Online Communities and Community Building

Online Communities and Community Building

Martin C. Kindsmüller (Berlin University of Technology, Germany), Sandro Leuchter (Berlin University of Technology, Germany) and Leon Urbas (Berlin University of Technology, Germany)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch462
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Abstract

“Online community” is one of today’s buzzwords. Even though superficially it is not hard to understand, the term has become somewhat vague while being extensively used within the e-commerce business. Within this article, we refer to online community as being a voluntary group of users who partake actively in a certain computer-mediated service. The term “online community” is preferred over the term “virtual community,” as it denotes the character of the community more accurately: community members are interacting online as opposed to face to face. Furthermore, the term “virtual community” seems too unspecific, because it includes other communities that only exist virtually, whereas an online community in our definition is always a real community in the sense that community members know that they are part of the community. Nevertheless, there are other reasonable definitions of online community. An early and most influencing characterization (which unfortunately utilizes the term “virtual community”) was coined by Howard Rheingold (1994), who wrote: “…virtual communities are cultural aggregations that emerge when enough people bump into each other often enough in cyberspace. A virtual community is a group of people […] who exchanges words and ideas through the mediation of computer bulletin boards and networks” (p. 57). A more elaborated and technical definition of online community was given by Jenny Preece (2000), which since then, has been a benchmark for developers. She stated that an online community consists of four basic constituents (Preece, 2000, p. 3): 1. Socially interacting people striving to satisfy their own needs. 2. A shared purpose, such as interest or need that provides a reason to cooperate. 3. Policies in the form of tacit assumptions, rituals, or rules that guide the community members’ behavior. 4. A technical system that works as a carrier that mediates social interaction. Not explicitly mentioned in this characterization but nevertheless crucial for our aforementioned definition (and not in opposition to Preece’s position) is voluntary engagement.
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Introduction

“Online community” is one of today’s buzzwords. Even though superficially it is not hard to understand, the term has become somewhat vague while being extensively used within the e-commerce business. Within this article, we refer to online community as being a voluntary group of users who partake actively in a certain computer-mediated service. The term “online community” is preferred over the term “virtual community,” as it denotes the character of the community more accurately: community members are interacting online as opposed to face to face. Furthermore, the term “virtual community” seems too unspecific, because it includes other communities that only exist virtually, whereas an online community in our definition is always a real community in the sense that community members know that they are part of the community.

Nevertheless, there are other reasonable definitions of online community. An early and most influencing characterization (which unfortunately utilizes the term “virtual community”) was coined by Howard Rheingold (1994), who wrote: “…virtual communities are cultural aggregations that emerge when enough people bump into each other often enough in cyberspace. A virtual community is a group of people […] who exchanges words and ideas through the mediation of computer bulletin boards and networks” (p. 57). A more elaborated and technical definition of online community was given by Jenny Preece (2000), which since then, has been a benchmark for developers. She stated that an online community consists of four basic constituents (Preece, 2000, p. 3):

  • 1.

    Socially interacting people striving to satisfy their own needs.

  • 2.

    A shared purpose, such as interest or need that provides a reason to cooperate.

  • 3.

    Policies in the form of tacit assumptions, rituals, or rules that guide the community members’ behavior.

  • 4.

    A technical system that works as a carrier that mediates social interaction.

Not explicitly mentioned in this characterization but nevertheless crucial for our aforementioned definition (and not in opposition to Preece’s position) is voluntary engagement.

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Background

Just because everybody is now talking about them, online communities are, historically seen, neither an implication of the World Wide Web — which dates back to 1991 (Berners-Lee et al., 1992) — nor dependent on the Internet as a transport infrastructure. In fact, online communities emerged at times when ARPAnet—the predecessor of the Internet — was still restricted to military-funded institutions. They were based on computerized bulletin boards first introduced by Christensen and Suess (1978). Their system was called CBBS (computerized bulletin board system) and followed the idea of a thumbtack bulletin board hosted electronically on a computer. Other computer hobbyists were able to connect with their home computers via a dial-up modem connection and could “pin” messages to a shared “board.” The first online communities developed through other participants responding to those messages, creating ongoing discussions. At that time, computer hobbyists and scientists were more or less the only ones who owned computers and modems. Therefore, most topics on CBBS were within the realm of computers, but in the long run, the discussions broaden. Within the 1980s, similar systems appeared that were now subsumed as BBS (bulletin board system). The most well known were “The Well” (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) and FidoNet (Rheingold, 2000).

Apparently, at the very same time, the technological and social environment was ready for online communities, as there were at least two other independent developments concerning this matter:

  • 1.

    The Usenet was invented by computer science students at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, using a simple scheme by which these two computer communities could automatically exchange information via modems at regular intervals.

  • 2.

    The first MUDs appeared at the University of Essex (UK) creating playful and imaginative online communities. MUDs (short for Multi-User Dungeon/Dimension/Domain) are computer-implemented versions of text-based role-playing games, in which multiple persons can take virtual identities and interact with one another. Early MUDs were adventure games played within old castles with hidden rooms, trapdoors, etc.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Virtual Community: A featureless and, therefore, often misleading term usually regarded as synonymous to online community. The term “online community” is preferable, as it denotes the character of the community more accurately.

Community Building: All activities related to building and maintaining online communities.

UaE (User-As-Editors) Approach: The community members are responsible for supplying new content and for the quality assurance of existing content, as well as for creating and maintaining the etiquette of the community.

CSCW (Computer-Supported Cooperative Work): Software tools and technology as well as organizational structures that support groups of people (typically from different sites) working together on a common project.

Wiki: Internet service based on HTTP and HTML providing “open editing” of Web pages with a Web browser. Hyperlinks between documents are supported with simple textual references. By default, everybody is allowed to edit all available pages.

Online Community: An online community is a voluntary group of active users that partake actively in a certain computer-mediated service.

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