Montag, 31. Dezember 2012

Why People Hang Out Online in Virtual Communities - Information Exchange, Support and Socializing

In this exploratory study, Ridings and Gefen (2004) investigate the reasons why people participate in virtual communities (here: bulletin boards). The term “virtual community” is definded as “groups of people with common interests and practices that communicate regularly and for some duration in an organized way over the Internet through a common location or mechanism.” A community member is anyone who participates in a community by either posting or reading messages regardless of frequency.

Motivations to join a (face-to-face) group

Research in social psychology has revealed different motivations for individuals to join traditional, face-­to-­face groups which can be extended to examine membership in virtual communities:
  • Exchange Theory/Interdependence Theory (Thibaut and Kelley, 1959): Humans have a need to belong and be affiliated with others, because groups provide individuals with a source of information; they help in achieving goals and give rewards.
  • Social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978; Turner, 1978, 1985): People form a social identity of values, attitudes and behavioural intentions from the perceived membership in distinct self­inclusive real or imagined social groups.
Information Exchange
The most frequently cited reason in the literature is to access information (Furlong, 1989; S. G. Jones, 1995; Wellman et al., 1996). What makes virtual communities special in this regard is the magnitude and impact of “weak ties,” i.e., relationships with acquaintances or strangers to obtain useful information through online networks (Constant, Sproull, & Kiesler, 1996). A virtual community can be an ideal place to ask relative strangers about information. Virtual communities tend to focus on very specific topics with relationships among members being mostly intended for information exchange about specific topics (Baym, 2000; Wellman and Gulia, 1999a).

Social Support Exchange
House (1981) offers a specific definition of social support: “a flow of emotional concern, instrumental aid, information, and/or appraisal (information relevant to self­ evaluation) between people”. Consistent with this definition, many studies suggest that virtual communities are places where people go to find emotional support, sense of belonging, and encouragement, in addition to instrumental aid (Furlong, 1989; Hiltz, 1984; Hiltz and Wellman, 1997; Korenman and Wyatt, 1996; M. A. Smith, 1999; Sproull and Faraj, 1997; Wellman, 1996; Wellman et al., 1996). Indeed, the structure of the Internet, with its searching capabilities and various virtual community forums, makes it easier to find others in similar situations and get emotional support, social support, a sense of belonging and companionship (Wellman & Gulia, 1999a).

The feeling of being together and being a member of a group of friends comes with the notions of being part of a group, spending time together, companionship, socializing, and networking. Friendship in this context is about the value of being together, unlike social support that deals with seeking emotional help or helping others. While friendships may also provide information and social support, seeking these exchanges does not necessarily indicate the desire for friendship. Research shows that people use the Internet to contact others with similar interests simply for the purpose of making friends and “hanging out” together (Parks and Floyd, 1995; Rosson, 1999).

Another reason why people participate in virtual communities is the recreation they provide. The use of the Internet in general has become a new form of recreation similar to that of watching TV (Jackson, 1999). Arguably, the entertainment value of the Internet applies to virtual communities as well (e.g.on  online gaming sites).

Method & Results

This research focused specifically on communities that interact using bulletin board technology. The study included only active communities with a minimum traffic volume, a minimum number of different users posting, and a high proportion of messages with responses. No effort was made to exclude lurkers as their behaviour was interpreted as silent but active participation. The 27/33 communities providing useful results were put into five broad categories:
  • heath/wellness, 
  • personal interests (hobbies), 
  • pets,
  • professional/occupational,
  • sport/recreation.
Participants were asked only one openended question about their reason for joining. Based on a literature review a priori to the data collection procedure, the above mentioned four categories of reasons were developed (information exchange, social support exchange, friendship, recreation and other). Two independent raters categorized the responses into the categories and they agreed that there were enough common themes to develop two additional categories (“common interest” and “technical reasons”). And these are the results: 
  • information exchange (257, 49.8%),
  • friendship (124, 24.0%),
  • social support exchange (56, 10.9%),
  • recreation (45, 8.7%),
  • technical reasons or common interest (9, 1.7%),
  • "other" [including original misspellings, punctuation and grammar errors, etc.]: (16, 3.1%) 
A closer look (Chi-square test) revealed an interesting aspect: The five types of communities above could be regrouped into two overall categories with
  • topics of importance beyond members' free choice (health and professional): Individuals also sought information in the first place but cited social support as the second most popular reason.
  • freely chosen topics of interest ([special] interest, pets, and recreation): Information exchange was cited most often with friendship being the second most popular reason.
Implications for community management
The authors suggest some practical recommendations for virtual community managers/community sponsors:
  • Mind your members' (co-)motivation because it might vary with the topic of the community. Although information is a strong motivation (for joining a bulletin board community!), social aspects like support or friendship are second in place, depending, so it seems, on whether the objective of the community is centered on members' freely chosen topics of interest (friendship) or whether it is centered on topics of importance beyond their free choice (support).
  • Facilitate the access to and the efficiency of information exchange: Here, several things can be done, e.g.:
    • Provide a clear structure/meaningfull naming for the community/sub-communities so that members can find the appropriate place for their posting — and therefore exchange information more efficiently. 
    • include advanced searching capabilities for locating specific threads of interest, 
    • provide additional links to non-­member­ generated material related to the community topic,
    • win  “experts” in a particular area to interact with community members on either a periodic or ongoing basis.
  • Ease the development of friendship and social support among community members:  The authors cited one member who mentioned that he liked the format of the particular community because he could see who responded to each post, and the simple fact of who responded told him a lot about the post. He also mentioned other communities he did not like as much because they were not constructed in this way. If this can be generalized, the display of the messages and replies, including the ID of the poster, could be important in building connections among members — connections that could lead to friendship. It would allow members to more easily identify conversations among their friends in the community. Other features of the community such as the ability to search for all posts by a particular member or access to member profiles could aid in friendship building.

(From: Ridings, C. M. and Gefen, D. (2004), Virtual Community Attraction: Why People Hang Out Online. Journal of Computer­Mediated Communication, 10: 00. doi: 10.1111/j.1083­6101.2004.tb00229.x, via Google Scholar)

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