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Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges & Solutions340
Exploring the Business Perspective of Hostili...
Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges & Solutions 341
various definitions of the virtual community...
Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges & Solutions342
Flaming in online environment is generally
Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges & Solutions 343
the whole range of human experience are expr...
Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges & Solutions344
4. The BAP Case
Case background
The BAP forum...
Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges & Solutions 345
The members did not explicitly refer to the ...
Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges & Solutions346
intentions” [3] BAP seems to promote “me-
Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges & Solutions 347
Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), 2nd edition. Sage Publ...
Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges & Solutions348
Lewis-Beck et al. (Eds). Sage Publications, L...
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Hostility in virtual communities


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IBIMA 2006 Conference (Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges and Solutions)

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Hostility in virtual communities

  1. 1. Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges & Solutions340 Exploring the Business Perspective of Hostility in Virtual Communities Hanna-Kaisa Ellonen, Lappeenranta University of Technology, Finland, Miia Kosonen, Lappeenranta University of Technology, Finland, The purpose of this paper is to explore the factors that attract people to virtual communities and how hostile messages affect the community. The discussion is based on a single case study of a large Finnish virtual community we call BAP (Baby and Pregnancy community). Based on triangulated data (narratives, interviews and observation) we conclude that BAP seems to meet four types of needs, namely needs of interest, relationship, fantasy and transaction, and that the success of BAP may well be linked to its ability to meet several needs at the same time. We also suggest that the success of a virtual community does not automatically require a tranquil culture, and occasional hostility among the members may be natural and acceptable in emotionally oriented interactions. From the organizers perspective, the hostility may also add to the ‘street credibility’ of the organizer and increase the experienced genuineness of the community. 1. Introduction Business-organized virtual communities are gaining more interest and popularity. Business wise they seem attractive since they appear to impact customer loyalty, word-of-mouth promotion of the product [40], [45]; and even the perceived value of the firm’s offerings [18]. Virtual communities may also provide input for product development [20], [15]. However, as Porter [28] notes, organization-sponsored communities have attracted less research attention compared to member-initiated communities. So far, many of virtual community research have described peaceful communities, e.g. [7], [34], very close to their physical counterparts. In these studies, an assumption seems to be made that a successful community would need a tranquil and harmonious culture, or even a shared sense of virtual community among the members. Indeed, strong attachment to the community has been noted to lead to more active participation and facilitate virtual collaboration, enhance knowledge sharing, transfer off-line activities into an online context (or vice versa), and increase customer loyalty in e-commerce [24], [7], [44], [46]. However, a recent case study [14] has shown that the success of a virtual community does not directly follow a sense of virtual community or a harmonious atmosphere. In fact, a virtual community may, at the same time, experience hostility, lack a strong sense of virtual community and attract a large number of visitors. An unanswered question remains: what are the factors that attract members to such communities? In this paper we explore the relationship of a large member base and hostility deeper in our case community we call BAP (Baby and pregnancy community). The baby and pregnancy discussion forum (BAP) consists of a set of discussion forums for mothers-to-be and mothers of young children. It is organized by one of the largest baby magazines in Finland (circulation 32,400). The purpose is to explore what are the factors that attract members to a virtual community and discuss how occasional hostility affects it. From a practical perspective, our aim is to ponder whether or not hostility is destructive for business-organized virtual communities. The rest of the paper unfolds as follows: We start by reviewing virtual community research and discuss factors that appear to affect participation in the communities. We then present our research methodology and describe our case background. We present our findings and relate them with prior research. We conclude by considering the implications for researchers and managers. 2. Theoretical Background Virtual communities first came in existence in the 1970’s and have been an issue in academic research since the 1990’s. The key idea behind them is to bring people together – virtually – to a common place, where they can interact and exchange information despite the limits of time and geographical distance. [30], [29]. The term “community” is sometimes used to refer to tightly knit social groups, and on other occasions to signify aggregates of people who hardly know one another; sometimes it is even used to describe mere geographic places [16]. Lee et al. [25] reviewed
  2. 2. Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges & Solutions 341 various definitions of the virtual community and compiled a generic working definition according to which it is a “cyberspace supported by computer-based information technology, centered upon the communication and interaction of participants to generate member-driven contents, resulting in relationships being built up.” Ridings et al. [33] see virtual communities as being “groups of people who have common interests or practices and who communicate regularly and for some period over the Internet through a common location or mechanism”. By location or mechanism, the authors refer to the application used by the members of the community, be it a chat room, bulletin board, mailing list or something else. According to Preece [29] an online community consists of people interacting socially, a shared purpose that provides a reason for the community to exist, policies such as tacit assumptions, rituals and rules that guide people’s interaction and, finally, computer systems to provide a platform for social interaction and facilitate a sense of togetherness. These communities also tend to develop a strong sense of having clear boundaries and of being safe from outside intruders [38]. Fernback & Thompson [17] see virtual communities as a set of relationships, which emerge through repeated interaction inside a specific boundary. In sum, there are a number of ways to define and understand virtual communities. In this paper we define virtual communities as groups of people using information system(s) for repeated social interaction to meet a certain need/needs. In the following paragraphs we briefly address the needs that a virtual community can meet, and discuss other elements that influence its actions and nature. Hagel & Armstrong [19] have proposed that a virtual community can meet four types of needs, namely needs for interest, see also [6], relationship, fantasy and transaction. In their view, virtual communities will differ significantly in terms of the relative focus they place on each need, but they state that few will succeed if they access one need to the exclusion of others. The power of a virtual community, thus, lies in its ability to address several needs at the same time: • Interest: these communities are designed to share information and opinions on a shared interest. High personal relationships are involved. • Relationship: these communities are designed to support interaction between members, who share their life experiences. • Fantasy: these communities are created for establishing new identities and environments; the real identity of the participant is not relevant. • Transaction: these communities are designed to provide transaction-related information and to enable transactions. Examples include e- commerce and auction sites. Transaction should be defined broadly, however: it could also be understood as the fair exchange of ideas and advice. In our view, meeting members’ needs is the cornerstone of any successful community, as without a need there is no participation and no contribution. The size of the community influences its activities [29], [35], [10] and economic success [34]. According to Morris & Ogan [27], an asynchronous discussion forum needs both depth and variety to be viable: in every discussion forum there are people just reading the messages and not posting any, i.e. lurkers. An estimated relation of posters/readers of 1/100 is often quoted [29]. A virtual community therefore needs a critical mass of posters to carry the free riders in the system. Shapiro & Varian [37] argue that consumers value information technologies that are widely used, just as they value communications networks with a broad reach. Therefore, at the beginning of their involvement members are likely to prefer a virtual community with a broad membership base. As explained above, reaching a critical mass of visitors is therefore important as advantages may accrue to the first big mover (see, for example, [21], [26]). However, when the community grows larger, it is about to meet other challenges. According to the literature, broadly based communities are likely to experience more hostility as the participants have different expectations and may become frustrated when their expectations are not met [29], [35]. So far, hostility in virtual communities has not received much research attention and therefore, we lack rigorous theoretical frameworks to address this issue. Burnett [8] and Burnett & Buerkle [9] have categorized four different types of hostility, namely flaming, trolling, spamming and cyber-rape. They all emphasize overt aggression and conflict rather than support information exchange in the virtual community. We will now briefly review each of the types in turn:
  3. 3. Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges & Solutions342 Flaming in online environment is generally characterized by words of profanity, obscenity, and insults. Alonzo & Aiken [1] suggest that flaming is, for some, a way of entertaining themselves and passing time, while others flame as a relaxation technique to fight the frustration caused by the online discussion system or to gain control and dominance over others. As Baym [4] notes, when emotional issues and attachment are present in the community, there is always potential for conflict. Trolling, on the other hand, refers to posting provocative messages which induce angry responses. According to Donath [12], a troll pretends to be a legitimate participant but aims to cause a riot: he baits a post and waits for the bite and then enjoys the fight. Trolling thus represents one form of identity deception. Trolls can be harmful to an online community in several ways: in disrupting a conversation, disseminating bad advice and damaging the feeling of trust. Finally, spamming refers to the abuse of electronic messaging systems to send unsolicited, undesired bulk messages. Burnett [8] also acknowledges that some cases of “virtual rape” have been reported. In the following, we will first present our methodology and case background and then proceed to analyze the communal actions and reasons for participating in our case community. 3. Research Strategy and Methodology In order to explore the questions of hostility and factors that attract people to virtual communities within in real-time context, we chose to conduct a single-case study [41], [43]. In this regard, we agree with Dyer and Wilkins [13] who see “good stories” as the ultimate result of case studies; good stories can lead us to see new theoretical relationships and question old ones. Our case study represents a triangulated [11] research strategy, involving three types of methods and data. Our main method for collecting the data was narratives written by BAP members. In cooperation with the magazine, we added a request for written narratives on the BAP web site. In the short note we asked members of the forums to write to us about their BAP experiences. We received 11 narratives that total a textual database of 24 pages. Narratives are seen as a means of gaining access to deeper organizational realities as they are closely linked to members’ experiences [42]. Rhodes [31] sees them particularly suitable for addressing issues of resistance and disagreement. This aspect was felt important since we wanted to hear about both positive and negative experiences, and to minimize the researchers’ influence in the data collection. Secondly, in order to support our understanding regarding the community development, semi- structured interviews [5], [36] were conducted with five current and former members of the baby magazine’s staff. The interview transcripts added another 25 pages of textual data. Thirdly, interaction inside the community was also observed for a period of 14 months (November 2003- December 2004). Observation is a primary field-study method that involves a very close relationship with the phenomenon in question. As Snow and Thomas [39] note, case studies rely heavily on direct observation. According to Kendall [23], all social-research projects involving the study of online interactive forums should include observation. In this case, a field diary was kept on the observations and posted messages were collected and classified based on their tone and motives. The data was then analyzed using thematic analysis [2]. Thematic analysis is useful for theorizing across a number of cases or interviews [32] and was used in this study for finding common thematic elements among a number of interviews/narratives. The coding technique was elaborative coding which begins with theoretical constructs as the basis of the coding [2]. In order to increase the reliability of our study, the authors first coded the data and contributed to the key findings individually. The coding and findings were double-checked and agreed upon jointly. Triangulation was used as a strategy to increase the validity of the results [43]. There are several reasons for choosing BAP as a research object. It was one of the first communities in Finland, and so it is well-established and mature. It is also one of the most active online communities in the country (more than 6.5 million messages are posted annually). Most importantly, what makes it special is its culture and atmosphere. The conversation is not limited to baby talk, nor is it always happy in tone: the community is somewhat ‘anarchist’ every now and then, and even ‘wild’ in its nature. Emotions covering
  4. 4. Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges & Solutions 343 the whole range of human experience are expressed – as in real life. However, the blunt and outspoken culture of BAP provides conditions that members cannot achieve in physical communities. As one member wrote in a letter to a member of the magazine staff: “The BAP discussion forums are the only place where I can be and say what I truly feel.”
  5. 5. Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges & Solutions344 4. The BAP Case Case background The BAP forums (a total of 38 different ones) cover all areas related to pregnancy and motherhood, ranging from expecting a baby to food and allergy questions concerning older children. The forums were founded in 1997 when the baby magazine first launched its web site. Online conversations were then considered to be both cost-efficient to maintain, and also to meet the needs of young mothers to contact other women in the same situation. BAP is, by any standards, an extremely active virtual community. In 2004, there were 117,500 unique visitors per month and the average visitor spent more than 17 minutes at the site. The discussion cultures in BAP BAP consists of 38 discussion forums. They operate asynchronously, meaning that members can read what others have written earlier and then reply to the message. Most forums require registration before posting, but anyone can write anonymously on three of them. We have observed a clear distinction between the cultures of anonymous discussion forums and those that require registration. In the forums that require registration, the conversation is generally on topic and friendly in nature. In these forums, people ask for advice on a specific topic (e.g., can you give meat to a five-month old baby?); people form their own “clubs” for pregnant mothers expecting their babies in the same month, and share their experiences almost daily; surveys are conducted that are meant to have entertainment value (e.g., how much weight have you gained this week?); and emotional outbursts are posted (e.g., my husband says I am fat), which usually attract a lot of responses. Although the overall tone is no- nonsense, several topics bring the conversation to a simplistic, black-and-white level – breast or bottle feeding being the number one topic. It should be noted, however, that 90% of the messages are posted to the three anonymous forums. In these three forums, most posters choose to use the standard account name (“visitor”) when posting. The members address all topics imaginable, and the same questions related to motherhood (i.e. breastfeeding, day care) are dwelled upon over and over again. It appears, however, that it is not the substance of the message but rather the language that matters here: it is a question of who can argue their point best, as the general tone is very taunting. 5. Why Do Members Visit BAP Community? As described earlier, Hagel & Armstrong [19] suggested that a successful virtual community would be able to meet the needs of its members. In order to get an understanding of the factors that attract members to BAP, we analyzed our data according to the Hagel & Armstrong’s typology of virtual community needs. For this part of the analysis, the main level codes were the four types of needs, namely interest, relationship, fantasy and transaction, and we coded the narratives as well as our other data based on the type of needs the BAP community appeared to meet. Interest Based on our data, the main reason for joining BAP community is a shared interest; all members are interested in pregnancy and babies. In our understanding, the shared interest also clearly contributes to the high traffic level in the community. “These forums are a kind of place where issues of pregnancy and parenting are discussed at grass roots level, without unnecessary timidity… we don’t have to be friends but we keep contact because of a similar life phase.” (N1) “You always get answers to the questions you have… many members share the same issues and problems.” (N2) Relationship Many members also described experiencing peer support and having formed new relationships with other community members. They may exchange emails with one another or meet face-to-face. ”I feel that some of the ’regulars’ in our community are very close to me. I carry an image of them in my mind, and… well, it may be distorted, but anyhow. “ (N6) Fantasy
  6. 6. Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges & Solutions 345 The members did not explicitly refer to the need of fantasy in their narratives. However, when observing the community, we noticed discussions where members acknowledged having multiple nicknames or changing their nicknames from time to time. Also, a typical discussion in the anonymous forums included speculation whether or not the author actually had meant what he/she had written, thus implying to the possibility of identity deception [12]. The identity games imply that BAP community also provides possibilities for establishing new identities and thus, also fulfills the need for fantasy. Transaction There are also forums for selling and buying baby related items in BAP. Opinions related to necessary purchases are also exchanged in most forums. Therefore, we claim, that BAP also meets the needs for transaction. “You get good advice on the purchases one has to make” (N3) To conclude the above discussion, BAP seems to meet all the four types of needs of the Hagel & Armstrong [19] typology. In our view, this is an important factor that contributes to the success of the BAP community. 6. How Does Hostility Affect the BAP Community? Even though the BAP community seems to meet multiple needs of its members, some members do express their concerns about the sharp-tongued culture of the anonymous forums. One member wrote in the anonymous forums: “This discussion forum is a battle- field of frustrated women. I wrote to the editor-in-chief and asked how the magazine could tolerate this kind of behavior.” In this section, we will discuss the impact of hostility in BAP community. For this part of the analysis, we coded the data based on the hostility typology of Burnett [8] and searched not only for the hostile actions but also for members’ reactions to hostility. In our data, both flaming [1] and trolling [12] are common in the anonymous BAP forums, while we found no evidence of spamming or cyber-rapes. Flaming, in BAP, appears as purposefully insulting messages. For example, one member wrote in the forums: “I think that poster number three is the original fanatic bitch or at least her close relative.” In their narratives, BAP members acknowledged using the forums as entertainment and voluntarily participating in the malicious discussions, thus fulfilling their personal goals. Also trolling is often suspected in the anonymous forums; a common topic is breast-feeding vs. bottle feeding, which invites a number of black-and-white responses. In addition, members readily doubt whether the posters truly mean what they are saying. For instance, when one poster wrote about her twins, her message was quickly and briefly answered: “I bet they were premature babies, too!!!”. The distrust is sometimes understandable, as when a poster repeatedly introduces herself as a well-known and controversial Finnish writer. However, in their narratives most members did not seem startled because of the hostility. One member wrote us: “I used to get upset by all the malicious comments and taunting one gets here, but now I participate in it my self at full blast.” This leads us to suggest that most members seem to accept this culture and understand the rules of the game. In our view, these “games” of flaming and trolling are used for entertainment and fighting frustration. In fact, one member admitted that she wanted to read the “psychos’ messages” to foster her own confidence. Therefore, we argue that the hostility seems not to weaken BAP’s ablity to meet its members’ needs. 7. Discussion and Conclusions In this section we discuss the limitations, research contributions and practical implications of our study. The main limitation of this study is that it is based on a single case and the results can therefore be only generalized with care. In order to increase the validity of the results, methodological triangulation was applied (e.g. [43]). It seems that the BAP community has well reached its critical mass and is striving with both the depth and variability of its content. Also, BAP is targeted on a well-defined audience. However, as we see it, whatever the members have in common because of their current life situation does not mean that they do not differ in their experiences, emotions, problems and joys. The heterogeneity is difficult to avoid in the discussion forums when a large number of visitors are attracted to them. The BAP culture could be described as honest, blunt and self-serving, each member primarily satisfying her own needs. Instead of “we-
  7. 7. Internet & Information Systems in the Digital Age: Challenges & Solutions346 intentions” [3] BAP seems to promote “me- intentions”. Based on our systematic analysis we concluded that members become attached to the community because it meets all four types of needs, namely interest, relationship, fantasy and transaction, of the Hagel & Armstrong [19] typology. In our view, and consistently with Hagel & Armstrong, the success of BAP may well be linked to its ability to meet several needs at the same time. Therefore, despite the sometimes blunt and hostile culture of BAP, the virtual community seems to meet the needs of its members as it is. Thus we conclude that the success of a virtual community does not automatically require a tranquil culture, and temporal hostility among the members may be natural and acceptable in emotionally oriented interactions (see also [4]). We suggest that future studies should analyze the role of hostility in information-oriented vs. socio-emotionally oriented communities (cf. [7]). Moreover, “virtual motherhood” (see also [22]) and its linkages with the fantasy element of virtual communities be studied further, as the vivid culture of BAP indicated. The question still remains, whether hostility should be avoided. BAP staff felt that the community should be allowed to create its own rules. They also seemed to trust that a clear majority of the community members would understand that the messages posted in BAP forums do not reflect the magazine’s official opinions, but are views of single members. While the members of staff acknowledged that there are occasions that could pose a threat to the magazine brand, they mainly wanted to keep some distance from the hostile messages in the forums. Therefore, one strength of the community from the organizers point of view also is that it adds to the ‘street credibility’ of the magazine, and increases its genuineness by giving a chance to admit that you are not a perfect mother. In this regard, we would also like to re-cite one community member: “The BAP discussion forums are the only place where I can be and say what I truly feel.” We conclude that in this case, the genuineness seems to be one of the key factors that also support the BAP magazine business wise (see [15]). References [1] Alonzo, M. and Aiken, M. “Flaming in electronic communication,” Decision Support Systems, (36:3), 2004, pp. 205-213. [2] Auerbach, C. F. and Silverstein, L. B. Qualitative Data. An Introduction to Coding and Analysis. New York University Press, New York, 2003. [3] Bagozzi, R. and Dholakia, U. “Intentional social action in virtual communities, “Journal of Interactive Marketing (16:2), 2002, pp. 2-21. [4] Baym, N. “Interpreting Soap Operas and Creating Community: Inside a Electronic Fan Culture.” In Culture of the Internet, S. Kiesler (Ed.), Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, 1997, pp. 103-120. [5] Berg, B. L. Qualitative Research Methods for Social Sciences, 5th edition. Pearson Education, Boston, 2004. [6] Blanchard, A. and Horan, T. “Virtual communities and social capital,” Social Science Computer Review (16:3), 1998, pp. 293-307. [7] Blanchard, A. and Markus, M. “The experienced “sense” of a virtual community: characteristics and processes,” The DATA BASE for Advances in Information Systems (35:1), 2004, pp. 65- 79. [8] Burnett, G. “Information exchange in virtual communities: a typology,” Information Research (5:4), 2000, retrieved 17.11.2006 online from [9] Burnett, G. and Buerkle, H. “Information exchange in virtual communities: a comparative study,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (9:2), 2004, retrieved 17.11.2006 online from [10] Butler, B. “Membership size, communication activity, and sustainability: a resource-based model of online social structures,” Information Systems Research (12:4), 2001, pp. 346-362. [11] Denzin, N. K. and Lincoln, Y. S. “Introduction: The discipline and practice of qualitative research,” in Handbook of Qualitative Research, N. K. Denzin and
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