Dienstag, 19. August 2014

Sense of Community: An Alternative Approach

The empirical study of Koh & Kim (2003) [1] on the sense of community is interesting in three respects: Firstly, the authors offer an alternative conceptualization, secondly, they try to identify antecedents, and thirdly, this study reveals the importance of offline activities for the SOC in virtual communtities.

An alternative conceptualisation

Originally, McMillan & Chavis (1968) [2] developed a concept for the sense of community with four elements (cf. Sense of Community in Virtual Communities):
  • Membership: The feeling of belonging to a community.
  • Influence: The feeling that one can make a difference in the community.
  • Integration and fulfillment of needs: The perception that the community's resources will meet ones needs.
  • Shared emotional connection: Members share history, time, places, and experiences.
Koh & Kim (2003) integrate only membership and influence in their concept and add one new dimension - immersion. Integration and fulfillment of needs is omitted because it seems to be more of an antecedent than an element, and shared emotional connection is rather a part of the membership dimension than a independent element. The new aspect immersion is based on the flow concept of Csikszentimihalyi (1975) [3].
"Since virtual community members tend to display immersive (or addictive) behavior toward their community via daily on-line communications the concept of flow is also relevant in the virtual community context."

Possible antecedents of sense of community

By qualitative research (among others a series of in-depth interviews with a group of virtual community leaders) three meaningful antecedents were identified:

1. Leaders' enthusiasm: Community leaders are people who manage (both commercial and non-commercial) virtual communities. They may be either community managers or core members that play a very active role in managing the community. Their engagement during the different stages of the community helps virtual community members feel greater membership toward their community.

2. Offline meetings make up for the comparably low social presence in computer-mediated environments. Offline activities help members understand, trust, and identify other members more easily and they enhance the solidarity and cohesiveness of a virtual community and lead its members to higher levels of membership, influence, and immersion.

3. Enjoyability refers to such outcomes as emotion, pleasure, and satisfaction result from the playfulness experience derived from the community's content and interactions with other members.

Community origin (virtual vs. face-to-face) was introduced as a moderating variable which influences the relationship between the antecedents and the sense of virtual community. The moderator variable weakens or strengthens the effect that the independent variable (antecedent) has on the dependent variable (SOC).

From a list of 50 virtual communities willing to participate in the study, six were dropped because they did not satisfy the selection criteria (i.e., less than 20 members, no interactions for at least two months). Each of the 44 community leaders got five paper-based (not electronic) questionnaires which they randomly distributed to five other community members (n = 220).

On this basis a factor analysis was conducted in order to make sure that each item measured the right antecedent. The effects of the antecedents on the sense of virtual community were examined with three regression analyses.

Results, conclusions and limitations

The sense of virtual community construct was confirmed to have three valid dimensions: membership, influence, and immersion. The dimensions were influenced by the antecedents in the following way:
  • Membership was significantly affected by offline activities, leaders' enthusiasm, and enjoyability - in that order.
  • Influence was significantly affected by offline activities.
  • Immersion was influenced only by enjoyability,
Contrary to expectations, offline activities did not seem to have a significant effect on immersion (members' online activities). The author explain this result with the fact that offline activities is a double-edged sword: Offline activities encourage members to participate actively in the community but due to the loss of anonymity and heightened social presence, offline activities hinder members from becoming fully immersed in the virtual community.

The relationship between antecedents and the dimensions of the sense of community was stronger  for online originated virtual community members than for offline originated virtual community members. Or in other words: Members from online originated virtual communities displayed a much steeper rise in membership and influence values than those from offline originated virtual communities as the values of the two antecedents (i.e., leaders' enthusiasm and off-line activities) increased.

An unexpected and major finding of this study is certainly the important role of offline activities. This is a great opportunity for community management.

Another interesting finding is the significant effect of enjoyability on membership and immersion. Enjoyability represents the pleasure the individual member gets from the virtual community's content and interactions with other members, perhaps a reflection of the needs-fulfillment dimension of the original SOC-concept.

Community management, to be sure, had an impact on membership, but not on influence or immersion. This limited influence is a little bit disappointing.

The authors admit that the study's general applicability may be limited. Although the research model was interpreted mostly in one direction (from antecedent to sense of virtual community), an opposite-direction interpretation is not strictly ruled out. Furthermore, the research model may not be relevant for business-to-consumer communities with few offline activities and few interactions among members.

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[1] Koh, J., Kim, Y. G., & Kim, Y. G. (2003). Sense of virtual community: A conceptual framework and empirical validation. International Journal of Electronic Commerce, 8(2), 75-94. Google Scholar.

[2] McMillan, D., & Chavis, D. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 14, 6-23. Google Scholar. See also Dr. David McMillan's website for a detailed description of SOC and the dynamics of its components and an instructive (and very entertaining) video from the CMX SUMMIT 2014.

[3] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass