Supporting Local Connections with Online Communities

Supporting Local Connections with Online Communities

Sanna Malinen (Tampere University of Technology, Finland), Tytti Virjo (Tampere University of Technology, Finland) and Sari Kujala (Tampere University of Technology, Finland)
Copyright: © 2012 |Pages: 16
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-774-6.ch013
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Abstract

Online communities have become popular among geographically distributed users of the internet. However, there is growing interest in using online communities to support social interaction in geographically-based communities too. In this chapter, we study the value of online sociability and the role of local networking in two different online social internet sites. We present the results of a survey carried out among members of Finnish Facebook groups, and complement the results with interviews for users of a local online service for people living in the surroundings of the city of Helsinki. The goal of this study was to investigate how online groups and services with local content connect with real-life networks and sociability, or whether they remain separated. The results show that Facebook is used mainly for nourishing existing friendships online and less for meeting or looking for information on new people. However, Facebook groups are often connected to real-life activities and places, thus local connections and networks play an important role in the use of Facebook. For the users of the local online service My City, the strong local identity experienced and attachment to the place of residence were important motivators for active participation and the creation of content.
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Introduction

During the last decade, various user communities and groups of internet have become an important part of people’s communication practices. In recent years, social networking sites and web services that lean on user-generated content, often referred as Social Media or Web 2.0., have been attracting users of the internet. Boyd and Ellison (2007) define social networking sites as online services that allow individuals to construct visible profiles, articulate a list of connections with other users, and view and traverse these lists of connections. Online communities provide the users opportunities for sharing experiences and giving and receiving peer support, as well as serving as information sources (Joinson 2008; Maloney-Krichmar & Preece 2002; Millen & Patterson 2003; Wellman & Gulia 1999). Altogether, both types of online services support people’s sociability and enhance their social connectivity. They allow people to socialize in many different ways, to rate, comment, and exchange information, as well as to share personal experiences with others.

The experienced sense of community is known to have many positive outcomes in people’s lives, such as loyalty, willingness to help others, and commitment to community activities (McMillian & Chavis 1986). The concept of the ‘sense of virtual community’ (SOVC) refers to the emotional bond between the members of online groups and community-oriented behaviors that emerge from social processes and behaviors (Blanchard & Markus 2002). Online communities can be used to increase the social capital and cooperation of community members, and thus there is also a growing interest in using online communities to support and facilitate the social interaction of members of particular geographically-based communities (King & Brown 2007; Millen & Patterson 2002).

Local networks and place of residence contribute to the person’s experienced sense of community as well. Term ‘locality’ refers to ‘spaces’ and ‘places’, which are closely related concepts. Place has been defined as a space endowed with a meaning; people tend to have a positive emotional bond to familiar places, and this psychological relation between people and their environment is referred to as place attachment (Hummon 1992; Low & Altman 1992; Lewicka 2008). A person’s awareness of the history of a place intensifies their attachment to it, and vice versa; people attached to a place are known to express more interest in its past (Lewicka 2008).

We suggest that people’s personal ties to their local surroundings can be reinforced by online communities. Online social networking and forming virtual groups with people who share the same interests can promote a sense of community in a face-to-face context, and thereby increase well-being. In this study, we suggest the term ‘sense of locality’ for describing people’s relation to their physical environment and its social surroundings. Sense of locality is thus a broader concept, including the social context, the geographical area, and a person’s emotional relation to these. Sense of locality refers to awareness of local issues, people and places, and a sense of belonging to one’s local environment.

In the present study, we examine how the sense of locality and well-being can be improved and local connections reinforced by providing people with an opportunity to build social networks and get to know and discuss with people living in the same geographical area. We propose that users may be motivated to generate and share information concerning local issues since they are given the role of experts. Previous research (Millen & Patterson 2003; Pinkett 2003) suggests that participation in a local online community can increase the community’s social capital, which is manifested in the expansion of social networks and people’s increased awareness of community resources.

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