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Social capital and virtual communities


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MINDTREK Conference, Tampere, November 2004

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Social capital and virtual communities

  1. 1. Current Mega Trends in Information Society EUROPRIX Scholars Conference 2004 Tampere, 11-12 November e-business solutions need non-tech champions SOCIAL CAPITAL AND VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES M.Sc. (Econ.), Ph. D. student Miia Kosonen Research Assistant Lappeenranta University of Technology Telecom Business Research Center P.O.Box 20, FIN - 53851 Abstract Interaction is one attractive function of information technology. So far a little is known about how technology – combined to social mechanisms – could support sustainable interaction even to form communities. In this short paper I present the concept of social capital (SC) as a tool to pinpoint the valuable resources of a virtual community. The focus of the study will be in assessing the nature of social capital (trust, norms, networks, information channels) in virtual communities, attaching theoretical background of SC and empirical data. My objective is to find out how website features and social processes described by members could foster building social capital. Preliminary results from two gaming communities and two interest-based communities are discussed based on site observation and, at pilot level, also on member interviews. Results indicate that division to subgroups, applicable norms, identity policies and recognition contribute to the development of successful communities for on-topic social activity. Yet the strong common interest is the core of their social capital creation. Keywords Social capital, norms, subgroup, virtual community Introduction As technology is utilized more and more in everyday life, communication and interaction in virtual settings is likely to increase as well. The significance of virtual communities has been both overstated and suspected, but still, people form communities and are attracted by the opportunity to extend their social relationships and networks towards virtual presence. This paper is a part of a broader study on technology-mediated communities, sense of virtual community and social capital. So far a little is known about how virtual community organizers or administrators could support stronger commitment to the group with the help of both technology and social processes. Yet all virtual communities require some “group spirit” to succeed; otherwise, they will disappear or become forgotten ghost towns.
  2. 2. 2 My study is related to the AMPERS (AMbient and PERsonalized Society) project coordinated by Lappeenranta University of Technology. It studies new forms of civic participation based on e.g. the Web and wireless technologies, especially from young people’s point of view. However, it is not clear how sustainable and creative technology-mediated interaction actually is, and this is why more empirical research around community theme must be conducted. I will begin my research process by doing user studies and letting young adults themselves describe their experiences on participating in virtual communities, using the concept of social capital as theoretical basis. In this paper, I ask “how to encourage the development of active virtual communities of interest” [1] from socio-technical point of view. Virtual communities Social networks in cyberspace are often referred with the concept of “virtual community” or “online community”. There is no accepted definition of community in social sciences, and thus it is no surprise that the term virtual has mixed the discussion even more. Others see virtual communities as a revolutionary form of civic participation, while others believe that they do not actually exist (Harasim 1993, Baudrillard 1995). Instead, they are considered as imagined pseudo-communities with no real people and real social interaction. This interpretation may derive from the contradiction between real and virtual. Shields [2] yet reminds that the opposite of virtual is more like concrete, not real. Virtual worlds are real in terms of existence, but they are not presented in the form of a concrete object. According to Rheingold, virtual communities are “social aggregations which emerge on the Net, when people carry on public discussions long enough to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” [3]. However, to become a community, it has to consist of more than just relationships. Preece [4] identifies four components of an online community: people, shared purpose, common policies and information systems. Fernback & Thompson [5] consider virtual community as a set of social relationships built in cyberspace through repeated contacts within a specified boundary. Three elements can be identified from these definitions: virtual community is about repeated social interaction, it takes place in cyberspace and it must have some platform or “place” where people are able to gather. Two types of virtual communities can be identified: online originated, and offline originated [1]. The latter typically is geographically located (similarly than so called community networks) or a grouping of friends, colleagues or other peer groups. Virtual communities have been considered important both from social and commercial perspective, and their role has been emphasized in the success of e-commerce [6][7]. Communities can be based on common interests, relationships or making transactions [8], and they may take various business-oriented forms, such as online shops, auctions and portal sites, or so called communities of practice [9]. Commercial features can be embedded in virtual communities e.g. in the form of advertising commissions, usage fees and member fees [10]. Social capital The core of social capital (SC) concept is that social relations can be productive resources. Bourdieu (1979, 1986) originally defined SC as “the ensemble of actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of an enduring set of more or less institutionalised relationships of acquaintanceship and mutual recognition” [11]. Coleman (1988) presents SC in the form of obligations and expectations, norms and sanctions, and information channels [12]. Putnam
  3. 3. 3 (1995) considers SC as a set of features of social organizations such as networks, norms and trust, which facilitate cooperation for mutual benefit. It is about valuable social resources, from which agents can benefit by belonging to a certain network. [13] SC resembles financial capital in such terms that it can be accumulated and members of the network can profit from it. However, the volume of SC should be optimized rather than maximized, and it fades away when not in use [14]. Maximizing social capital may lead to negative consequences such as exclusion of outsiders and restrictions on individual freedoms [15]. Ruuskanen [14] makes a distinction between the sources and the outcomes of social capital, of which networks, community norms and group identity, among others, are recognized as sources. Trust and communication facilitate the outcomes, such as reduced need for control and more effective dissemination of information. According to Putnam, weak social ties (Granovetter 1973) contribute more to SC than strong ties among intimates, as information about an individual’s trustworthiness reaches a wider variety of people in networks of weak ties [13]. In conclusion, social capital is about trust, networks, norms of reciprocity and exchange of information. This framework enables us to assess the social value of a community to see, which resources of virtual communities contribute to social capital and how its development could be better supported. Social capital research and virtual communities Social capital fosters the togetherness of community members and may encourage collaboration [13]. Prior research on SC in virtual environment is scarce, but there is no reason to believe that these resources could not exist in online communities as well. Some interesting research issues also arise from the characteristics of virtual communities. As it is relatively easy to leave the community, no physical cues of other members are available and many groups apply the principle of anonymity, expressing and developing trust may be more difficult in virtual environment. On the other hand, the Net offers an opportunity for like-minded people to gather, and joins friends separated by geographical distance or time. Either of these two usually occurs when virtual communities evolve, and this in turn extends one’s personal community to a new sphere. Wellman & Gulia [16] point out: “It is not that the world is a global village, but as McLuhan originally said, one’s ‘village’ could span the globe.” Both strong ties and weak ties can emerge on the Net. It is useful in maintaining existing relationships, but wider networks of weak ties are supported as well, as information can be spread easily to large groups. Among studies on social capital in virtual communities are those by Blanchard & Horan [1] and Ginsburg & Weisband [17]. Ginsburg & Weisband studied volunteerism and its effect on social capital in the International Chess Community (ICC). There seemed to be several volunteer types, including titled players, software contributors, helpers, administrators and managers. Volunteers improved the network of relationships, provided information and gave advice on how to access information. The role of volunteers proved crucial for the community’s social capital, as they “encourage and enable intense interaction for the benefit of all the membership subgroups”. Yet volunteerism is not always beneficial to the community or to the volunteers themselves. They may feel exploited and their work may not be valued.
  4. 4. 4 Another extreme of social roles in virtual communities are lurkers (Nonnecke & Preece 1999, 2000), who are involved the community but do not participate in discussions or helping systems themselves. While volunteers are active information providing actors, lurkers may be considered as information demanding actors. Yet lurking may be more than simply taking free rides of public goods: while others find lurking unapproved, others treat lurkers as “real” community members. So far a little is known about their effect on virtual community and its social processes. Blanchard & Horan [1] ask how virtual communities may affect the elements of social capital: networks, norms and trust. They recognize two types of virtual communities, geographically dispersed and physically based. The key ideas are shortly summarized in the following. Networks As regards geographically dispersed communities, one’s networks may expand due to easier access to other people who share similar interests. On the other hand, networks may become less dense as they expand geographically. In physically based communities, technology also offers easier access to previously unknown others. Moreover, denser networks may evolve, as computer-mediated networks overlap with face-to-face ones. [1] Norms Two types of norms can be identified in virtual communities: general norms such as netiquette, and norms of reciprocity. There are no major differences between geographically dispersed and physically based communities. Both information and social support can be exchanged, and a small act of helping maintains norms of reciprocity. In virtual settings, it is noteworthy that a single act can be easily viewed by a large community. [1] Trust The relationship between anonymity and trust is double-edged. For many communities, it may be beneficial and encourage discussion, but the lack of physical cues can also be exploited for individual benefit. Thus, in geographically dispersed communities, there may be flaming and deception. Flaming may occur in physically based communities as well, but deception is less likely because of face-to-face networks. Yet, in both types, violations against other members can be reported to administrators or community leaders. [1] Designing and measuring support for social capital creation Preece [18] suggests that the sociability in online community can be measured in the formof purpose, people and policies. As regards purpose, determinants can be, for instance, number of messages total or per member, messages per active member or amount of reciprocity. The people dimension may be determined by number of participants, though the results could be more informative when measuring the amount of members in different role categories, such as active members or lurkers. Finally, policy measures may refer e.g. to flaming rates and the trustworthiness of the community.
  5. 5. 5 While Blanchard & Horan discuss the effect of virtual communities to social capital in general, Chewar et al. offer a view to the community platform itself and how it could support SC creation in so called community networks. The term refers to geographically located groups of people who interact both face-to-face and with the help of technology, but the main principles seem applicable for other community types as well. Chewar et al. suggest that to build social capital, the community network design should include 1) Activity notifications: informing what is going on in the community, supporting awareness of current activities, news and important issues 2) Social translucence: showing who is online and enabling awareness of their activities 3) Collective efficacy: enabling feelings of inclusion and purpose, “how and to whom my contribution will matter most” 4) Distributed community activities: implementing continuous mechanisms for interaction, can be integrated with previous stages 5) Persistent virtual identity: establishing registration and logon policies, applying virtual identity with the real one. [19] Yet there is one difference between local community network and purely online community in the Web. It is worth considering whether virtual identity can be authentically connected to real identity without making the community technically unachievable for potential members, and whether there is any sense to involve real identities. Persistent user name is more like a tool to recognize other members being present, not a guarantee of a person’s “true self”, and active virtual community enthusiasts apparently are well aware of this. Hiding real identities can encourage participation as people may come along e.g. without having to “encounter stereotypes based on their physical characteristics” [1]. Next, I will assess four online communities based on the voluntary roles approach from Ginsburg & Weisband [17] and three design principles (notification, social translucence and virtual identity) from Chewar et al. [19]. The third stage is discarded here, as it is more a result of interaction than a design object: subjective view of a designer would not indicate how members actually feel about the effects of their contributions. Evaluation of community websites Two gaming community sites and two interest community sites were evaluated. These were •, site of an international virtual football manager game (by Hattrick Ltd.) •, site of an international Blood Bowl game •, site for Finnish enthusiasts of horses and horse riding (by Datadelfiini Ltd.) •, site for Finnish fans of Harry Potter Sociability of these communities was evaluated based on two basic measures [18]. Table 1 shows the number of participants and the number of messages per week in these communities, to focus their social activity level. Number of messages was calculated during a randomly selected one-week period in October 2004. As this was done manually for most communities, only three domestic forums of were included to restrict the myriad of topics. Trustworthiness, flaming and deception issues will be shortly discussed in this paper based on notions of interviewed members. Interviewees were from 25 to 29 years of age and they had participated in the community for at least two years each. Research method was theme
  6. 6. 6 interview, in which community membership, interaction, norms and trust issues were discussed. Table 1. Sociability measures Registered members Forum messages per week about 10 000 in Finland 1275 in three Finnish forums about 13 800 746 about 3300 1994 no registration 79348 Communication These communities have various communication channels in use. offers the main IRC channel and includes many other IRC channels for national and local subgroups as well. Moreover, there is the internal “Flash” message system of 500 characters, discussion forums or “Conference areas”, the Clubhouse service, which includes e-mail account and own homepage for each team who pays the club fee (9,50 €), the short message service to other users’ mobile phones, and local face-to-face meetings being arranged. has applied discussion forums at the site and the IRC channel. has discussion forums at the site. consists of discussion forums, but it also offers e-mail address information of members, the private message system and IRC channels around the community topic as well. Some face-to-face meetings and LARPs are arranged. Discussion categories are listed to include number of topics, number of messages and link to the most recent message. One interesting feature is the link to the list of unanswered messages. has a separate list of members, where username, e-mail address, location, homepage URL and time of registration are available. Moreover, discussion forum includes links to member profiles, where e.g. number of messages sent by the member per week is indicated. Based on the design framework of Chewar et al., evaluation of community websites is shown in table 2. Chewar et al. rate community features verbally as “none”, “low”, “some” and “high”, but in this paper no ratings have been made, because these communities cannot be considered equivalent and the needs of members are different. For one community, a simple discussion forum will do perfectly fine, while another applies more diverse notification channels. Moreover, virtual communities differ in terms of administration: some are organized by one volunteer, while others have much more resources and large development teams.
  7. 7. 7 Table 2. Evaluation of community websites Virtual identity Activity notifications Social translucence Volunteer roles registration, no multiple identities allowed notices and news links at main page, current events listed shows who is online from each geographical area, according to which one the player has selected for his team 1) Gamemasters: edit forums, deal with deceptions 2) Moderators: edit forums 3) LA’s: translate the community to other languages registration, no multiple identities allowed recent forum topics (3) at main page opportunity to create “buddy list” which indicates who is online, shows the number on people logged on at main page community organizer (1), administrators registration invitation link to IRC channel meeting (when to come) at main page shows who is online at the bottom of the main page 1) administrators 2) moderators 3) support persons no registration “what’s new” at site maintenance no indicators no volunteers Networks According to Putnam [13], networks of civic engagement “foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust. Such networks facilitate coordination and communication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective action to be resolved”. This is what virtual community volunteers aim at. Volunteerism is a representation of selfless actions that promote sense of belonging and civic participation, although it may have negative characteristics as well, such as undervaluation of volunteer work in the community [17]. Typical volunteer role in evaluated communities is administrator, who has both supportive and control tasks e.g. in making sure that members are able to access to community and its rules are being followed. For instance, Gamemasters in Hattrick accept new members, give guidance and keep watch in their own areas. Moderators concentrate on following the discussion and behaviour on forums. The key idea is to make the community more pleasant and safer for its members. Moreover, two other volunteer roles were found in these communities, volunteers who translate the site into other languages, and support persons, who assist new members to learn the practices of the community. In every community being evaluated, smaller subgroups or “communities inside communities” have evolved. They have been organized either top-down (e.g., forum categories) or bottom-up (e.g., members create their own groups or channels and invite others there). For example, both
  8. 8. 8 gaming communities have divided into national and local subgroups, and the national group of has its own site with news, articles, guidelines, forums and IRC channel. In addition, common events may create temporal subgroups around a specific topic such as in, where so called Activity Club organizes various contests and activities. These events are announced in their own category at the forum. Moreover, members are awarded “Oscars” for their role in the community, such as the blonde, the supporter, the sunshine, and the newcomer of the year. Rules, norms and sanctions According to the interviewees, norms of reciprocity can be identified from the discussion: it takes only a moment until someone answers and comments. Naturally, there are more silent hours as well, but usually the delay is half a day at most. One of the interviewees described: “Sometimes it feels quite scary, at the daytime it just takes five or ten minutes and there’s always someone to answer your question.” Another interviewee pointed out that the time gap depends on the discussion topic, but in most cases, authors get responses instantly. A variety of behavioural norms and topical rules have been applied in these communities. has an extensive list of rules, which deal with the management of the teams, players, matches, training, tactics, league systems and so on; it is forbidden to use general forums to advertise players being for sale, to behave offensively, to try to cheat other players, to send spam to forums, to try to steal the property of Hattrick Ltd. or to scan the site. One player may have only one team and it should be in personal use only. Some rules also apply to subgroups created by members: for instance, federations must have at least five members to exist, and one player can belong to three federations at most. Gamemasters may ban users who violate the rules of Hattrick. In, one username per player is acceptable an each player is responsible for his account. Only one game against certain player in a row is allowed. Games must be played using the latest version of JavaBBowl client, cheating is forbidden and Codes of conduct must be followed. Here, it is especially important that no one interrupts games on purpose, which is considered as a very condemnable action and such players may end up into personal blacklists. has three rules: pertinent style of writing, relevant content and posting to applicable category. Discussion forums are moderated by community organizers and inappropriate messages can be reported to them directly from the forum. is strict in its policies and guidelines. The community has “the Ten Commandments”, which are shown in the discussion forum at the section of announcements. They include notions about netiquette, K-15 content, using search option before posting, spelling, avoiding unnecessary message postings, avoiding or warning about spoiler messages, security and privacy, banning members, and administration policies. Moreover, the community is not responsible for the content of the linked sites. Violators of rules may be permanently banned, or they may be isolated from the community for a qualifying period. New member can have a support person, who guides newbies to follow the norms of the community. As new members learn, they become “trees” who do not need support any more. Trust As regards trust and mistrust among the community, they were not considered such a critical issue than in the real world. In gaming environments, possible cheating is related to the game itself, and these incidents are strictly controlled. There may be people behaving badly as well,
  9. 9. 9 but they can be either ignored or reported to administrators. On the other hand, unwanted behaviour is much more common in open forums. The lack of persistent identities and shared norms seems to be at the reverse side of trust. “There I have learned that you should not trust everyone. And I don’t, especially those with fuzzy nicknames and no e-mail address presented. At times, there are libels, abuses, propositions…” “I visit another forum as well, where they have no such rules, and it is annoying when people shout each other, and swear, I find it disturbing but others may not think so. Some people also use such poor language I don’t get their point at all.” Meetings in real life have been organized in Hattrick (e.g., closing the season in the pub), FumBBL and Vuotis (e.g., live role-playing sessions). In the literature, face-to-face meetings are regarded as a key component of interpersonal trust [20]. Two of the interviewees described their notions: “I think it is mostly these meetings which keep it afloat, as they meet each other quite a lot.” “When we had this meeting, I found out that people are much the same than at the game. I guess they get there as themselves.” Both trust to people and trust to systems were discussed. According to the interviewees, both forum-based communities were considered reliable. In gaming communities, there have been technical problems every now and then due to increased amount of users. Yet this has not exceeded the tolerance of players; they are still a part of the community. One interesting practice is the opportunity to donate money for community maintenance (server, network connections): “I have given money to this, and quite many of us have, at least what they have told me. But if he has proven that he has bought new stuff, so I guess many have donated some money. And yet this is all free, so, I think giving money is a sign that one has committed to this.” Conclusions Community websites were observed using evaluation approach, but with some limitations. First, there was only one person doing subjective evaluations, and only one member from each community being interviewed to supplement the data. Thus much more empirical work must be conducted before making conclusions on the entity of these communities. Second, all significant features such as various types of activity notifications may not have been presented at the site during the two-week period of study. Yet the preliminary results indicate that there are several sources of social capital and sense of belonging implemented in these arenas being evaluated. Two are common to all of them: a shared interest which unites people with diverse backgrounds, and dividing the community into smaller subgroups of peers, which is essential as communities become larger than a few dozens of members and following the discussion would otherwise be laborious. Subgroups can evolve top-down such as forum categories (e.g., seniors, teenagers) or bottom-up such as local online and offline meetings, or a combination of these. Other significant issues related to social capital are community norms, registration policies and persistent identities, and personal recognition in the form of face-to-face meetings. Rules seem to be far from “dead letters”; instead, they are strictly controlled by community volunteers, even to cause discussion for and against these policies such as in the case of
  10. 10. 10 Another extreme of community implementation is, which is easily available for everyone interested in the topic and no persistent identities or volunteer roles are involved. Openness seems to be directly related to the number of postings in its 15 categories, which exceeds 10 000 every day. This type of community encourages free discussion, but often at the expense of structure; it is best suitable for “ad hoc” information delivery and exchanging support. The design framework of Chewar et al. offers a way to proceed for community researchers, especially when combined to qualitative data, as it presents the fundamental needs for social interaction support which the community should meet in any occasion. In this paper, I combined the most concrete parts of the framework (identity, activity notifications, social translucence) and volunteerism approach to evaluate whether they have been implemented in virtual communities. Further research needs to be conducted to test this framework and its appropriateness with more profound case studies on social capital, for which evaluated communities provide excellent opportunities. One important question is how to assess the effect of selected features on social capital in its entity. Measuring community sociability (as suggested by Preece) internally would be a further step towards social capital creation: when members are able to identify e.g. each other’s activity level and personal preferences, creating functional subgroups is easier, and these features make the community socially more visible. Such features could be easily implemented to community applications. Measurement is not only for community organizers and owners; instead, it should serve everyone involved.
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