Technology has enabled communities to move beyond the physical face-to-face contacts to the online realm of the World Wide Web. With the advent of the highways in the 1950s and 1960s, “communities” were created in suburbia. The Internet, on the other hand, has over the last two decades, enabled the creation of a myriad of “online communities” (Green, 2007) that have limitless boundaries across every corner of the globe. This essay will begin by providing a definition of the term “online communities” and then describing several typologies of this phenomenon. The various motivations for joining communities, how marketers create social bonds that enhance social relationships, as well as strategies used by firms in building online communities are also discussed. We conclude by discussing strategies for managing online communities, leveraging them for social networking, researching them, as well as directions for future research.
A “community” refers to an evolving group of people communicating and acting together to reach a common goal. It creates a sense of membership through involvement or shared common interests. It has been considered to be a closed system with relatively stable membership and demonstrates little or no connection to other communities (Anderson, 1999).
With the rapid growth of the Internet, the geographic boundaries constraining the limits of communities are no longer a factor, and the functions of maintaining a community can be fulfilled virtually from anywhere in the globe. This is the basic essence of an online community, which is also synonymous with e-community or virtual community. Several authors have attempted to provide a formal definition of the term for semantic clarifications. The major definitions are as follows:
Social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace. (Rheingold, 1993)
Groups of people who communicate with each other via electronic media, rather than face-to-face. (Romm, Pliskin, & Clarke 1997)
Computer mediated spaces where there is a potential for an integration of content and communication with an emphasis on member generated content. (Hagel & Armstrong 1997)
Online Publics are symbolically delineated computer mediated spaces, whose existence is relatively transparent and open, that allow groups of individuals to attend and contribute to a similar set of computer-mediated interpersonal interactions. (Jones & Rafaeli, 2000)
While Rheingold (1993) provides one of the earliest definitions of the term, and one that is most quoted in the literature (Kozinets, 2002), many may question whether “with sufficient human feeling” is a necessary condition for online community formation. Romm et al.’s (1997) definition may not sufficiently distinguish it from general Web sites. Hagel and Armstrong (1997) emphasize member generated content, while Jones and Rafaeli (2000) use the term “virtual publics” instead of online community. Others, like Bishop (2007), have pointed to the phenomenon of “de-socialization” or less frequent interaction with human in traditional settings, as a consequence of an increase in virtual socialization in online communities. Based on the above definitions the term may be simply defined as a group of individuals with common interests who interact with one another on the Internet.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Online Community: A group of individuals with common interests who interact with one another on the Internet.
Stages of the Online Community Life Cycle: Online community members go through four relationship stages: awareness, exploration/expansion, commitment, and dissolution.y
Characteristics of Online Communities: Online communities are characterized by their level of cohesion, effectiveness, helpfulness of members, quality of the relationships, language, and self-regulatory mechanisms.
Netnography: Using ethnographic techniques to study online communities.
Online Social Networking: Necessitates the use of software to involve communities of individuals who share interests and activities. MySpace, Facebook, and Orkut are currently some of the most popular online social networking sites.
Affinity Communities: Communities that are based on profession, common interest, cause, demographic, or marketer generated phenomenon.
Online Social Media: Uses online community members’ collaborative attempts in connecting information in various forms including internet forums, Weblogs, wikis, podcasts, pictures, and video. Examples of such applications include MySpace and Facebook (social networking), You Tube (video sharing), Second Life (virtual reality), and Flickr (photo sharing).