Online community
An online community is a virtual community
Virtual community
A virtual community is a social network of individuals who interact through specific media, potentially crossing geographical and political boundaries in order to pursue mutual interests or goals...

 that exists online and whose members enable its existence through taking part in membership ritual. An online community can take the form of an information system where anyone can post content, such as a Bulletin board system
Bulletin board system
A Bulletin Board System, or BBS, is a computer system running software that allows users to connect and log in to the system using a terminal program. Once logged in, a user can perform functions such as uploading and downloading software and data, reading news and bulletins, and exchanging...

 or one where only a restricted number of people can initiate posts, such as Weblogs.
Online communities have also become a supplemental form of communication between people who know each other primarily in real life. Many means are used in social software
Social software
Social software applications include communication tools and interactive tools. Communication tools typically handle the capturing, storing and presentation of communication, usually written but increasingly including audio and video as well. Interactive tools handle mediated interactions between a...

 separately or in combination, including text-based chat room
Chat room
The term chat room, or chatroom, is primarily used by mass media to describe any form of synchronous conferencing, occasionally even asynchronous conferencing...

s and forum
Internet forum
An Internet forum, or message board, is an online discussion site where people can hold conversations in the form of posted messages. They differ from chat rooms in that messages are at least temporarily archived...

s that use voice, video text or avatars
Avatar (computing)
In computing, an avatar is the graphical representation of the user or the user's alter ego or character. It may take either a three-dimensional form, as in games or virtual worlds, or a two-dimensional form as an icon in Internet forums and other online communities. It can also refer to a text...

. Significant socio-technical change may have resulted from the proliferation of such Internet-based social network
Social network
A social network is a social structure made up of individuals called "nodes", which are tied by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as friendship, kinship, common interest, financial exchange, dislike, sexual relationships, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige.Social...


A New Type of Community

The idea of a community is not a new concept. What is new, however, is transferring it over into the online world. Before, a community was defined as a group from a single location. If you lived in the designated area, then you became a part of that community. Interaction between community members was done primarily face-to-face and in a social setting. This definition for community no longer applies. In the online world, social interactions no longer have to be face-to-face or based on proximity, instead they can be with literally anyone anywhere.

The study of these communities has had to adapt along with the new technologies. Many earlier researchers used ethnography to attempt to understand what people do in online spaces, how they express themselves, what motivates them, how they govern themselves, what attracts people to participate, and why some people prefer to observe rather than contribute. Many other techniques have come about in an attempt to try and adjust to this new medium.
What is particularly tricky about online communities is that their meaning can change depending on who is defining them. Universally, however, there are things that show signs of a community. They are:
  • Content: articles, information, and news about a topic of interest to a group of people.
  • Forums or newsgroups and email: so that your community members can communicate in delayed fashion.
  • Chat and instant messaging: so that the community members can communicate more immediately.

Although many possibilities probably come to mind some examples of successful Internet Communities are:
  • Buddy Pic: where you upload a picture of yourself and are judged based on it. The site is half discussion half pictures.
  • Something Awful: Something awful has been around since 1999. It is a comedy forum where users post comedy ideas. It has been responsible for many Internet fads over the years.
  • Gaia Online: is one of the largest communities with 23 million registered accounts. This is mostly a community that discusses anime and video games

Classifying online communities

A number of authors have looked at classifying online communities and those within them to better understand how they are structured. It has been argued that the technical aspects of online communities, such as whether pages can be created and edited by many, as is the case with Wikipedia
Wikipedia is a free, web-based, collaborative, multilingual encyclopedia project supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Its 20 million articles have been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world. Almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the site,...

, or whether only certain users can post entries and edit them, as is the case with most weblogs, can place specific online communities into types of genre
Genre , Greek: genos, γένος) is the term for any category of literature or other forms of art or culture, e.g. music, and in general, any type of discourse, whether written or spoken, audial or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria. Genres are formed by conventions that change over time...


Some research has looked at the particular users of online communities. Amy Jo Kim
Amy Jo Kim
Amy Jo Kim is an American author and researcher on the subject of online communities. She is noted for her influential conceptual frameworks for online communities, in particular the Membership Lifecycle that was presented in her 2000 book, Community Building on the Web, a design handbook for...

 has classified the rituals and stages of online community interaction and called it the 'Membership life cycle'. Clay Shirky talks about community of practice whose members collaborate and help each other in order to make something better or improve a certain skill. What makes these communities bond is "love" of something as demonstrated by members who go out of their way to help without any financial interest. Others have suggested character theories
Character theory (Media)
A Character theory in the context of media, such as print or electronic media texts or productions such as films and plays, is useful for analysing and understanding media in which people take on the role of an actor or social actor...

 to break particular patterns of behavior of particular users into certain categories.

Some of the most successful online communities are those whose members have positively invested positive approaches to posting and carrying on conversations in forums and chatrooms. Online communities are used to chat and partake on a virtual social network.

Membership life cycle for online communities

Amy Jo Kim's membership lifecycle states that members of online communities begin their life in a community as visitors, or lurker
In Internet culture, a lurker is a person who reads discussions on a message board, newsgroup, chatroom, file sharing, social networking site, listening to people in VOIP calls such as Skype and Ventrilo or other interactive system, but rarely or never participates actively...

s. After breaking through a barrier, people become novices and participate in community life. After contributing for a sustained period of time they become regulars. If they break through another barrier they become leaders, and once they have contributed to the community for some time they become elders. This life cycle can be applied to many virtual communities, most obviously to bulletin board system
Bulletin board system
A Bulletin Board System, or BBS, is a computer system running software that allows users to connect and log in to the system using a terminal program. Once logged in, a user can perform functions such as uploading and downloading software and data, reading news and bulletins, and exchanging...

s, but also to blog
A blog is a type of website or part of a website supposed to be updated with new content from time to time. Blogs are usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in...

s and wiki
A wiki is a website that allows the creation and editing of any number of interlinked web pages via a web browser using a simplified markup language or a WYSIWYG text editor. Wikis are typically powered by wiki software and are often used collaboratively by multiple users. Examples include...

-based communities like Wikipedia
Wikipedia is a free, web-based, collaborative, multilingual encyclopedia project supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Its 20 million articles have been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world. Almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the site,...


A similar model can be found in the works of Lave and Wenger, who illustrate a cycle of how users become incorporated into virtual communities using the principles of legitimate peripheral participation. They suggest five types of trajectories amongst a learning community:
  1. Peripheral (i.e. Lurker) – An outside, unstructured participation
  2. Inbound (i.e. Novice) – Newcomer is invested in the community and heading towards full participation
  3. Insider (i.e. Regular) – Full committed community participant
  4. Boundary (i.e. Leader) – A leader, sustains membership participation and brokers interactions
  5. Outbound (i.e. Elder) – Process of leaving the community due to new relationships, new positions, new outlooks

The following shows the correlation between the learning trajectories and Web 2.0 community participation.

Learning trajectory — online community participation

Example – YouTube

Peripheral (Lurker) – Observing the community and viewing content. Does not add to the community content or discussion. The user occasionally goes onto to check out a video that someone has directed them to.

Inbound (Novice) – Just beginning to engage the community. Starts to provide content. Tentatively interacts in a few discussions. The user comments on other user’s videos. Potentially posts a video of his or her own.

Insider (Regular) – Consistently adds to the community discussion and content. Interacts with other users. Regularly posts videos. Either videos they have found or made themselves. Makes a concerted effort to comment and rate other users' videos.

Boundary (Leader) – Recognized as a veteran participant. Connects with regulars to make higher concepts ideas. Community grants their opinion greater consideration. The user has become recognized as a contributor to watch. Possibly their videos are podcasts commenting on the state of YouTube and its community. The user would not consider watching another user’s videos without commenting on them. Will often correct a user in behavior the community considers inappropriate. Will reference other user’s videos in their comments as a way to cross link content.

Outbound (Elder) – Leaves the community for a variety of reasons. Interests have changed. Community has moved in a direction that he doesn’t agree with. Lack of time. User got a new job that takes up too much time to maintain a constant presence in the community. The Deletionist versus Inclusionist Controversy in another such case within wiki-based communities.

Motivations and barriers to contributing to online communities

Successful online communities motivate online participation
Online participation
Several motivations lead people to contribute to virtual communities. Various online media , are becoming ever greater knowledge-sharing resources. Many of these communities are highly cooperative and establish their own unique culture...

. Several research studies have investigated methods of motivating participation in online communities.

An online community shares similarities and differences with a social community. Unlike a social community, an online community provides real-world communities a place to come together using the internet. Similar to a social community, being a member of an online community allows you to meet with several people in a chat room, or send messages to one another. An advantage of being a part of the online community is that it is always on and does not have operating hours. Online Communities are easier and is a more accessible way to keep in touch with people who are geographically far or with those who have conflicting schedules with oneself.

There are many persuading factors that draw users in to different online communities. Peer-to-peer systems and social networking sites rely heavily on member contribution. Users’ underlying motivations to involve themselves in these communities have been linked to different persuasion theories of sociology.
  • The Reciprocation Theory infers that a successful online community must provide its users with benefits that compensate for the costs of time, effort and materials members provide. People often join these communities expecting a sort of reward, whether it is physical or psychological.
  • The Consistency Theory says that once an individual makes a public commitment to a virtual society, they will often feel obligated to stay consistent with their commitment by continuing contributions.
  • The Social Validation Theory explains how people are more likely to join and participate in an online community if it is socially acceptable and popular.

Additionally, one of the greatest attractions towards online communities is the sense of connection users build between each other. Individuals are most likely to join these sites in order to enhance their likability.

The majority of people learn by example and often follow others, especially when it comes to participation. Individuals are reserved about contributing to an online community for many reasons including but not limited to a fear of criticism or inaccuracy. Users may withhold information that they don’t believe is particularly interesting, relevant, or truthful. In order to challenge these contribution barriers, producers of these sites are responsible for developing knowledge-based and foundation-based trust among the community.

There are two types of virtual online communities (VOC): dependent and self-sustained VOCs. The dependent VOCs are those who use the virtual community as extensions of themselves, they interact with people they know. Self-sustained VOCs are communities where relationships between participating members is formed and maintained through virtual encounters in the online community (Budiman, Adrian M. "Virtual Online Communities: A Study of Internet Based Community Interactions." Ohio University and OhioLINK. 2008. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. ). For all VOCs, there is the issue of creating identity and reputation in the online community. A person can create whatever identity they would like to through their virtual interactions with other members. Although limited, the most important attribute to an online member is the username. It is what other members identify you by but it says very little about the person behind it. In online communities, your name is your username (Donath, Judith S. "Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community." Sociable Media Group - MIT Media Lab. MIT Media Lab, 14 Nov. 1996. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. ). The main features in virtual online communities that attracts people is a shared communication environment, relationships formed and nurtured virtually, a sense of belonging to a group, an internal structure of the group, common space shared by people with similar ideas and interests. The three most critical issues are belonging, identity, and interest. For an online community to flourish there needs to be consistent participation, interest, and motivation (Tardini, Stefano, and Lorenzo Cantoni. "A Semiotic Approach to Online Communities: Belonging, Interest and Identity in Websites' and Videogames' Communities (Stefano Tardini) -" Universita' Della Svizzera Italiana - 2005. Web. 20 Oct. 2011.

Online community virtuous cycle

Most online communities grow slowly at first, due in part to the fact that the strength of motivation for contributing is usually proportional to the size of the community. As the size of the potential audience increases, so does the attraction of writing and contributing. This, coupled with the fact that organizational culture does not change overnight, means creators can expect slow progress at first with a new virtual community. As more people begin to participate, however, the aforementioned motivations will increase, creating a virtuous cycle in which more participation begets more participation.

Community adoption can be forecast with the Bass diffusion model
Bass diffusion model
rightThe Bass diffusion model was developed by Frank Bass and describes the process of how new products get adopted as an interaction between users and potential users. It has been described as one of the most famous empirical generalisations in marketing, along with the Dirichlet model of repeat...

, originally conceived by Frank Bass
Frank Bass
Frank M. Bass was an American academic in the field of marketing research, and is considered to be among the founders of marketing science. He was the creator of the Bass diffusion model that describes the adoption of new products and technologies by first-time buyers...

 to describe the process by which new products get adopted as an interaction between innovative early adopters and those who follow them.


Online communities are relatively new and unexplored areas. They promote a whole new community that prior to the Internet was not available. Although they can promote a vast array of positive qualities, such as relationships without regard to race, religion, gender, or geography , they can also lead to multiple problems.

The theory of risk perception, an uncertainty in participating in an online community, is quite common, particularly when in the following online circumstances:
1. Performances
2. Financial
3. Opportunity/Time
4. Safety
5. Social
6. Psychological Loss

Clay Shirky explains one of these problems like two hoola-hoops. With the emersion of online communities there is a “real life” hoola-hoop and the other and “online life.” These two hoops used to be completely separate but now they have swung together and overlap. The problem with this overlap is that there is no distinction anymore between face-to-face interactions and virtual ones; they are one in the same. Shirky illustrates this by explaining a meeting. A group of people will sit in a meeting but they will all be connected into a virtual world also, using online communities such as wiki .

A further problem is identity formation with the ambiguous real-virtual life mix. Identity formation in the real world consisted of “one body, one identity” . But the online communities allow you to create “as many electronic personae” as you please. This can lead to identity deception. Claiming to be someone you're not can be problematic with other online community users and for yourself. Creating a false identity can cause confusion and ambivalence about which identity is true.
A lack of trust regarding personal or professional information is problematic with questions of identity or information reciprocity. Often, if information is given to another user of an online community, one expects equal information shared back. However, this may not be the case or the other user may use the information given in harmful ways.

The most common problem with online communities tend to be online harassment, meaning threatening or offensive content aimed at known friends or strangers through ways of online technology. This problem is synonymous with "Cyber-bullying", impersonation, fraud, etc. This is content can be recognized as unwanted and constant that can be both disturbing and inappropriate. Online harassment tends to affect adolescents the most due to their risk-taking behavior and decision-making processes. The rate of reported online harassments have been increasing as there has been a 50% increase in accounts of youth online harassment from the years 2000-2005.

Another problem that seems to be more of an issue is privacy. Online communities like social networking websites have a very unclear distinction between private and public information. For most social networks, users have to give personal information to add to their profiles. Usually, users can control what type of information other people in the online community can access based on the users familiarity with the people or the users level of comfort. These limitations are known as "privacy settings". Privacy settings bring up the question of " do privacy settings and terms of service affect the expectation of privacy in social media". After all, the purpose of a online community is to share a common space with one another. Furthermore, it is even harder to take legal action when a user feels like his or her privacy has been invaded because he or she technically knew what the online community entailed. Creator of social networking site, Facebook
Facebook is a social networking service and website launched in February 2004, operated and privately owned by Facebook, Inc. , Facebook has more than 800 million active users. Users must register before using the site, after which they may create a personal profile, add other users as...

, Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Elliot Zuckerberg is an American computer programmer and Internet entrepreneur. He is best known for co-creating the social networking site Facebook, of which he is chief executive and president...

, noticed a change in users' behavior from when he first initiated Facebook
Facebook is a social networking service and website launched in February 2004, operated and privately owned by Facebook, Inc. , Facebook has more than 800 million active users. Users must register before using the site, after which they may create a personal profile, add other users as...

 in his Harvard dorm room, to now. It seemed that "society's willingness to share has created an environment where privacy concerns are less important to users of social networks today than they were when social networking began" . However even though a user might keep his or her personal information private, his or her activity is open to the whole web to access. When a user posts information to a site such as Wikipedia
Wikipedia is a free, web-based, collaborative, multilingual encyclopedia project supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Its 20 million articles have been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world. Almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the site,...

, or when said user comments or responds to information posted on a site, social networking sites create a tracking record of the users activity.


Two of the most important laws when dealing with legal issues of online communities, especially social networking sites are Section 512c of the Digital Millennium Act and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Section 512c removes liability for copyright infringement from sites that let users post content, so long as there is a way by which the copyright owner can request the removal of infringing content. The website may not receive any financial benefit from the infringing activities.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives protection from any liability as a result from the publication provided by another party. Common issues include defamation, but many courts have expanded it to include other claims as well.

See also

  • Clan (computer gaming)
    Clan (computer gaming)
    In computer and video gaming, a clan or guild is an organised group of players that regularly play together in a particular multiplayer games. These games range from groups of a few friends to 1000-person organizations, with a broad range of structures, goals and members. The lifespan of a clan...

  • Commons-based peer production
    Commons-based peer production
    Commons-based peer production is a term coined by Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler to describe a new model of socio-economic production in which the creative energy of large numbers of people is coordinated into large, meaningful projects mostly without traditional hierarchical...

  • Digital altruism
  • Immersion (virtual reality)
    Immersion (virtual reality)
    Immersion is the state of consciousness where an immersant's awareness of physical self is diminished or lost by being surrounded in an engrossing total environment; often artificial. This mental state is frequently accompanied with spatial excess, intense focus, a distorted sense of time, and...

  • Internet activism
    Internet activism
    Internet activism is the use of electronic communication technologies such as e-mail, the World Wide Web, and podcasts for various forms of activism to enable faster communications by citizen movements and the delivery of local information to a large audience...

  • Learner generated context
    Learner generated context
    The term learner generated contexts originated in the suggestion that an educational context might be described as a learner-centric ecology of resources and that a learner generated context is one in which a group of users collaboratively marshall available resources to create an ecology that...

  • List of virtual communities with more than 100 million users
  • Mass collaboration
    Mass collaboration
    Mass collaboration is a form of collective action that occurs when large numbers of people work independently on a single project, often modular in its nature...

  • Network of practice
    Network of practice
    Network of Practice is a concept originated by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid . This concept, related to the work on communities of practice by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, refers to the overall set of various types of informal, emergent social networks that facilitate information exchange...

  • Online community manager
    Online community manager
    The online community manager role is a growing and developing profession. People in this position are working to build, grow and manage communities around a brand or cause.-History of Online Community Management:...

  • Online deliberation
    Online deliberation
    Online deliberation is a term associated with an emerging body of practice, research, and software dedicated to fostering serious, purposive discussion over the Internet...

  • Online ethnography
  • Online research community
    Online research community
    An Online research community is a part of an emerging and developing area in market research making use of developments in Web 2.0 technologies and online communities...

  • Professional network service
    Professional network service
    A professional network service is a type of social network service that is focused solely on interactions and relationships of a business nature rather than including personal, nonbusiness interactions.Notable examples include LinkedIn, Viadeo, XING and also:* Business...

  • Social media
    Social media
    The term Social Media refers to the use of web-based and mobile technologies to turn communication into an interactive dialogue. Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein define social media as "a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0,...

  • Social web
    Social Web
    The social Web is a set of social relations that link people through the World Wide Web. The Social web encompasses how websites and software are designed and developed in order to support and foster social interaction. These online social interactions form the basis of much online activity...

  • Support group
    Support group
    In a support group, members provide each other with various types of help, usually nonprofessional and nonmaterial, for a particular shared, usually burdensome, characteristic...

  • Video game culture

External links

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