Montag, 12. August 2013

Sense of community in virtual communities

Sense of community (SOC) is a concept in community psychology with far ranging implications for the management of face-to-face communities. It is applied to geographical communities (i.e. neighbourhoods, blocks, colleges) as well as to relational communities of interest where members are brought together primarily by social interaction and not by territorial demarcation. If you google for instance „developing sense of community“ you will see that SOC is a desirable thing because individuals and institutions devote a lot of energy to its creation. So, can this concept be made operational for the management of virtual communities?

1. Conceptualisation of sense of (virtual) community
One of the most prominent conceptualisations of sense of community was introduced by McMillan and Chavis (1986). It was developed for face-to-face communities and it includes components such as
  • membership (feelings of emotional safety with a sense of belonging and identification),
  • influence (exertion of one's influence on the community with reciprocal influence of the community on oneself),
  • integration and fulfillment of needs (beeing supported and giving support, thereby reinforcing one to behave in a manner acceptable to the community),
  • shared emotional connection (positive affect related to community membership, shared history).
People asked about their SOC might give answers like these:
  • Membership: „It is the diversity of people that makes this neighbourhood so unique. There are so many different flavors here and it is these flavors coming together that makes living here so valueable.“
  • Influence: „I have the feeling that it really matters when I say something and that my opinion is taken seriously.“
  • Integration and fulfillment of needs: „I'm drawn to this neighbourhood because we are all connected with one another. The size of our community allows me to see and deal with people that I know. When I need help doing maintenance work i.e. I can always ask a neighbour for help or advice.“
  • Shared emotion connection: „I've been living here for more than twenty years and so do a lot of us in this area. We raised our kids together!“
Researchers like Blanchard and Marcus (2004) extended the SOC-concept to virtual communities, calling the result: sense of virtual community (SOVC). 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.

2. What are the benefits of SO(V)C? (cf. Pretty et al., 2007)
One way of understanding sense of community is as a process in which community members interact, draw parts of their identity from this participation, give as well as receive social support, and by contributing to the common good foster the development of SOC.

On the other hand, sense of community is seen as some type of positive end state and end in itself. And there are some impressive examples of how SOC (SOVC) has a significant role in the health, well-being, and mental health outcomes of populations and sub-groups.

A third aspect is to see it as a predictor of other positive or negative - outcomes. A strong SOC is associated with well functioning communities that are supportive, even though one may not have personal relationships with each individual member. Furthermore, members may continue to have a SOC even though individuals come and go. Hence, sense of community can be an illusive cognition and affect which is not necessarily based on experiencing individual- level transactions.

This is particularly important for communities where members are not attached to one another by personal bonds but where the member is attached to the community as a whole This refers to the distinction of common identity vs. common bond: The distiction is based on the member's attachment either to the group as a whole [common identity] or to particular members of the community [common bond] (cf. Ren et al., 200?).

But communities with a strong SOC may also develop a tendency to turn inward, to exclude members that are different especially in times of need.

3. What are the antecedents of SOVC?
Blanchard reported the results for a model she had tested in two studies in which
  • the identity of other members and themselves (-> membership)
  • observing exhange of support within the community (-> reinforcement/integration of needs), and
  • interacting with other members of the community 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."

4. How can I assess the SO(V)C of my community?
A measure of sense of community is the Sense of Community Index (SCI: Perkins, Florin, Rich, Wandersman & Chavis, 1990; Long & Perkins, 2003). Several other questionnaires have been developed mostly for residential community research (e.g. Sense of Community Index 2). Blanchard developed a questionnaire for assessing the SOVC. An alternative approach was taken by using the reparatory grid technique, a quantitative, phenomenological approach originally developed by Kelly (1955). This involves communities selecting their own constructs for analysis, and residents’ ratings being based on these elements.

So in principle, you could take Blanchard's questionnaire, use a 5 or 7 point likert-type scale and ask your community. Let us suppose for a moment you've done that and the mean value is 2.2. What does it tell you? Not much, unless one knows the mean value of similar communities or unless you have repeated the survey in your community several times which will give you at least an information on the trend. To my knowledge and unfortunately there is no reference database yet.

5. How can I improve the SOVC of my community?
Possible measures for the improvement of SOC can be categorised in line with its determinants although there isn't always an exclusive 1:1 attribution. Please read Richard Millington's blogpost „How to use transferable elements to develop a strong sense of community.“ (http://www.feverbee.com/2011/10/senseofcommunity.html).

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References:

Blanchard, Anita L. (2007) "Developing a sense of virtual community measure. "CyberPsychology & Behavior 10.6: 827-830.

Blanchard, Anita L. (2008). Testing a model of sense of virtual community. Computers in Human Behavior 24: 2107–2123. See also : http://the-virtual-community-blog.blogspot.de/2013/03/the-sources-of-sense-of-virtual.html

Blanchard, Anita L. and Markus, M. Lynne (2004). The Experienced "Sense" of a Virtual Community: Characteristics and Processes. Database for Advances in Information Systems; Winter 2004; ABI/INFORM Global p. 65. See also: http://the-virtual-community-blog.blogspot.de/2013/01/sense-of-virtual-community-antecedents.html

McMillan, David W. and Chavis David M. (1986). Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory. Journal of Community Psychology Volume 14, 6-23.

Ren, Y., Kraut, R. , Kiesler, S. (200?). Identity and bond theories to understand design decisions for online communities.See also: http://the-virtual-community-blog.blogspot.de/2013/03/the-effect-of-community-type-on-member.html

Pretty, Grace, et al. (2007) "Psychological sense of community and its relevance to well-being and everyday life in Australia." The Australian Community Psychologist 19.2: 6-25.

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