An Ethnographic Study on two Ning Communities A micro-study, undertaken as part of the Virtual Community block in e-Learning and Digital Culture
This micro-study aims to provide an overview of two professional online communities in the field of e-learning, made available on the social networking platform
What community ? Admittedly I have very little personal experience in the use of social networking sites. In fact although I have had a Facebook account for a number of years I rarely make use of it. This project thus provided a welcome opportunity for me to study an online community of my choice in a formal and more thorough manner. The choice was a difficult one - after some lengthy browsing I decided to remain within my comfort zone and investigate a community close to my professional interests.
Why Ning? I have been a member of a few e-learning-related Ning communities for some time but have very rarely logged in, made even fewer contributions and certainly did not engage with the community. Ning is a classical social networking platform developed several years ago. In fact it may be seen as a ‘ Facebook -light’ version only concentrating on the core aspects of social networking and taking a minimalist attitude to community building. There some Ning add-ons but nothing like the numerous applets and widgets found on Facebook .
The ‘virtual field site’ For the purpose of this study two Ning communities will be explored who differ in their memberships and mission. <ul><li>Classroom 2.0 </li></ul><ul><li>Digital storytelling in the Classroom </li></ul>
The online communities <ul><li>The two investigated groups have a vastly different membership base </li></ul><ul><li>Classroom 2.0 is very broad with about 33000 participants; its main focus lies in supporting US-based K12 school education </li></ul><ul><li>The Digital Storytelling in the Classroom is a more recent Ning community and has currently only a membership of 18, interestingly all female and all based in the USA </li></ul>
Access and membership <ul><li>Both Ning groups are ‘closed groups’ requiring separate membership privileges for online communication </li></ul><ul><li>For the purpose of this study it has been decided to create and use an account to move beyond the role of passive observer and get involved as a ‘participative researcher’, very much in line with Baym (1995) and Correll (1995, cited in Hines). </li></ul><ul><li>In order to use Ning one has to create an account using standard procedures (creation of user-id, e-mail address and password) followed by minimal authentication via reply to an activation e-mail </li></ul>
Finding communities Suitable communities may be found via a simple keyword search as shown below: You then can join these groups via a single mouse click.
Authentication of membership <ul><li>On the Ning personal home page the ‘ Social Network’ menu button generates a list of all the networks one has joined </li></ul><ul><li>All these social networks can be accessed using the generic Ning credentials; however in order to post a message on a forum for example one needs to sign up to this group requiring additional login credentials. </li></ul><ul><li>If a user is logged in (s)he will be displayed in the ‘user list’ for other users to see that this person is online </li></ul>
Personal privacy setting The privacy setting on one’s Ning profile is public by default, considered acceptable as it is a professional networking platform. However the user can manually change the setting to ‘ Members of social network only’ , to ‘ Just my friends’ or even ‘ Just me’ . It is assumed that most uses use the ‘public’ default but no data is available to confirm this.
Online representation On a professional network like Classroom 2.0 it would be expected that users will use adequate photos to represent themselves as Avatars: A cursory snapshot (see below) shows that this is only the case for a minority of users. This may indicate that many of its members are either casual users or do not regard this platform suitable for formal collaboration
Online representation <ul><li>Interestingly in the much smaller online community Digital Story Telling in the Classroom every individual is represented by a photographic Avatar possibly illustrating the desire to bond more in those smaller communities. For small groups there may be more impetus to create more of a Gemeinschaft type Community as defined by Tonnies (1995) if not an even more close-knit Commune . </li></ul>
Community information <ul><li>As in most social networking sites the profile setting allows the release of personal information such as personal statements, hobbies, address, birthday (required to register but can be withheld via the privacy settings later!) and gender </li></ul><ul><li>There is also a status bar on the user’s home page (as shown below) similar to the ‘ What’s on your mind’ textbox on Facebook . </li></ul>
Community tools As mentioned earlier it is a prerequisite to share one’s birthday in the profile page. This is picked up by the Birthdays tool (seen opposite) which displays current and upcoming birthdays of members. Clicking on the name lets users add a comment on the member’s home page. However there is little evidence that this tool is used widely
Personal community tools A second ‘friendship’ tool available in all Ning communities is the ‘ Gift’ tool analogous to the ‘ Gift Applet’ in Facebook though much more rudimentary. As with the birthday tool this was not found to be used in either of the two Ning communities studied (see below as an example).
Personal tracking tool <ul><li>There is an option called Last Activity on the user’s home page similar to the ‘ Newsfeed’ option on Facebook; however it is currently limited to only listing one’s own activities and not those of friends. </li></ul>
Welcoming new members The moderator of Classroom 2.0 has set up an icebreaking forum for novices where he advices them to introduce them-selves to the community, with a bit of background information to which others or the moderator himself will reply.
Online communication tools The ‘default’ communication tool of every Ning community is the Forum for asynchronous and the Chat tool for synchronous communication. On top of these the large Classroom 2.0 community offers regular ‘ Live Show’ Web-conferencing sessions using the Elluminate software for synchronous communication and, to a lesser extent a Wiki tool for online collaborations. In addition there is also a simple personal Blogging tool access to which can be controlled by the Privacy Settings in Ning
Effectiveness of communication Synchronous communication is mediated via text-based chat ; in the largest community Classroom 2.0 26 members were present online with one sending out chat invites but without receiving replies (see below) indicating a distinct unpopularity of this mode of online communication.
Effectiveness of communication <ul><li>More popular in Classroom 2.0 are live events accessed via the ‘More’ menu option; these online events (see below for example) are very popular and held nearly every week (see below). </li></ul>
Effectiveness of Forums Forums : these are clearly the preferred mode of online communication: when starting a topic one may expect rapid replies from within the busier Ning communities (see opposite)
Postings on Forums Most forums deal with queries, seeking advice and support, on issues relating to the e-learning profession. This Is typical of both communities and associations as defined in Bell (2001), and in this context these networks appear to work well.
Effectiveness of collaboration tools Wiki : Under the More menu option the Classroom 2.0 Ning community has a Wiki tool based on the WikiSpaces platform which contais its own community discussion tool as shown below.
Online communication tools Under the Members menu option user may compose their own blogs; the interface is simple with opportunities for adding images, files and hyperlinks. The blog settings may be the set to ‘public’, ‘open to friends’ or kept ‘private’.
Community blogging Classroom 2.0 has an active blogging community with a total of nearly 4500 blogs. Many of the postings are topical and not always/necessarily related to educational issues (see below).
Additional networking tools Beyond its online communication tools Ning also allows and encourages its members to come together face-to-face by alerting them to live events and workshops across the country organised in specalist subject areas . Thus Ning seems to recognise the importance of alternative modes of communication beyond the pure online experience.
Additional networking tools <ul><li>Events : this tool is not part of the default Ning installation and needs to be installed separately; it may be used to announce new courses or conferences which members may wish to attend. In Classroom 2.0 alone there were 12 events announced for November 2009 alone. </li></ul>
Additional networking tools Workshop : Like the events feature workshops is an Ning add-on. Classroom 2.0 has a separate menu option which advertises workshops held mainly in the US; the frequency of occurrence varies but is around one per month.
Media sharing tools The Ning platforms allow all community members to upload and share photos/images and videos. The database is searchable using relevant keywords: Examples of shared images :
Language and Netiquette As the main purpose of members in the two online communities is to search for professional advice the language tends to be formal, friendly and supportive; some postings contain Web-links. Discussion threads tend to be short and there are rarely longer debates on key issues. New threads to emerge rapidly and old ones do fade away quickly. Users tend to adhere to the official Netiquette rules of the Web but social symbols like smilies are rarely used. It is also noticeable that members rarely address each other with first names.
Moderation on the network On the rare occasions where dialogue will be more heated as shown opposite the moderator will intervene to calm things down in a diplomatic way.
What sort of communities are they? Using Tonnies basic differentiation between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft it appears that engagement and discourse on the two Ning communities are somewhere in between the two categories. Whilst the smaller Digital Storytelling in the Classroom community appears to be more personal and more tight-knit, possibly due to its more narrow focus, I failed to detect the online ‘homesteading’ feature as proposed by Rheingold (1993) equating communities to neighbourhood bars or pubs.
What sort of communities are they? In some way the Classroom 2.0 is quite the opposite – it is bubbly, active and more diverse which inevitably does lead to more controversy. By offering a broader range of tools including live Web-conferences and Wikis it extends the scope of the online presence to its members thus broadening networking opportunities. On the other hand it feels very formal and remote, and it appears to have a large proportion of lurkers.
Conclusion Both Ning communities investigated serve to provide professional community support,dialogue and exchange of ideas. The language and discourse used reflects this desire on focus and brevity. It appears that non-academic issues are kept well outside. Given Baym’s (1998) definition of online community as a community where (all/most) participants imagine themselves as a community then clearly neither of these fall within this category. In this sense the two sites may be better defined as online specialist focus groups.
References Baym, N. K. (1998) The Emergence of On-line Community . In S. Jones (Ed.) Cybersociety: communication and community pp. 35-68, Newbury Park, CA: Sage. Bell, D. (2001) Community and cyberculture , chapter 5 of An introduction to cybercultures, pp. 92-112, Abingdon: Routledge. Hines, C. (2000) The virtual objects of ethnography , Virtual Ethnography pp.41-66, London: Sage Rheingold, H. (1993) Virtual community: homesteading on the electronic frontier , Reading MA: Addison Wesley Tonnies, F. (1887): Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft , Leipzig: Fues's Verlag, 2nd ed. 1912, 8th edition, Leipzig: Buske