Explaining Participation in Online Communities

Explaining Participation in Online Communities

Petter Bae Brandtzæg (SINTEF and University of Oslo, Norway) and Jan Heim (SINTEF, Norway)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-264-0.ch012
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The last few years have seen a substantial growth in online communities such as MySpace and Facebook. In order to survive and increase in size, online community systems must enhance social interaction and participation. This chapter analyzes participation in new online communities, using a combination of the socio-technical perspective and the human-computer interaction perspective. In 2007, both qualitative and quantitative data was collected from questionnaires from five sample groups in Norway—four popular online communities and one national sample of Internet users. The results show that online communities attract like-minded people, but vary in terms of different user types. Most visitors have a clear social purpose, but the level of participation differs with respect to user types and community characteristics. Participation in terms of user-generated content (UGC) differs greatly, depending on the medium used. Most users do not contribute audio-visual UGC, and text is still the main UGC. Possible future research and socio-technical design implications are discussed.
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By combining the socio-technical perspective with the human-computer interaction perceptive (HCI), the aim of this chapter is to broaden our understanding of how non-professional users participate in online communities. In particular, this chapter will try to close the socio-technical gap (e.g. Ackerman, 2000) by addressing both the community level and the user perspective—thus identifying social user requirements and how these can improve participation in online communities. This will be done by analyzing and discussing empirical data about community usage within several Norwegian online communities. (Access to and the uses of online communities are high in Norway compared to other countries in Western Europe, and are therefore a particularly interesting area when investigating community usage). Finally, this chapter suggests some socio-technical design principles of this analysis.

The background of this chapter is the growing body of research that demonstrates an exponential increase in online communities and user-generated content (UGC) (Brandtzaeg & Heim, 2007; Li et al., 2007; Bishop, 2007; Horrigan, 2007; Wunsch-Vincent & Vickery, 2006). Unfortunately, this research fails to account for why and how users participate or engage in social networking settings and UGC. However, this is critical knowledge, since online communities are increasingly becoming an established part of the Internet and have changed the nature of online user participation (Bishop, 2007).

Several Internet services have been designed to draw upon voluntary active participation among non-professional users in terms of both UGC production and social interaction. The core condition of all online communities is the active participation of community members. However, at present, the general ambition about user participation, creation and sharing of UGC in online communities is far from being fulfilled, while only a few users actually are participating actively (Bishop, 2007; Geerts et al., 2007). Several online communities pays little attention to the complexity of community interaction and the need to support and guide it. This may explain why many online communities are more or less ghost towns (Preece & Maloney-Krichmar 2003). A number of studies (e.g Nonnecke & Preece, 2000; Nielsen, 2006) indicate that, in most online communities, there exists a “90-9-1 rule” for levels of participation, where 90 percent are defined as “lurkers”, 9 percent are occasional contributors of UGC, and only 1 percent are active contributors. Kollock and Smith (1996) describe lurkers as free-riders, i.e., non-contributing, resource-taking members. This is also referred to as the “free rider problem”.

Therefore, this chapter aims to understand who the typical participants are, why and how they participate, and what types of participants that exist in terms of different user types characterized with their particular usage pattern inside the community. This coherent approach will determine what level of participation different user types or user groups are ready for, and how designers should adapt to a diverse population of users. Nevertheless, rapid changes in users’ habits and technological advances are continuously reshaping the new media landscape (Brandtzæg, 2007), and the situation regarding user needs and “participation” in online communities poses some important design challenges:

Key Terms in this Chapter

Online communities: A group of people interacting via communication technologies in a virtual environment rather than face to face, for social, professional, educational or other purposes. These communities have a purpose, are supported by technology, and are guided by norms and policies.

Non-Professional Users: Internet users that are amateurs or not professional in producing content. Not engaged in a profession in producing media content.

Sociability: Communities with good sociability have social policies that support the community’s purpose and are understandable, socially acceptable and practicable.

Person-Oriented Communities: Communities where social interactions between individuals are in focus. Examples are MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, Bebo, Orkut, Windows Live Space, and Hi5. See also Social networking sites

User-Generated Content: The production of content by the general public rather than by paid professionals and experts in the field. Mostly available on the Web via blogs, online communities and wikis, user-generated content refers to material such as the daily news, encyclopedias and other references, movie and product reviews as well as articles on any subject, all of which have been traditionally written by editors, journalists and academics in the past. Also called “peer production.”

User Types/User Typology: User types can be described as user profiles associated with different categories of user groups. Each user type is characterized with a particular usage pattern reflecting a certain type of user participation inside the online community. The user types are also reflecting different kinds of user skills, user preferences or motivations. The goal in defining user types is to understand how different users behave when using the community.

social networking sites: A Web site whereby individuals describe themselves in a personal profile, reveal themselves through participation in communities, and form networks of interactions by declaring one another to be ‘friends’. See also Person-oriented communities

Lurker: Is one who mainly consume others information online community, but does not participate actively with own user generated content. Lurkers are often referred to as free riders.

Social Networking: The process of connecting individuals via friends, relatives, and acquaintances—a person’s social network.

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