementary interests who interact across a host platform.