This chapter describes a small networked community in which residents of an apartment building in Washington, D.C., USA supplement their face-to-face social interactions with a Yahoo e-mail listserver. Analysis of over 460 messages that have been archived since July 2000, when the list began, reveals that the issues driving participation on the list also drive participation off the list. Threats to safety, high rent increases, and changes in management practices, such as parking regulations and access to facilities, motivate communication on and offline. Furthermore, those who are most active online are typically most active offline. Activity on the list is strongly fuelled by interest and discussion around local events, hence the term event-driven, and is promoted by activist tenants. Friendly notes about new restaurants, bird observations and other niceties may help a little to create a sense of overall community, but they do little to motivate online participation.
People join online communities for many different reasons: they want to meet new people and make friends by social networking; get and exchange information; find support; debate and persuade others to take action or adopt their point of view; work and learn together; explore ideas; take on new personas; avoid being alone; play games; hang-out with like minded people and many more. Networked communities are a particular type of online community which is typically geographically based but which utilizes the Internet to distribute information, coordinate activities and mobilize people. Networked communities therefore operate within both physical and virtual places.
Depending on the purpose of the community and members’ personal motivations for joining the community, different kinds of technical infrastructure are needed by these communities. If the community’s focus is to provide another medium for communication for people who live locally and share local facilities, as in this study, the motivation of its members and their patterns of usage will be different from those in online communities with only a virtual common place. Foth (2006a, 2006b) and Foth and Hearn (2007) distinguishes between collective interaction which involves many-to-many interactions that tend to be structured and are sometimes formal and associated with community associations and groups that hold discussions about place-based interests such as rent increases and street rejuvenations, and networked interaction that involves peer-to-peer interactions that tend to be transitory and informal, in which the interaction is not limited to place-based interests.
Increasingly, however, many researchers are noting the blurring between place-based community interaction and virtual interaction. (Wellman & Haythornthwaite, 2002; Mesch & Levanon, 2003; Maloney-Krichmar & Preece, 2005; Boase, Horrigan, Wellman, Rainie, 2006). This trend is particularly pronounced with the increased use of cell phones and other mobile devices with Internet capability and the ubiquitous role of the Internet in many people’s lives, particularly among teens, college students and young adults under thirty-five years of age in many parts of the world.
Another trend that researchers observe is that many communities use the online space in ways that are unintended by the community software developer or technology owner. Community members tend to take advantage of affordances available through the software design to fulfill their own needs regardless of the purpose for which it was developed (Lefebvre, 1991). For example, the owner of the community discussed in this chapter intended the community to be much more socially-oriented, whereas it turned out to be strongly focused on activism geared towards combating the activities of the apartment building managers.
In addition to participants that actively contribute to online discussions, many people join virtual community spaces and do not post, a concept variously referred to as lurking, visiting, or participating silently (Nonnecke and Preece, 2000). There are several reasons why people fail to participate online, and chief among them are: getting what they needed without having to participate actively (also known as lurking or social loafing); thinking that they were being helpful by not posting because what they were going to say had already been said; wanting to learn more about the community before diving in; not being able to use the software because of poor usability; not liking the dynamics that they observed within the group and feeling that they did not fit in the community (Nonnecke and Preece, 2000; Selwyn, 2003; Preece et al., 2004; Nonnecke et al., 2006; Bishop, 2007).