The Internet has developed from an informative medium to a social environment where people meet together, exchange messages and emotions, and establish friendships and social relationships. While the Internet was originally conceived as a commercial marketspace (Rayport & Sviokla, 1994), nowadays the social side of the Web is a central phenomenon to truly understand the Internet. Social gratification is among the most relevant motivations to go online (Bagozzi & Dholakia, 2006; Stafford & Stafford, 2001). People socialise through the Internet, adding a third motivation to their online activity, other that the pleasure of surfing in itself (the “flow experience” described by Hoffman & Novak, 1996) and the usefulness of finding information. Virtual communities are springing up both as spontaneous aggregation (like the Usenet newsgroups) or forums promoted and organised by Web sites. The topics of a community range from support for a disease to passion for a given product or brand (Muñiz & O’Guinn, 2001). The intensity and relevance of the virtual sociality cannot be discarded. Companies can receive useful and actionable knowledge around their own offer studying the communities devoted to their brand. Hence social research should adopt refined tools to study the communities in order to achieve reliable results. The aim of this article is to illustrate the main research methods viable for virtual communities, examining their pros and cons.
A virtual community can be defined as a social aggregation that springs out when enough people engage in public conversations, establishing solid social tie (Rheingold, 2000). The study of virtual communities has increased, following the development of the phenomenon. One of the first works is that of Rheingold that studied a seminal computer conferencing system: “The Well” (“Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link”). Starting from that, lots of researchers have deepened different facets of the Internet sociability. The methods employed are various: network analysis (Smith, 1999), actual participation as ethnographer in a virtual community (Kozinets, 2002), documentary and content analysis (Donath, 1999), interviews (Roversi, 2001), and surveys (Barry, 2001).
The aims of these studies can be divided into two main and intertwined areas: sociological and business-based. The former is well understandable, due to the relevance that the virtual sociality has gained today. Turkle (1995) uses the expression “life on the screen” to signal the richness of interactions available in the Web environment; Castells (1996) reverses the usual expression “virtual reality” into “real virtuality”, since the virtual environment cannot be considered a sort of deprivation from life, but one of its enhancements and extensions. Regarding the business benefits of studying the communities, many of them are organised around a brand and product (Algesheimer & Dholakia, 2006; Algesheimer, Dholakia, & Herrmann, 2005; Bagozzi & Dholakia, 2006; Muñiz & O’Guinn, 2001). The virtual communities can be spontaneously formed or organised by the company (Cova & Pace, 2006; McAlexander, Schouten, & Koenig, 2002). The researcher could even create an ad hoc community, without relying on extant ones (spontaneous or organised). In creating a community, the researcher should follow the same rules that keep alive a normal community, such as the organisation of rituals that foster the member’s identity in the group and their attendance, allowing for the formation of roles among the users (Kim, 2000).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Netnography: Method of online research developed by Robert Kozinets; it consists of ethnography adapted to the study of online communities. The researcher assumes the role of a regular member of the community (disclosing, for ethical reasons, her/his role).
Multi-User Dungeon (MUD): A virtual space where subjects play a game similar to an arcade, interacting through textual and visual tools; in a MUD, it is usual to experience a hierarchy.
Avatar: Personification of a user in a graphic virtual reality; an avatar can be an icon, an image, or a character, and it interacts with other avatars in the shared virtual reality. The term is drawn from the Hindu culture, where it refers to the incarnation of a deity.
Content Analysis: Objective, systematic, and quantitative analysis of communication content; the unit of measure can be single words, sentences, or themes. In order to raise the reliability, two or more coders should apply.
Survey: Measurement procedure under the form of questions asked by respondents; the questions can be addressed through a written questionnaire that the respondent has to fill in or through a personal interview (following, or not following, a written guideline). The items of the questionnaire can be open or multiple-choice.
Experiment: Research method in which the researcher manipulates some independent variables to measure the effects on a dependent variable