Online Communities and Online Community Building

Online Communities and Online Community Building

Martin C. Kindsmüller (University of Lübeck, Germany), André Melzer (University of Lübeck, Germany) and Tilo Mentler (University of Lübeck, Germany)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch463
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Abstract

In this article, we define and describe the concept of online communities, outline the essential conditions under which they emerge and present some means that foster the building of online communities. “Online community” is one of the buzzwords in the age of Web 2.0. Within this article, we refer to online community as 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 a part of their 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). He 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 elaborate and technical definition of online community is given by Jenny Preece (2000), which acts as a benchmark for developers since then. She states that an online community consists of four basic constituents (Preece, 2000, p. 3): • Socially interacting people striving to satisfy their own needs; • A shared purpose like an interest or need that provides a reason to cooperate; • Policies in the form of tacit assumptions, rituals, or rules that guide the community members’ behavior; and • 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 (see also Janneck, Finck, & Oberquelle, 2005). As Preece’s (2000) definition indicates, the basic constituents of online communities include individual issues, group-related issues, as well as technology-related issues. Online communities thus comprise the participants’ basic individual motivation, the social interaction processes entailed to “bundle” individual needs to increase efficiency, and the implemented technical functions that support these processes. In the light of the aforementioned role of social processes, it is not surprising that, with respect to online communities, findings from voluntary groups of active user communities outside computer-based systems are also a highly relevant source of information (see e.g., Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). In the section devoted to online community building, we will present Kraut’s (2003) suggestion of a highly-sophisticated application of social psychology theory to address some well-known problems in online communities.
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Introduction

In this article, we define and describe the concept of online communities, outline the essential conditions under which they emerge and present some means that foster the building of online communities.

“Online community” is one of the buzzwords in the age of Web 2.0. Within this article, we refer to online community as 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 a part of their 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). He 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 elaborate and technical definition of online community is given by Jenny Preece (2000), which acts as a benchmark for developers since then. She states that an online community consists of four basic constituents (Preece, 2000, p. 3):

  • Socially interacting people striving to satisfy their own needs;

  • A shared purpose like an interest or need that provides a reason to cooperate;

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

  • 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 (see also Janneck, Finck, & Oberquelle, 2005).

As Preece’s (2000) definition indicates, the basic constituents of online communities include individual issues, group-related issues, as well as technology-related issues. Online communities thus comprise the participants’ basic individual motivation, the social interaction processes entailed to “bundle” individual needs to increase efficiency, and the implemented technical functions that support these processes.

In the light of the aforementioned role of social processes, it is not surprising that, with respect to online communities, findings from voluntary groups of active user communities outside computer-based systems are also a highly relevant source of information (see e.g., Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). In the section devoted to online community building, we will present Kraut’s (2003) suggestion of a highly-sophisticated application of social psychology theory to address some well-known problems in online communities.

Key Terms in this Chapter

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 joint 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.

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

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

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

MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games): Role-playing games played online by a large number of players at the same time. Participants are represented by customized avatars and solve different tasks (quests) on their own or in coordinated groups.

Virtual Community: This is 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.

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