Mittwoch, 27. März 2013

The effect of community type on member attachment, motivation and participation

Should community management ban off-topic discussions? Is it always a good idea to promote growth? Does a large number of anonymous members threaten the community?Although it isn't obvious at first glance, the three questions have some sort of common denominator: the kind of attachment the member feels for the community.

Common-interest vs. common-bond
Ren, Kraut & Kiesler [1] describe two groups in terms of social psychology:
  • In common-identity groups, members feel more attached to the group as a whole. Identity means that a member feels commitment to a group’s purpose or topic. Seeking and providing information is a primary driver (e.g.: a movie-talk group).
  • In common-bond groups, a member feels socially and emotionally attached to particular members as well as to the group as a whole. Here, the focus lies on social interaction (e.g.: pupils who meet after class in a social network).
Both types can coexist: The most active members of an interest-based community may form a bond-based subgroup for instance. And community type can change over time.

The antecedents of common identity and common bond
Antecedents of common identity on a group-level are:
  • Social categorization: Very few is needed and people let themselves categorize into groups. Even a random assignment to an arbitrary category will do.
  • Interdependence: Four types of interdependence create a sense of group identity: a joint task, a common purpose, common fate, and joint reward.
  • Out-group presence: Similar to social categorization very few is needed. A statement implying the existence of other groups to trigger in-group/out-group differentiation successfully.
The antecedents of common bond shift the focus from the group to the individual:
  • Social interaction: The frequency of prior interaction is a major determinant of the extent to which people build relationships with one another. As the frequency of interaction between two persons increases, their liking for one another also increases.
  • Personal information: Self-disclosure and self-presentation shift attention from the group as a whole to individual members. People are more trusting of those who have a shared acquaintance among their in-group members. So, a friend’s friend is also a friend in cyberspace.
  • Interpersonal similarity: People are likely to become close to the extent that they perceive they are similar to each other in preferences, attitudes, and values. In several studies we reviewed, similarity was used to manipulate interpersonal attraction by asking participants to complete a personality and friendship questionnaire, and then telling participants that they were assigned to a group whose members probably would become close friends.
Converging and diverging consequences
In both community types attachment leads members to perceive a group as cohesive and to have a good opinion about the group and its members. It increases participation and the likelihood that the member will remain in the group. But there are also diverging consequences: Both types differ in their effects on
  • social loafing (common-bond groups tend to be more tolerant with loafers but members are less likely to compensate for other's under-participation);
  • the experience of newcommers (bond-attachment-based groups tend to set up bigger obstacles for newcomers);
  • the compliance with group norms (which is stronger in common-interest groups);
  • the topics people talk about (engagement in and tolerance for off-topic discussions are more stronger in common-bond groups);
  • the amount and type of reciprocity/social exchange of information and support (members with identity-based attachment are more likely to help any member and not just those who have helped them);
  • the robustness or salience of community membership (members tend to perceive each other as interchangeable in common-interest groups).
Questions and answers
After having assessed whether one's community is based on interest-attachment or bond-attachment one can now answer the questions of the introductory paragraph:
  • Off-topic discussions: In an interest-based community attachment to the group should decrease with discussion drifting away from the core topic. Here, ?-ing on-topic discusions is to the benefit of all members whereas in common-bond communities off-topic chitchat is essential because it offers an opportunity of conveying personal information.
  • Growth may be a problem for bond-based groups because attachment should decrease with membership turnover. For common-interest communities - on the other hand - growth is more likely to be benefical.
  • Anonymity: Interest-based communities may cope even with a large number of anonymous members, but bond-based communities profit from repeated interaction of its members. This requires that member's actions are visible to each other, that people meet frequently. Public and private communication will also enhance the likelihood of forming ties. These prerequisites are not compatible with anonymity.
Further research: motivation and participation
The distinction between attachment to the group as a whole and attachment to particular members is also decisive in the context of motivation and participation.

Motivation: Dholakia, Bagozzi & Klein Pearo [2] found that, in general, participants of a network-based VC, where members show identification with the online site itself and not so much with particular members, are more purpose-oriented, they seek information and expect the community to bring them together with others who will provide this information. In small-group based VCs, where members maintain a dense web of relationships with other members and identify with them in the first place, interpersonal connectivity and engagement in social interactions are the drivers of participation. This holds true for business-sponsored communties and for member-initiated communities.

Participation: Yeow, Johnson & Faraj [3] develop their typology in the context of lurking. Lurking is considered to be either an online form of social loafing or a phase in which the member-to-be learns the community norms by observing the community. The authors distinguish two types:
  • Transactional-commerce-oriented VCs are often business-sponsored and the primary driver behind participation is search for and exchange of information (e.g. product support group).
  • In relational-interest oriented VCs, the focus lies on relationship and interactions among members. Often, they are initiated by members themselves.
In both types, social loafing motivation as a cause for lurking is more dominant on average but there is a dampend effect within relational-interest VCs: Social learning by observation is more relevant in relational-interest oriented VCs.

Suggestion for further reading

  • For a concise version, see the post "Why knowing your community type is important" on The Community Manager
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[1] Ren, Y., Kraut, R. , Kiesler, S. (200?). Identity and bond theories to understand design decisions for online communities. Google Scholar
[2] Dholakia, U.M., Bagozzi, R.P., Klein Pearo, L. (2004). A social influence model of consumer participation in network- and small-group-based virtual communities. International Journal of Research in Marketing 21 (2004) 241 – 263. Google Scholar
[3] Yeow, A., Johnson S.L. , Faraj, S. (2006). Lurking: Legitimate or illegitimate peripheral participation? 27th Conference on Information Systems, Milwaukee 2006. Pre-Publication-Draft

Sonntag, 10. März 2013

The sources of sense of virtual communitiy: Identity, support and norms

McMillan & Chavis (1986) defined sense of community [SOC] - in the context of face-to-face communities - as a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to
one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through
their commitment to be together. Sense of community has four elements:
  • Membership: the feeling of belonging or of sharing a sense of personal relatedness.
  • Influence: a sense of mattering, of making a difference to a group and of the group mattering to its members. 
  • Reinforcement: integration and fulfillment of needs - a feeling that members’ needs will be met by the resources received through their membership in the group. 
  • Shared emotional connection: the commitment and belief that members have shared and will share history, common places, time together, and similar experiences. 
Usually, a strong SOC is considered to be desirable because it fosters pro-social behaviour of community members and helps dealing with external challenges/threats. But there is a caveat too: One precondition for membership are boundaries against non-members/out-groups.

From SOC to sense of virtual community (SOVC)
In 2004 Blanchard & Markus (cf. post in this blog) examined the concept of SOC in a virtual newsgroup. They found similarities, including
  • feelings of membership, 
  • integration of needs, and 
  • shared emotional connections, 
as well as differences:
  • Members reported that recognizing others and relationships with specific other members were important to them. 
  • They did however not report feeling that they exerted influence on/were influenced by others.
Their research led Blanchard & Marcus to the related concept of sense of virtual community (SOVC). They explained the differences with the member's concerns about the truth of others’ identities in a virtual setting and assumed that, online, people are less likely to be aware of their own influence or the influence of others.

Testing the model
Four years later, Blanchard (2008) reported the results for a model she had tested in two studies in which
  • the identity of other members and themselves (-> membership)
  • exhange of support within the community (-> reinforcement/integration of needs), and
  • interacting with other members outside of the virtual community via email
contributed to the SOVC - either directly and/or mediated by group norms. McMillan & Chavis had already emphasised the importance of shared values (= norms) for the exchange of support in a community:

"When people who share values come together, they find that they have similar needs, priorities, and goals, thus fostering the belief that in joining together they might be better able to satisfy these needs and obtain the reinforcement they seek. (...) The extent to which individual values are shared among community members will determine the ability of a community to organize and prioritize its need-fulfillment activities. (...) A strong community is able to fit people together so that people meet others’ needs while they meet their own."

Identity and SOVC
Theoretically, the impact of cues to others’ identity may either increase or decrease SOVC. In the context of this model, it was hypothesized that, generally, cues to others’ identity and correspondingly creating one's own identity are positively related to SOVC via norms. Through learning others members’ identity, people inductively create a social identity, and subsequently develop norms about what this group does and what its particular characteristics are.

Both studies supported that creating identity leads to norms and then to SOVC. However, neither study found that learning others' identites was related to group norms (or to SOVC directly).

This suggests that as people perceive they are ‘‘known’’ in the group, they are likely to perceive group norms of behavior and feel a SOVC. This in turn, makes them feel somehow accountable for what they do or gives them the feeling of beeing accepted. Study 2  added in a behavioral measure, the use of technical features to create and learn identity, for which norms also mediated the relationship to SOVC.

Exchange of support and SOVC
A fundamental assumption of social exchange theory is that people develop certain rules of exchange which serve as guidelines for people’s interactions. In line with social exchange theory, exchanging support in a virtual community should be positively related to SOVC and mediated by norms.

Both studies confirmed that, in general, the exchange of support positively affects SOVC - directly as well as indirectly via norms. Observing others exchange support seems to be more important in this mediation process than  participating in the public exchange of support oneself. This suggests that active involvement in publicly exchanging support has less of a relationship in developing group norms than would have been expected.

Furthermore, observing support and publicly participating in exchanging support have direct relationships to SOVC.

However, unlike in study 1 and in other previous research (cf., Blanchard & Markus, 2004), the private exchange of support through email was not related to SOVC. One explanation may have been the low level of using email to exchange support as reported by the participants in study 2. This suggests that when email is used, it positively affects SOVC. However, emailing support is not necessary for a SOVC.

Possible implications for community management
  • Why is a strong SOVC desirable? As mentioned above, community members with a strong SOVC are more likely to show active pro-social behaviour (complying with the norms and giving support -> participation). They make personal investment in order to earn a place in the group, and as a consequence, membership will become more meaningful and valuable to them, increasing the likelihood that they will remain in the group. 
  • How can community managment support the creation of SOVC? The community manager should study the community members' needs carefully and their possible integration especially in the process of creating a new community (or sub-community). Other possible interventions are:
    • making those needs salient to members and newcomers, 
    • encouraging compliance to the norms, 
    • facilitating the experience of sharing information,
    • having an open eye on barriers to entry for newcomers (boundaries)
    • watching out for changes in community members' needs. 
  • Do business-sponsored communities need a SOVC? The answer depends on the company's goals.  If the company is interested in bringing together potential buyers in some sort of "virtual outlet", then SOVC does'nt seem to be needed. Trust in the vendor's reputation is more important. On the other hand: If the company wants to establish a product support community where customers give support to other costumers, then a strong SOVC is helpful.
  • How about SOVC in social networks for professionals? Many insights stem from studies of social groups with personal-interest topics and not from studies of groups for professionals. Experience suggests that professional communities may be less likely to have a SOVC when people only seek information  (they are very likely to remain lurkers) or when they use the community as a platform for offering their services. However, when professionals with a common interest engage in more interactive exchanges, the above mentioned model may be appropriate.
  • In the discussion about participation and lurking it is argued that observing others exchange support may promote slacking from other participants and prevent lurkers from participating. However, the model shows that there is a counterbalancing effet: observing others exchange support helps create norms of behavior which lead to SOVC and subsequently to an increase in participation.
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David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis (1986). Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory. Journal of Community Psychology Volume 14 (1986), 6-23. Google Scholar

Anita L. Blanchard (2008). Testing a model of sense of virtual community. Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008) 2107–2123, via Google Scholar