Online community

Online community

An online community is a virtual community that exists online and whose members enable its existence through taking part in membership ritual. An online community can take the form of an information system where anyone can post content, such as a Bulletin board system or one where only a restricted number of people can initiate posts, such as Weblogs. Online communities have also become a supplemental form of communication between people who know each other primarily in real life. Many means are used in social software separately or in combination, including text-based chat rooms and forums that use voice, video text or avatars. Significant socio-technical change may have resulted from the proliferation of such Internet-based social networks.[1]


A New Type of Community

The idea of a community is not a new concept. What is new, however, is transferring it over into the online world. Before, a community was defined as a group from a single location. If you lived in the designated area, then you became a part of that community. Interaction between community members was done primarily face-to-face and in a social setting. This definition for community no longer applies. In the online world, social interactions no longer have to be face-to-face or based on proximity, instead they can be with literally anyone anywhere.[2]

The study of these communities has had to adapt along with the new technologies. Many earlier researchers used ethnography to attempt to understand what people do in online spaces, how they express themselves, what motivates them, how they govern themselves, what attracts people to participate, and why some people prefer to observe rather than contribute. Many other techniques have come about in an attempt to try and adjust to this new medium. [3]

What is particularly tricky about online communities is that their meaning can change depending on who is defining them. Universally, however, there are things that show signs of a community. They are:

  • Content: articles, information, and news about a topic of interest to a group of people.
  • Forums or newsgroups and email: so that your community members can communicate in delayed fashion.
  • Chat and instant messaging: so that the community members can communicate more immediately.


Although many possibilities probably come to mind some examples of successful Internet Communities are:

  • Buddy Pic: where you upload a picture of yourself and are judged based on it. The site is half discussion half pictures.
  • Something Awful: Something awful has been around since 1999. It is a comedy forum where users post comedy ideas. It has been responsible for many Internet fads over the years.
  • Gaia Online: is one of the largest communities with 23 million registered accounts. This is mostly a community that discusses anime and video games [5]

Classifying online communities

A number of authors have looked at classifying online communities and those within them to better understand how they are structured. It has been argued that the technical aspects of online communities, such as whether pages can be created and edited by many, as is the case with Wikipedia, or whether only certain users can post entries and edit them, as is the case with most weblogs, can place specific online communities into types of genre.[6]

Some research has looked at the particular users of online communities. Amy Jo Kim has classified the rituals and stages of online community interaction and called it the 'Membership life cycle'.[7] Clay Shirky talks about community of practice whose members collaborate and help each other in order to make something better or improve a certain skill. What makes these communities bond is "love" of something as demonstrated by members who go out of their way to help without any financial interest. [8] Others have suggested character theories to break particular patterns of behavior of particular users into certain categories.[9][10][11]

Some of the most successful online communities are those whose members have positively invested positive approaches to posting and carrying on conversations in forums and chatrooms. Online communities are used to chat and partake on a virtual social network.

Membership life cycle for online communities

Amy Jo Kim's membership lifecycle states that members of online communities begin their life in a community as visitors, or lurkers. After breaking through a barrier, people become novices and participate in community life. After contributing for a sustained period of time they become regulars. If they break through another barrier they become leaders, and once they have contributed to the community for some time they become elders. This life cycle can be applied to many virtual communities, most obviously to bulletin board systems, but also to blogs and wiki-based communities like Wikipedia.

A similar model can be found in the works of Lave and Wenger, who illustrate a cycle of how users become incorporated into virtual communities using the principles of legitimate peripheral participation. They suggest five types of trajectories amongst a learning community[12]:

  1. Peripheral (i.e. Lurker) – An outside, unstructured participation
  2. Inbound (i.e. Novice) – Newcomer is invested in the community and heading towards full participation
  3. Insider (i.e. Regular) – Full committed community participant
  4. Boundary (i.e. Leader) – A leader, sustains membership participation and brokers interactions
  5. Outbound (i.e. Elder) – Process of leaving the community due to new relationships, new positions, new outlooks

The following shows the correlation between the learning trajectories and Web 2.0 community participation.

Learning trajectory — online community participation

Example – YouTube

Peripheral (Lurker) – Observing the community and viewing content. Does not add to the community content or discussion. The user occasionally goes onto to check out a video that someone has directed them to.

Inbound (Novice) – Just beginning to engage the community. Starts to provide content. Tentatively interacts in a few discussions. The user comments on other user’s videos. Potentially posts a video of his or her own.

Insider (Regular) – Consistently adds to the community discussion and content. Interacts with other users. Regularly posts videos. Either videos they have found or made themselves. Makes a concerted effort to comment and rate other users' videos.

Boundary (Leader) – Recognized as a veteran participant. Connects with regulars to make higher concepts ideas. Community grants their opinion greater consideration. The user has become recognized as a contributor to watch. Possibly their videos are podcasts commenting on the state of YouTube and its community. The user would not consider watching another user’s videos without commenting on them. Will often correct a user in behavior the community considers inappropriate. Will reference other user’s videos in their comments as a way to cross link content.

Outbound (Elder) – Leaves the community for a variety of reasons. Interests have changed. Community has moved in a direction that he doesn’t agree with. Lack of time. User got a new job that takes up too much time to maintain a constant presence in the community. The Deletionist versus Inclusionist Controversy in another such case within wiki-based communities.

Motivations and barriers to contributing to online communities

Successful online communities motivate online participation. Several research studies have investigated methods of motivating participation in online communities.

An online community shares similarities and differences with a social community. Unlike a social community, an online community provides real-world communities a place to come together using the internet. Similar to a social community, being a member of an online community allows you to meet with several people in a chat room, or send messages to one another. An advantage of being a part of the online community is that it is always on and does not have operating hours. Online Communities are easier and is a more accessible way to keep in touch with people who are geographically far or with those who have conflicting schedules with oneself.[13]

There are many persuading factors that draw users in to different online communities. Peer-to-peer systems and social networking sites rely heavily on member contribution. Users’ underlying motivations to involve themselves in these communities have been linked to different persuasion theories of sociology.

  • The Reciprocation Theory infers that a successful online community must provide its users with benefits that compensate for the costs of time, effort and materials members provide. People often join these communities expecting a sort of reward, whether it is physical or psychological.
  • The Consistency Theory says that once an individual makes a public commitment to a virtual society, they will often feel obligated to stay consistent with their commitment by continuing contributions.
  • The Social Validation Theory explains how people are more likely to join and participate in an online community if it is socially acceptable and popular.

Additionally, one of the greatest attractions towards online communities is the sense of connection users build between each other. Individuals are most likely to join these sites in order to enhance their likability.[14]

The majority of people learn by example and often follow others, especially when it comes to participation.[15] Individuals are reserved about contributing to an online community for many reasons including but not limited to a fear of criticism or inaccuracy. Users may withhold information that they don’t believe is particularly interesting, relevant, or truthful. In order to challenge these contribution barriers, producers of these sites are responsible for developing knowledge-based and foundation-based trust among the community.[16]

There are two types of virtual online communities (VOC): dependent and self-sustained VOCs. The dependent VOCs are those who use the virtual community as extensions of themselves, they interact with people they know. Self-sustained VOCs are communities where relationships between participating members is formed and maintained through virtual encounters in the online community (Budiman, Adrian M. "Virtual Online Communities: A Study of Internet Based Community Interactions." Ohio University and OhioLINK. 2008. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. <>). For all VOCs, there is the issue of creating identity and reputation in the online community. A person can create whatever identity they would like to through their virtual interactions with other members. Although limited, the most important attribute to an online member is the username. It is what other members identify you by but it says very little about the person behind it. In online communities, your name is your username (Donath, Judith S. "Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community." Sociable Media Group - MIT Media Lab. MIT Media Lab, 14 Nov. 1996. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. <>). The main features in virtual online communities that attracts people is a shared communication environment, relationships formed and nurtured virtually, a sense of belonging to a group, an internal structure of the group, common space shared by people with similar ideas and interests. The three most critical issues are belonging, identity, and interest. For an online community to flourish there needs to be consistent participation, interest, and motivation (Tardini, Stefano, and Lorenzo Cantoni. "A Semiotic Approach to Online Communities: Belonging, Interest and Identity in Websites' and Videogames' Communities (Stefano Tardini) -" Universita' Della Svizzera Italiana - 2005. Web. 20 Oct. 2011.

Online community virtuous cycle

Most online communities grow slowly at first, due in part to the fact that the strength of motivation for contributing is usually proportional to the size of the community. As the size of the potential audience increases, so does the attraction of writing and contributing. This, coupled with the fact that organizational culture does not change overnight, means creators can expect slow progress at first with a new virtual community. As more people begin to participate, however, the aforementioned motivations will increase, creating a virtuous cycle in which more participation begets more participation.

Community adoption can be forecast with the Bass diffusion model, originally conceived by Frank Bass to describe the process by which new products get adopted as an interaction between innovative early adopters and those who follow them.


Online communities are relatively new and unexplored areas. They promote a whole new community that prior to the Internet was not available. Although they can promote a vast array of positive qualities, such as relationships without regard to race, religion, gender, or geography [17], they can also lead to multiple problems.

The theory of risk perception, an uncertainty in participating in an online community, is quite common, particularly when in the following online circumstances: 1. Performances 2. Financial 3. Opportunity/Time 4. Safety 5. Social 6. Psychological Loss [18]

Clay Shirky explains one of these problems like two hoola-hoops. With the emersion of online communities there is a “real life” hoola-hoop and the other and “online life.” These two hoops used to be completely separate but now they have swung together and overlap. The problem with this overlap is that there is no distinction anymore between face-to-face interactions and virtual ones; they are one in the same. Shirky illustrates this by explaining a meeting. A group of people will sit in a meeting but they will all be connected into a virtual world also, using online communities such as wiki [19].

A further problem is identity formation with the ambiguous real-virtual life mix. Identity formation in the real world consisted of “one body, one identity” [20]. But the online communities allow you to create “as many electronic personae” as you please. This can lead to identity deception. Claiming to be someone your not can be problematic with other online community users and for yourself. Creating a false identity can cause confusion and ambivalence about which identity is true. A lack of trust regarding personal or professional information is problematic with questions of identity or information reciprocity. Often, if information is given to another user of an online community, one expects equal information shared back. However, this may not be the case or the other user may use the information given in harmful ways. [21]

The most common problem with online communities tend to be online harassment, meaning threatening or offensive content aimed at known friends or strangers through ways of online technology. This problem is synonymous with "Cyber-bullying", impersonation, fraud, etc. This is content can be recognized as unwanted and constant that can be both disturbing and inappropriate. Online harassment tends to affect adolescents the most due to their risk-taking behavior and decision-making processes. The rate of reported online harassments have been increasing as there has been a 50% increase in accounts of youth online harassment from the years 2000-2005. [22]

Another problem that seems to be more of an issue is privacy. Online communities like social networking websites have a very unclear distinction between private and public information. For most social networks, users have to give personal information to add to their profiles. Usually, users can control what type of information other people in the online community can access based on the users familiarity with the people or the users level of comfort. These limitations are known as "privacy settings". Privacy settings bring up the question of " do privacy settings and terms of service affect the expectation of privacy in social media". After all, the purpose of a online community is to share a common space with one another. Furthermore, it is even harder to take legal action when a user feels like his or her privacy has been invaded because he or she technically knew what the online community entailed. [23] Creator of social networking site, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, noticed a change in users' behavior from when he first initiated Facebook in his Harvard dorm room, to now. It seemed that "society's willingness to share has created an environment where privacy concerns are less important to users of social networks today than they were when social networking began" [24]. However even though a user might keep his or her personal information private, his or her activity is open to the whole web to access. When a user posts information to a site such as Wikipedia, or when said user comments or responds to information posted on a site, social networking sites create a tracking record of the users activity. [25]


Two of the most important laws when dealing with legal issues of online communities, especially social networking sites are Section 512c of the Digital Millennium Act and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Section 512c removes liability for copyright infringement from sites that let users post content, so long as there is a way by which the copyright owner can request the removal of infringing content. The website may not receive any financial benefit from the infringing activities.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives protection from any liability as a result from the publication provided by another party. Common issues include defamation, but many courts have expanded it to include other claims as well.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Tuomi, Ilkka Internet, Innovation and Open Source: Actors in the Network 2000 First Monday
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Bishop, J. (2009). Enhancing the understanding of genres of web-based communities: The role of the ecological cognition framework. International Journal of Web-Based Communities, 5(1)
  7. ^ Kim, A.J. (2000). Community Building on the Web : Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities. Peachpit Press. ISBN 0-201-87484-9
  8. ^ Shirky, Clay (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. An example of community of practice he mentions is high dynamic range (HDR) photography on Flickr:
  9. ^ Campbell, J., Fletcher, G. & Greenhil, A. (2002). Tribalism, Conflict and Shape-shifting Identities in Online Communities. In the Proceedings of the 13th Australasia Conference on Information Systems, Melbourne Australia, 7–9 December 2002
  10. ^ Bishop, J. (2008). Increasing Capital Revenue in Social Networking Communities: Building Social and Economic Relationships through Avatars and Characters. In: Romm-Livermore, C. (ed.) Social Networking Communities and eDating Services: Concepts and Implications. New York: IGI Global. Available online
  11. ^ Campbell, J., Fletcher, G. and Greenhill, A. (2009). Conflict and Identity Shape Shifting in an Online Financial Community, Information Systems Journal, (19:5), pp. 461–478.
  12. ^ "Lave and Wenger". What is an online community?>Virtual Community online community or e-community>Membership life cycle>. Retrieved 19 July 2011. 
  13. ^ Leeleefever, Initials. (2003, July 8). What is an online community? [Web log message]. Retrieved from
  14. ^ Vassileva, J, & Cheng, R. (2005). User motivation and persuasion strategy for peer-to-peer communities. Proceedings of the 38th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences,
  15. ^ Cosley, D., Frankowski, D., Ludford, P.J., & Terveen, L. (2004). Think different: increasing online community participation using uniqueness and group dissimilarity . Proceedings of the Proceedings of the sigchi conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 631-638). New York, NY: ACM.
  16. ^ Wentling, T., Page, V., & Ardichvili, A. (2003). Motivation and barriers to participation in virtual knowledge-sharing communities of practice. Journal of Knowledge Management, 7(1), Retrieved from
  17. ^
  18. ^ Shiue 2010
  19. ^
  20. ^ community virtual real world&ots=JXOP5H8rsW&sig=PS2VyJGqIgyjkDRZa2XKIoiqSes
  21. ^ Matzat 2010
  22. ^ Lwin 2011
  23. ^ Ken Strutin 2011
  24. ^ Connie Davis Powell
  25. ^ Patricia E. Salkin 2011
  26. ^ Fayle, Kevin. "Understanding the Legal Issues for Social Networking Sites and Their Users". FindLaw: For Legal Professionals. Retrieved 17 October 2011. 
  • Shuie, Yih-Chearng. "Exploring and Mitigating Social Loafing in Online Communities". Computers and Behavior. v.26.4, July 2010. p. 768-777
  • Matzat, Uwe. "Reducing Problems of Sociability in Online Communities: Integrating Online Communication with Offline Interaction". American Behavioral Scientist. 2010. p. 1170-1193
  • Lwin, May O. "Stop Bugging Me: An Examination of Adolescents' Protection Behavior Against Online Harassment" Journal of Adolescence. 2011. p. 1-11
  • Strutin, Ken. "Social Media and the Vanishing Points of Ethical and Constitutional Boundaries." Pace Law Review 31.1 (2011): 228-90. Wilson Web. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. <;hwwilsonid=BIK3MBKLBQQTLQA3DIMSFGGADUNGIIV0?prod=OMNIFT>.==Further reading==
  • Barzilai, G. (2003). Communities and Law: Politics and Cultures of Legal Identities. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
  • Ebner, W.; Leimeister, J. M.; Krcmar, H. (2009): Community Engineering for Innovations -The Ideas Competition as a method to nurture a Virtual Community for Innovations. In: R&D Management, 39 (4),pp 342–356 [1]
  • Else, Liz & Turkle, Sherry. "Living online: I'll have to ask my friends", New Scientist, issue 2569, 20 September 2006. (interview)
  • Hafner, K. 2001. The WELL: A Story of Love, Death and Real Life in the Seminal Online Community Carroll & Graf Publishers (ISBN 0-7867-0846-8)
  • Hagel, J. & Armstrong, A. (1997). Net Gain: Expanding Markets through Virtual Communities. Boston: Harvard Business School Press (ISBN 0-87584-759-5)
  • Jones, G. Ravid, G. and Rafaeli S. (2004) Information Overload and the Message Dynamics of Online Interaction Spaces: A Theoretical Model and Empirical Exploration, Information Systems Research Vol. 15 Issue 2, pp. 194–210.
  • Kim, A.J. (2000). Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities. London: Addison Wesley (ISBN 0-201-87484-9)
  • Kim, A.J. (2004). “Emergent Purpose.” Musings of a Social Architect. January 24, 2004. Retrieved April 4, 2006 [2].
  • Leimeister, J. M.; Sidiras, P.; Krcmar, H. (2006): Exploring Success Factors of Virtual Communities: The Perspectives of Members and Operators. In: Journal of Organizational Computing & Electronic Commerce (JoCEC), 16 (3&4), 277-298 [3].
  • Leimeister, J.M.; Krcmar, H. (2005): Evaluation of a Systematic Design for a Virtual Patient Community. In: Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10 (4) [4].
  • Preece, J. (2000). Online Communities: Supporting Sociability, Designing Usability. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. (ISBN 0-471-80599-8)
  • Davis Powell, Connie. ""Iou Already Have Zero Privacy. Getoverit!"1WouldWarrenand Brandeis Argue for Privacy for Social Networking?" Pace Law Review 31.1 (2011): 146-81.*Salkin, Patricia E. "Social Networking and Land Use Planning and Regulation: Practical Benefits, Pitfalls, and Ethical Considerations." Pace Law Review 31.1 (2011): 54-94.
  • Strutin, Ken. "Social Media and the Vanishing Points of Ethical and Constitutional Boundaries." Pace Law Review 31.1 (2011): 228-90. Wilson Web. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. <;hwwilsonid=BIK3MBKLBQQTLQA3DIMSFGGADUNGIIV0?prod=OMNIFT>.

External links

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