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.

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

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