Online Human Activity Networks (OnHANs): An Analysis Based on Activity Theory

Online Human Activity Networks (OnHANs): An Analysis Based on Activity Theory

Dan J. Kim (University of Houston-Clear Lake, USA), T. Andrew Yang (University of Houston-Clear Lake, USA) and Ninad Naik (University of Houston-Clear Lake, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-384-5.ch046
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Recently, Web 2.0 applications such as blogs, wikis (e.g., Wikipedia), social networks (e.g., MySpace), 3-D virtual worlds (e.g., Second Life), and so forth, have created fresh interest in the Internet as a new medium of social interactions and human collaborative activities. Since the emergence of Web 2.0 applications, Web services that support online human activities have gained an unprecedented boost. There have been conceptual studies on and overviews of individual Web 2.0 applications like blogs, online social networks, and so forth, but there has not been a study to date which provides a theoretical perspective on the online human activity networks (OnHANs) formed by these Web 2.0 applications. In this chapter, we classify various forms of OnHANs focusing on their social and business purposes, analyzing the core components of representative OnHANs from the angle of the activity theory, and finally providing a theoretical discussion concerning how OnHANs provide values to the individuals and the organizations involved in those activities.
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In recent years there has been an explosive growth in Web 2.0 applications such as blogs and online social networks, which encourage and support collaborative human activities on the Internet (Kim, Yue, Perkins-Hall, & Gates 2009). Such applications help to facilitate networks of human activities which we term Online Human Activity Networks (OnHANs)1. For centuries, social networks have been present in different forms, from small social organizations, religious groups, financial groups, group of friends, to national and international trade groups, and so on. Over the course of time, social networks have evolved from the traditional social groups to huge computer-mediated online networks connecting millions of people interacting on a day-to-day basis. They can be used as a means of communication which allows the users to share their views, expressions and experiences. For example, as a type of online human activity networks, blogs or weblogs allow the participants to post messages and to respond to the posted message. A blog site usually provides its audience the archived retrieval service, implemented on top of a series of chronologically archived posted messages and comments.

Types of OnHAN sites are also used by business entrepreneurs to build intimacy with their customers so as to discuss and provide immediate responses to their queries. For instance, Cisco (the largest vendor in IP networking) bought the social networking site in 2007 so that it could get the technology to build computer-mediated social networks with their customers (Arrington, 2007). Moreover, recently social network technology has been used in mobile phones, thus expanding the scope of human activity networks to the mobile networks. MySpace has signed a contract with the Cingular wireless so as to extend the MySpace features to mobile phones (Knowledge@Wharton, 2006). Various phone companies will provide the services for their users to deliver text messages onto the various social networking sites. This feature also allows the users to modify their profiles through cell phones.

OnHANs have brought a revolution in the field of social Internet computing (Parameswaran & Whinston, 2007). They provide the opportunity to form relationships with people separated by a geographical area. Different types of OnHAN sites have been developed for dedicated purposes. MySpace, for example, is basically designed to upload information, music, and photos for sharing. LinkedIn is purposefully designed for the social networking of professionals. Wikipedia serves the purpose of cooperative knowledge creation (Yang, Kim, Dhalwani, & Vu, 2008). The overall value of an online human activity network is mainly due to human activities carried out over the network. Online human activity networks, therefore, can be considered as a form of computer-mediated network-based collaborative activity, for social and/or business purposes.

Although some studies (e.g., (Boyd & Ellison, 2007; Kumar, Novak, & Tomkins, 2006; Murugesan, 2007; Parameswaran & Whinston, 2007) have described conceptual developments and overviews of individual types of OnHANs (social networks, blogs), rarely are studies conducted on the holistic value of online human activity networks from any theoretical perspectives. A theoretical perspective on OnHANs is required to better understand the value emanating from the dynamics of human activities in human activity networks. Thus, the goal of this chapter is three-fold: i) to classify various forms of OnHANs, focusing on their social and business purposes, ii) to analyze the core components of classified OnHANs from the perspective of activity theory, and iii) to contribute to a theoretical understanding of how human activities interacting with other components provide value of OnHANs.

The rest of chapter is organized as follows. In the next section, as background, we discuss the definition and typology of OnHANs along with the Activity Theory (AT) as theoretical framework to understand human activities in OnHANs. Subsequent section presents the comparative analysis of OnHANs using AT and the results. This chapter concludes with a discussion about the findings and directions for future research.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Avatars: An Avatar is a computer simulated environment intended for its users to interact and inhabit in the virtual world. An avatar also means the image or icon of the users while chatting or in Internet Forums.

Asynchronous Web Applications: Communication with a web application having this mode of technology is not real time. Once a message has been sent or posted, the other person must request the data from the server (i.e., refresh the page ) to reply back.

Activity Theory: Activity Theory is a framework for studying different forms of human praxis as developmental processes, with both individual and social levels interlinked.

Virtual Worlds: A Virtual World is a computer-based simulated environment intended for its users to inhabit and interact via avatars, which are 3-D graphical representations of the users.

Online Human Activity Networks: Online Human Activity Networks (OnHAN) are networks formed by collaborative human activities on web 2.0 applications like Blogs, Social Networks (Facebook, MySpace, Orkut, etc.) and Virtual Worlds (Second Life, Kaneva, etc.).

Synchronous Web Applications: Communication using a web application having synchronous mode of technology is real time. So, if a person is online, he doesn’t have to keep requesting the data from the server to reply or receive more messages.

Social Networks: Social networks are a set of individuals having one or more relationships, interdependencies or activities in common which ties them together and result in complex structures.

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