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Online communities

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Title: Online communities  
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Online communities

For other uses, see Community (disambiguation).

An online community is a virtual community 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 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 separately or in combination, including text-based chat rooms and forums that use voice, video text or avatars. Significant socio-technical change may have resulted from the proliferation of such Internet-based social networking services.[1]

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.[2]

The study of 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. [3]

Online communities can congregate around a shared interest, but can be spread across multiple websites. There may be more than one website to go to find any one online community.[4]

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.
  • 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 a large online community with 23 million registered accounts. It is mostly a community that discusses anime and video games [6]

The Development Of Online Communities

There is a set of values to consider when developing an online community. Some of these values include: opportunity, education, culture, democracy, human services, equality within the economy, information, sustainability, and communication. [7]

In reference to an online community, the developer's main focus is to create a technology that adheres to the interests, as well as the social and basic needs, of the community. An online community's main goal is to serve as a common ground for people who share the same interests as one another. Some individuals are not confident when communicating face-to-face with others, and the online community provides a place for these individuals to practice techniques that will help them become more confident in their communication skills. People who are shy or insecure when it comes to face-to-face communication are able to use these communities to get to know other people without having to directly show their shyness or insecurities. Individuals are able to talk with people who share their same interests just in a different form of communication. [8]

When online communities first developed, they were seen as essentially different than face-to-face communication. However, today, being involved in online communities has become a normal routine in many people's lives all over the world. People use online communities to keep up with events, such as such as upcoming church or sporting events, that are going on in their local communities. Online communities also form around activities or hobbies, such as online gaming or fashion blogging. They have also become an important part of education. Students are able to take classes online, and they are able to communicate with their professors and peers through online courses. Businesses have also started using online communities to communicate with their customers about product and service enhancements and to share new information about the business. A number of online communities related to health care help inform, advise, and support patients and community members who are suffering from illness or other health issues. Other online communities allow a wide variety of professionals to come together to share their thoughts and ideas on certain topics or issues. [9]

When developing an online community, it is important to have the right technologies necessary to keep members interested, manage assets, and uphold community relations. Everything needs to be in place and organized in order for the online community to be successful and usable. The developers take into consideration whether or not all the online community members are good at using technology. If the online community is not workable or usable for some users, they will be discouraged, in turn, leading them to not want to use the online community(ies) at all. Also, to make certain that online communities are in the members' best interests, the developers are able to communicate with someone or a group of people within the local community to find out what the community as a whole likes to see online as part of the online community. Surveys and discussion boards where members are able to post their feedback are an essential part in developing an online community due to the fact that community needs, as well as individual needs, are always changing. There is barely any face-to-face communication in the online community world, therefore developers' want to make sure that all of the participating members are content and at ease with other members.[10]

Online communities were developed to encourage individuals to come together to teach and learn from one another. They open the door for collaborative learning and focus more on how individuals learn from each rather than how they learn from an instructor. Online communities encourage self learners to discuss and learn about real-world problems/situations as well as focus on things such as teamwork, collaborative thinking, personal experiences, et cetera. Members of online communities are entitled to their own opinions and thoughts, but the members are also encouraged to learn from other online community member's experiences and thoughts/opinions as well. [11]

Because of online communities, for the first time it is possible to be connected to hundreds of millions of people at the same time. The internet has become a medium of communication and due to low cost computing and technological innovations in voice and messaging techniques, it will likely continue to grow and spread.

Cost plays a role in all aspects and stages for online communities. Fairly cheap and easily attainable technologies and programs have also influenced the increase in establishment of online communities. While payment is necessary to participate in some online communities (such as certain dating websites or for monthly game subscriptions), many other sites are free to users (such as social networking services Facebook and Twitter). Because of deregulation and the increased internet access and usage rates online community popularity has escalated. Online communities provide instant gratification, entertainment, and learning. Online community participants can communicate with one or many friends at one time, receive feedback from others (friends, family, and strangers), and obtain knowledge, whether it be sought after or stumbled upon. [12]

The medium’s connectivity has significant implications for the way that society interacts as individuals and as a collective. Individualism is shrinking while the prospect of a “global village” is becoming more and more apparent. Online communities are dynamic by nature and it is important that researchers and organizations have the power to classify them. For example it is important to know the security, access, and technology requirements of a given type of community as it evolves from an open forum to a private and regulated forum. [13]

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 World Heritage Encyclopedia, 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.[14] Another approach argues that 'online community' is a metaphor and that contributors actively negotiate the meaning of the term, including values and social norms.[15]

Some research has looked at the particular users of online communities. Amy Jo Kim has classified the rituals and stages of online community interaction and called it the 'Membership life cycle'.[16] 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.[17] Others have suggested character theories to break particular patterns of behavior of particular users into certain categories.[18][19][20]

A 2001 McKinsey & Company study showed that only 2% of transaction site customers returned after their first purchase, while 60% of new online communities users began using and visiting the sites regularly after their first experiences. Online communities have changed the game for retail firms, forcing them to change their business strategies. Companies have to network more, adjust computations, and alter their organizational structures. This leads to changes in a company’s communications with their manufacturers including the information shared and made accessible for further productivity and profits. Online communities have evolved how entertainment and news firms share information. Because consumers and customers in all fields are becoming accustomed to more interaction and engagement online, adjustments must be considered made in order to keep audiences intrigued. [21]

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.

The four requirements of “virtual settlement” include: interactivity, a variety of communicator, a common public place where members can meet and interact and sustained membership over time. Based on these classifications, it can be said that microblogs, such as Twitter, can be classified as an online community. [22]

Building Online Communities

Not everyone is drawn to participate and engage in online communities, and age and lifestyle often discourage people from getting involved in online communities. According to Dorine C. Andrews, author of Audience-Specific Online Community Design there are three parts to building an online community: starting the online community, encouraging early online interaction, and moving to a self-sustaining interactive environment.[23] When starting an online community, it may be more effective to create webpages that appeal to specific interests. Online communities with clear topics and easy access tend to be more effective. In order to gain early interaction by audience members, privacy guarantees and interwoven content discussion are very important.[24] Successful online communities tend to be able to function self-sufficiently. Private discussion groups and information sharing can often add to the complexity success of online communities [25]

Community Participation

There are two major types of participation in online communities: public participation and non-public participation, also called lurking. Lurkers are participants who join a virtual community but do not publish their opinions. In contrast, public participants, or posters, are those who join virtual communities and openly express their beliefs and opinions. Both lurkers and posters frequently enter communities to find answers and to gather general information. For example, there are several online communities dedicated to technology. In these communities, posters are generally experts in the field who can offer technological insight as well as answer questions, while lurkers tend to be technological novices who use the community to ask questions as opposed to offer advice.[26]

In general, virtual community participation is influenced by how participants' view themselves in society as well as norms, both of society and the online community.[27] Participants also join online communities for friendship and support. In a sense, virtual communities fill the social voids in participants' offline lives.[28]

Sociologist Barry Wellman presents the idea of “glocalization”- the ability for the Internet to extend participants’ social connections to people around the world while also aiding them in further engagement with their local community.[29]

'Online Learning'

One impact of online communities that is relatively new, but quite revolutionary, is online learning. Online learning can simply refer to sites dedicated to learning (as opposed to sites for entertainment or social networking), or the way one can get an education online. You can now take classes online at your own pace through a university, and get a degree that way. But some question the credibility of this. Do online communities help promote online learning? According to and article published in Volume 21, Issue 5, of the European Management Journal titled Learning in Online Forums, they conducted a series of researches about online learning, and they found that while strong online learning is a bit more difficult to form, it is still quite conducive to educational learning. Online learning can bring together a diverse group of people, and although it is asynchronous learning, they believe that if an online forum is set up using all the best tools and strategies, it can be very effective. Another study was published in an article of Volume 55, Issue 1, of the Computers and Education Journal, called Computer-supported team-based learning: The impact of motivation, enjoyment, and team contributions on learning outcomes, supports the findings of the article mentioned above. They found that the online experience enhanced students learning, and that the students felt they learned well with it. A study published in the same journal of Volume 55, Issue 4, called Can learning be virtually boosted? An investigation of online social networking impacts, looks at how social networking can foster individual well-being and develop skills which can improve the learning experience. So it is encouraged to utilize social networking sites to build a strong, helpful, positive environment in order to improve their social learning. These articles look at a variety of different ways of online learning. They essentially point to a theory that online learning can be quite productive and educational if created and maintained properly, and hope to see further technological advances to improve upon it even more. One of the greatest features of online communities is that they are not constrained by time therefore giving member the ability to move through periods of high to low activity over however long a period of time. This dynamic nature maintains a freshness and variety that traditional methods of learning might not have been able to provide. Nowadays, it appears that online communities such as World Heritage Encyclopedia have become a source of professional learning. It is an active learning environment in which learners converse and inquire, posting more and more accurate knowledge. In a study exclusive to teachers in online communities, results showed that membership in online communities provided teachers with a rich source of professional learning that satisfied each member of the community. Henceforth, the conclusion can be met that online communities are a worthwhile form of professional learning and a great source of information.[30]

Important aspects of a successful online community

An article entitled "The real value of on-line communities," written by A Armstrong and J Hagel of the Harvard Business Review, addresses a handful of elements that are key to the growth of an online community and its success in drawing in members. In this example, the article which was available on focuses specifically on online communities related to business, but its points can be transferred and can apply to any online community in general as well. The article addresses four main categories of business-based online communities, but states that a truly successful one will combine qualities of each of them: communities of transaction, communities of interest, communities of fantasy, and communities of relationship. Anubhav Choudhury, from, provides basic descriptions of each of these four types of online communities. Before continuing on to these types though, it is important that any confusion regarding the meaning of an online community is cleared up. A simple and clear definition is offered by Constance Elise Porter of Notre Dame in a paper entitled "A Typology of Virtual Communities: A Multi-Disciplinary Foundation for Future Research": "a virtual community is defined as an aggregation of individuals or business partners who interact around a shared interest, where the interaction is at least partially supported and/or mediated by technology and guided by some protocols or norms."

  1. Communities of transaction emphasize the importance of buying and selling products in a social online manner where people must interact in order to complete the transaction.
  2. Communities of interest involve the online interaction of people with specific knowledge on a certain topic.
  3. Communities of fantasy encourage people to participate in online alternative forms of reality, such as games where they are represented by avatars.
  4. Communities of relationship often reveal or at least partially protect someone's identity while allowing them to communicate with others, such as in online dating services.

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 lurkers. 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 systems, but also to blogs and wiki-based communities like World Heritage Encyclopedia.

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:[31]

  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.

Roles in an Online Community

Online communities are very different in content, however the roles that people play in their online society are often very similar. Both Nancy White[32] and Elliot Volkman[33] point out several different categories of people that play a role in the cycle of social networking, these include:

  • Community architect – sets goals for the online society, they decide what the purpose of the site will be and how it will affect society.
  • Community manager- they oversee the progress of the society, much like a manager of a store.
  • Paid member- this is a member that is paid to contribute to the site. They play a part in getting the site going and getting other people interested in using the site.
  • Core participants- these may also be considered free members that visit most often, they represent the majority of the contributors to the site and are very important to the sites progress.
  • Lurkers- may include passive lurkers who are not quite ready to post their opinions on the community site, however one step closer to becoming an active lurker.
  • Dominators-also many be known as power users, these people influence the space and time given in a single interaction.
  • Linkers- these are the people that participate across the board in a wide variety of discussions. They help to create connections and influence others to participate across the community.

These terms are taken from the ethnographic approach of studying society. Ethnography, meaning ‘a portrait of people’ in its literal sense, is the art in describing a group. In this case the descriptions create groups within the social construction of an online community.[34]

Motivations and barriers to contributing to online communities

Main article: Online participation

Successful online communities motivate online participation. 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.[35]

There are many persuading factors that draw users into 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.[36] Also participation and contribution is influenced when members of an online community are aware of their global audience.[37]

The majority of people learn by example and often follow others, especially when it comes to participation.[38] 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.[39]

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.[40] 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.[41] 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.[42]

Motivations, the Consumer, and Online Communities

Establishing a relationship between the consumer and a seller has become a new science with the emergence of online communities. It is a new market to be tapped by companies and to do so, requires an understanding of the relationships built on online communities. Online communities gather people around common interests and these common interests can include brands, products, and services.[43] Companies not only have a chance to reach a new group of consumers in online communities, but to also tap into information about the consumers. Companies have a chance to learn about the consumers in an environment that they feel a certain amount of anonymity and are thus, more open to allowing a company to see what they really want or are looking for.

In order to establish a relationship with the consumer a company must seek a way to identify with how individuals interact with the community. This is done by understanding the relationships an individual has with an online community. There are six identifiable relationship statuses: considered status, committed status, inactive status, faded status, recognized status, and unrecognized status.[44] Unrecognized status means the consumer is unaware of the online community or has not decided the community to be useful. The recognized status is where a person is aware of the community, but is not entirely involved. A considered status is when a person begins their involvement with the site. The usage at this stage is still very sporadic. The committed status is when a relationship between a person and an online community is established and the person gets fully involved with the community. The inactive status is when an online community has not relevance to a person. The faded status is when a person has begun to fade away from a site.[45] It is important to be able to recognize which group or status the consumer holds, because it might help determine which approach to use.

Companies not only need to understand how a consumer functions with in an online community, but also a company “should understand the communality of an online community”[46] This means a company must understand the dynamic and structure of the online community to be able to establish a relationship with the consumer. Online communities have cultures of their own, and to be able to establish a commercial relationship or even engage at all, one must understand the community values and proprieties. It has even been proved beneficial to treat online commercial relationships more as friendships rather than business transactions.

Through online engagement, because of the smoke screen of anonymity, it allows a person to be able to socially interact with strangers in a much more personal way [47] This personal connection the consumer feels translates to how they want to establish relationships online. They separate what is commercial or spam and what is relational. Relational becomes what they associate with human interaction while commercial is what they associate with digital or non-human interaction. Thus the online community should not be viewed as “merely a sales channel”.[48] Instead it should be viewed as a network for establishing interpersonal communications with the consumer.

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, originally conceived by Frank Bass 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,[49] 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 [50]

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.[51]

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".[52] 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.[53] The construction of an individual's identity within an online community requires self-presentation. Self-presentation is the act of "writing the self into being," in which a person's identity is formed by what that person says, does, or shows. This also poses a potential problem as such self-representation is open for interpretation as well as misinterpretation. While an individual's online identity can be entirely constructed with a few of his/her own sentences, perceptions of this identity can be entirely misguided and incorrect.

Online communities present the problems of preoccupation, distraction, detachment, and desensitization to an individual. Ironically though, online support groups exist now. Basically any online community you can conceive, and if it currently does not it will in the near future or you could be the one to develop it. Online communities do present potential risks. Users must remember to be careful and remember that just because an online community feels safe does not mean it necessarily is.[54]

Trolling and Harassment

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. Where such posting is done for the lulz, that is for the fun of it, then it is known as trolling.[55] Sometimes trolling is done in order to harm others for the gratification of the person posting. The primary motivation for such posters, known as Snerts, is the sense of power and exposure it gives them[56] Online harassment tends to affect adolescents the most due to their risk-taking behavior and decision-making processes. The most notable example being that of Natasha MacBryde who was tormented by Sean Duffy, who was later prosecuted.[57] In 2010, Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old New Yorker committed suicide. Trolls pounced on her tribute page posting insensitive and shamelessly hurtful images of nooses and other suicidal symbolism. Four years prior to that an 18 year old died in a car crash in California. Trolls took images of her disfigured body they found on the internet and used them to torture the girl’s grieving parents by sending them photos with subject lines like “Hey, Daddy, I’m still alive.” Hoping that they would click on them.[58] Psychological research has shown that anonymity increases unethical behavior through what is called: “the online disinhibition effect.” Many website and online communities have attempted to combat trolling, and not only has there not been a single effective method to discourage anonymity, but arguments exist claiming that removing Internet user’s anonymity is an intrusion of their privacy and violates the first amendment. “There’s no way to truly rid the Internet of anonymity. After all, names and e-mail addresses can be faked. And in many case many commenters write things that are rude or inflammatory under their real names. Thus, some trolls don't even bother to hide their actions and take pride in their behavior.[59] 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.[60]

Another form of harassment prevalent online is called flaming. According to a study conducted by Peter J. Moor, flaming is defined as displaying hostility by insulting, swearing or using otherwise offensive language.[61] Flaming can be done in either a group style format (the comments section on YouTube) or in a one-on-one format (private messaging on Facebook). Several studies have shown that flaming is more apparent in computer mediated conversation than in face to face interaction [62] For example, a study conducted by Kiesler et al. found that people who met online judged each other more harshly than those who met face to face.[63] The study goes on to say that the people who communicated by computer "felt and acted as though the setting was more impersonal, and their behavior was more uninhibited. These findings suggest that computer-mediated communication . . . elicits asocial or unregulated behavior." [64]

Unregulated communities are established when online users communicate on a site although there are no mutual terms of usage. There is no regulator. Online interest groups or anonymous blogs are examples of unregulated communities. [65]

Cyber bullying is also prominent online. Cyber bullying is defined as willful and repeated harm inflicted towards another.[66] Cyber bullying victimization has ascended to the forefront of the public agenda after a number of news stories came out on the topic.[67] For example, a Rutgers freshman, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide in 2010 after his roommate secretly filmed him in an intimate encounter and then streamed the video over the internet.[68] Numerous states, like New Jersey, have created and passed laws that do not allow any sort of harassment on, near, or off school grounds that disrupts or interferes with the operation of the school or the rights of other students.[69]

Trolling and cyber bullying in online communities are very difficult to stop for several reasons: 1. Community members don't wish to violate libertarian ideologies that state everyone has the right to speak. 2. The distributed nature of online communities make it difficult for members to come to an agreement. 3. Deciding who should moderate and how create difficulty of community management.


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 an 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.[70] Creator of social networking site, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, noticed a change in users' behavior from when he first initiated Facebook 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".[71] 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 World Heritage Encyclopedia, or when said user comments or responds to information posted on a site, social networking sites create a tracking record of the users activity.[72]

Lack of Real-World Social Interactions

There is some concern that modern people are spending so much time online that their ability to interact face-to-face has deteriorated. Various studies have reported that people spend less and less time interacting with others in real life and those who spend more time online tend to be less socially apt. The lack of social interactions can also lead to stress and depression, some say. This is because virtual engagements do not stimulate the release of neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of satisfaction and relaxation, such as oxytocin and endorphin, in the way that real interactions do.[73]


A lesser known problem is hazing within online communities. Members of an elite online community use hazing to display their power, produce inequality, and instill loyalty into newcomers. While online hazing doesn’t inflict physical duress, "the status values of domination and subordination are just as effectively transmitted".[74] Elite members of the in-group may haze by employing derogatory terms to refer to newcomers, using deception or playing mind games, or participating in intimidation, among other activities.[75]

For example, "through hazing, established members tell newcomers that they must be able to tolerate a certain level of aggressiveness, grossness, and obnoxiousness in order to fit in and be accepted by the BlueSky community".[76] An online community called The X-Filesaholics displays how hazing within online communities is a casualty and common for newcomers to obediently participate in. While this is a message board for members to discuss their love for the show "The X-Files", it is commonly called Mulders apartment. Individuals interested in joining this community must go through a hazing ritual, commonly known as cleaning the apartment. Newly established members are instructed to clean or scrub the apartment with a toothbrush.


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.[77]

Online Communities of various kinds (social networking sites, blogs, media sharing sites, etc.) are posing new challenges for all levels of law enforcement agencies in combating virtually all kinds of crimes including harassment, identity theft, copyright infringement, etc.

Copyright law is being challenged and debated with the shift in how individuals now disseminate their intellectual property. Today more than ever, individuals are coming together via online communities in collaborative efforts to create. Many describe current copyright law as being ill equipped to manage the interests of individuals or groups involved in these collaborative efforts. Some say that these laws may even discourage this kind of production. [78]

Laws governing online behavior pose another unique challenge to lawmakers in that they must work to enact laws that protect the public without infringing upon their First Amendment rights to free speech. Perhaps the most talked about issue of this sort is that of cyber bullying. Some scholars call for collaborative efforts between parents, schools, lawmakers, and law enforcement to curtail this kind of harassment in the wake of some alarming tragedies including suicide.[79]

Laws must continually adapt to the ever changing landscape of social media in all its forms; some legal scholars contend that law makers need to take an interdisciplinary approach to creating effective policy whether it is regulatory, for public safety, or otherwise. Experts in the Social Science disciplines can shed light on new trends that emerge in the usage of social media by different segments of American society (including youths).[80] Armed with this data, lawmakers can write and pass legislation that protect and empower various online community members.

See also


  • Shuie, Yih-Chearng. "Exploring and Mitigating Social Loafing in Online Communities". Computers and Behavior. v.26.4, July 2010. pp. 768–777
  • Matzat, Uwe. "Reducing Problems of Sociability in Online Communities: Integrating Online Communication with Offline Interaction". American Behavioral Scientist. 2010. pp. 1170–1193
  • Lwin, May O. "Stop Bugging Me: An Examination of Adolescents' Protection Behavior Against Online Harassment" Journal of Adolescence. 2011. pp. 1–11
  • Strutin, Ken. "Social Media and the Vanishing Points of Ethical and Constitutional Boundaries." Pace Law Review 31.1 (2011): 228–90. Wilson Web. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. .
  • Heinonen, Kristina. (2011). Conceptualizing consumers’ dynamic relationship engagement: the development of online community relationships. Journal of Customer Behavior, 10 (1), 49–72.
  • Goodwin, C. (1996). Communality as a dimension of service relationships. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 5(4), 387–415.
  • Heinonen, K., Strandvik, T., Mickelsson, K-J., Edvardsson, B., Sundström, E. & Andersson, P. (2010). A Customer Dominant Logic of Service. Journal of Service Management, 21(4), 531–548.

Further reading

  • Barzilai, G. (2003). Communities and Law: Politics and Cultures of Legal Identities. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
  • Bishop, J. (2007). Increasing Participation in Online Communities: A framework for human-computer interaction. Computers in Human Behavior 23 (2007), 1881–1893.

Dasgupta, S. (2010). Social Computing: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications. IGI Global. (ISBN 1-605-66984-9).

  • Ebner, W.; Leimeister, J. M.; Krcmar, H. (2009): Community Engineering for Innovations -The Ideas Competition as a method to nurture a Virtual Community for Innovations. In: R&D Management, 39 (4), pp. 342–356 [1]
  • Else, Liz & Turkle, Sherry. New Scientist, issue 2569, 20 September 2006. (interview)
  • Hafner, K. 2001. The WELL: A Story of Love, Death and Real Life in the Seminal Online Community Carroll & Graf Publishers (ISBN 0-7867-0846-8)
  • Fraser, Matthew, and Soumitra Dutta. Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking Will Transform Your Life, Work and World. Chichester, England: Wiley, 2008. Print.
  • Gurak, Laura J. 1997. Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace: the Online Protests over Lotus Marketplace and the Clipper Chip. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Hagel, J. & Armstrong, A. (1997). Net Gain: Expanding Markets through Virtual Communities. Boston: Harvard Business School Press (ISBN 0-87584-759-5)
  • Honeycutt, C. (2005), Hazing as a Process of Boundary Maintenance in an Online Community. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10: 00. 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2005.tb00240.x
  • Horrigan, John. (October 2001). Online Communities Summary of Findings: The Vibrant Social Universe Online. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved from
  • IRMA. Virtual Communities: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools and Applications. IGI Global: New York, NY (ISBN 1-609-60100-9)
  • Jones, G. Ravid, G. and Rafaeli S. (2004) Information Overload and the Message Dynamics of Online Interaction Spaces: A Theoretical Model and Empirical Exploration, Information Systems Research Vol. 15 Issue 2, pp. 194–210.
  • Kim, A.J. (2000). Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities. London: Addison Wesley (ISBN 0-201-87484-9)
  • Kim, A.J. (2004). "Emergent Purpose." Musings of a Social Architect. January 24, 2004. Retrieved April 4, 2006 [2].
  • Leimeister, J. M.; Sidiras, P.; Krcmar, H. (2006): Exploring Success Factors of Virtual Communities: The Perspectives of Members and Operators. In: Journal of Organizational Computing & Electronic Commerce (JoCEC), 16 (3&4), 277–298 [3].
  • Leimeister, J.M.; Krcmar, H. (2005): Evaluation of a Systematic Design for a Virtual Patient Community. In: Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10 (4) [4].
  • Nuwer, H. (1999). Wrongs of Passage: Fraternities, Sororities, Hazing, and Binge Drinking. Bloomington : Indiana University Press.
  • Plant, Robert. (Jan. 2004). Online Communities. Technology in Society 26 (Issue 1). Retrieved from
  • Preece, J. (2000). Online Communities: Supporting Sociability, Designing Usability. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. (ISBN 0-471-80599-8)
  • Davis Powell, Connie. ""Iou Already Have Zero Privacy. Getoverit!"1WouldWarrenand Brandeis Argue for Privacy for Social Networking?" Pace Law Review 31.1 (2011): 146–81.*Salkin, Patricia E. "Social Networking and Land Use Planning and Regulation: Practical Benefits, Pitfalls, and Ethical Considerations." Pace Law Review 31.1 (2011): 54–94.
  • Romm-Livermore, C. & Setzekorn, K. (2008). Social Networking Communities and EDating Services: Concepts and Implications. IGI Global: New York. (ISBN 1-605-66104-X)
  • Strutin, Ken. "Social Media and the Vanishing Points of Ethical and Constitutional Boundaries." Pace Law Review 31.1 (2011): 228–90. Wilson Web. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. .
  • Armstrong, A., & Hagel, J. (1996). The real value of on-line communities. Harvard Business Review, 74(3), 134–141. Butterworth-Heinemann. Retrieved from
  • Choudhury, Anubhav (2012). incrediblogger
  • Porter, Constance Elise. (2004). A Typology of Virtual Communities: A Multi-Disciplinary Foundation for Future Research.

External links

  • International Journal of Web Based Communities
  • Centre for Research into Online Communities and E-Learning Systems
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