Meet my car. I’ve had her for the past three years
And since then I’ve been lurking
In fiat forum.com.
I originally found fiatforum.com through a google search.
Just like many of its members.
I gravitated towards the Fiat 500 group
And found out lots of information from real people
About things like tyres
When writing about community, Bell wondered whether as a car driver he was part of a community of car drivers. So for this ethnography I decided to delve deeper
into fiatforum’s self-proclaimed community.
I decided to remain a guest, and not to become a member.
This meant that I didn’t have access to members profiles.
Or indeed posting or commenting of any description.
My reasons to remain a guest weretime,
This micro ethnography was a short study of two weeks
And this didn’t leave enough time to get permission from the administrators to delve deeper than the public layer.
And whilst anyone can become a member
There may be an assumption
that member only areas are private.
The administrators are clear that the public areas are indeed public.
And this suggests that there are no ethical reasons why I could not observe
From the veranda.
This was also a strategic decision as I could attempt to further my understanding of community as a consumer.
Before we go on, there were other ethical considerations to take into account. Such as vulnerability of the subjects
And potential harm to the subjects if details of their communications were to be discussed outside their home venue.
It is my assumption that the subjects are likely to be adult car owners
And there are no explicit reasons to believe that contributors would have mental health needs, learning difficulties or disabilities, physical health needs or other vulnerabilities.
As the main topic of conversations are car related and not personal, the likelihood of harm to the subjects is low.
And any controversial postings are carefully monitored by the moderators.
Therefore ethically, this micro-ethnography appears to be fairly SOUND.
So, getting back to my arrival story
I decided to stay within the 500 group
And tomonitor the experience of newbies.
To see if their experiences gave indications about practices, behaviours and norms which may or may not suggest that fiatforum.com is indeed a community
So farI haveused the word “community” with impunity. This is a problematic term
And studying it here will probably raise more questions
I will begin this study bydescribing some of the ‘textualised records of interaction’ that I have been able to observe during the last two weeks.
Indeed I would describe the 500 section as both active andinteractive
over one week there were responses posted to 84 separate threads.
Within the 84 separate threads there were a minority which had been active for more than a few years. Although there were significant gaps of up to a year within these threads, usually when they were picked up again, the conversation re started with vigour.
The themes of the 84 active threads fell into four categories
Approximately15% were showing off their modifications or new cars
Approximately6% were newbies introducing themselves
Approximately15% were miscellaneous
and finally by far the largest group, at 64%, were threads asking for technical or financial advice
Interestingly a quarter of this large group were started by new members of the forum.
And from my veranda this was an interesting place to focus my study; because this would most likely be my next step if I were to quit lurking and sign up. According to Kozinets 2010 many internet community members begin by searching for information and are then drawn in to a community of shared understanding. Page 27.
I founda post entitled ‘Treatment of New Members’ whichgave me an insight into behaviours, practices and status that surrounded this subject.
It was an old post but it was a sticky which gives the message a degree of permanence.
And it was written by one of the section moderators. The role of the moderator appears to be a mechanism to justify and give authority to contributions. Interestingly this particular moderator ranks in the top ten of the wider forum for ‘thanks’ and ‘likes’ received.
In the post the moderator referred to a number of different practices which were expected to be enacted because apparently they had had some difficulties
Perhaps this was the moment of breakdown that Kolko and Reid talk about in Bell’s Community and Cyberculture.
The moderator wanted the difficulties to stop
Perhaps an attempt to ‘establish group norms’ bell page 102.
The moderator also mentioned how to identify a newbie
Perhaps outlining one of the online uses of various strategies of visibility and identity expression in order to compensate for the scarcity of traditional markers of status differentiation.
He also gavea description of what he did not want the group to be -
Perhaps trying to avoid the rejection of ‘otherness’ which bell talks about.
So did the moderator’s plea work. How did our recent newbies fair?
Of the nine sampled, each of their queries had been replied to within the same week of posting, and for those whose initial post had been within the last week, it was possible to determine exact response times – and in each case they had been replied to on the same day
In almost every case the first reply had come from a more experienced member of the forum. Check out three oh six maxi’s join date; number of posts; and thanks; and he’s a donated member. I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds impressive. It could be said that these badges of honor display sustained allegiance to the group; differentiate members; and give gravitas to their contributions.
So broadly speaking we could surmise that the moderators’ plea has been answered. Of course it’s impossible to say whether the practices and behaviours of welcoming newbies is solely due to this plea, but there does appear to be a shared understanding and culture in this respect.
Interestingly, in this instance one newbie is helping another newbie, following the moderators instructions to the letter.
Of course this could be coincidence. Or just good manners.
Or it could be a signal that the respondent had been lurking in the shadows and had assumed the community norms before becoming a fully fledged member.
We know that most of the threads that have been active during the course of this study have been those asking for advice.
And according to Kozinets, there is a pattern in online communities where this task based and goal-directed informational knowledge, develops at the same time as a more social aspect.
So, will does this happen in Fiatforum.com and more specifically will it happen to our newbies?
To date, our newbie sample have made some tentative steps out of their original thread.
Although it is not possible to trace these movements easily, it is possible to see that around half have posted elsewhere.
Whilst most of this group have posted only one to five times. One newbie has posted almost 60 times outside of his original message.
It’s far too early to tell, but perhaps this newbie will develop his sociability alongside his need for information.
There is certainly scope for this sociability within the wider Fiatforum.com
But also by taking a glimpseoutside of it.
And transversing media into facebook
But that’s for another ethnography.
So we have seen, from this briefest of ethnographies, that there appears to be some shared, cultural norms around the treatment of newbies. And there also appears to be signs and symbols to determine status. There seems to have been some cracks and fractures within the group, which were dealt with by an authority and seem to have been accepted. Does that make a community?
From a lurker’s point of view – possibly. But to draw any firm conclusions, I think there would be a lot more work to do around the definition of community as well as a much deeper and longer study of fiatforum.com
But now for me it’s time to depart, but perhaps I’ll be back to lurk around for help on tyres. Or gears. Or scratches.
Hine, C (2000) The virtual objects of ethnography, chapter 3 ofVirtual ethnography. London: Sage. pp41-66Bell, David (2001) Community and cyberculture, chapter 5 of Anintroduction to cybercultures. Abingdon: Routledge. pp92-112 [Kozinets, R. V. (2010) Chapter 2 ‘Understanding Culture Online’,Netnography: doing ethnographic research online. London: Sage.pp. 21-40