As the amount of information, knowledge, and advice available online grows vastly each and every day, so does the number of communities that discuss various topics. These communities are multiplying at exponential rates becoming as unique as the demographic of people using them. There is no possible way to control the speed in which individuals foster these conversations online, nor is there any way to regulate what is being said, how it is being said, and who it is being said about. These factors position online communities in an awkward situation. Are they actually beneficial for people and organizations or have they become an annoyance, making too much information readily available at the world’s fingertips?
Before exploring the effects of online communities, the term itself must be defined. Online communities as described by Yuqing et al. (2012) are, “Persistent collections of people with common or complementary interests whose primary method of communication is the Internet,” (p. 842). Examples of online communities include social networks, online forums, blogs, online reviews, and wiki applications.
This definition provides the foundation for what an online community is. However, it is does not explain everything that they do; each online community is used for a specific reason. WebMD features information on healthy living, medical advice, and diagnosis. WeddingBee allows future brides to seek guidance, tips, and tricks from fellow brides-to-be. TripAdvisor helps travellers by offering information on travel destination including hotels, restaurants, and must-do activities. There are so many online communities it is impossible to be aware of them all. This knowledge (and lack of knowledge) is impacting our society immensely. “Online communities have become key in fostering democratization and social movements in politics, the advancement of science, and value creation in business at large,” (Schneider et al., 2013, p. 293).
I did a simple Google search for ‘Canadian online communities’ and yielded over a million results including LoonLounge (Canadian Immigration and Settlement Online Community), Canadian Senior Years, Parents Canada, Canadians Moms, and Canadian Wildlife Federation. Although they are just a few examples of different online communities, you can see the diversity and uniqueness of the platforms. Online communities are even now used for as a communal place for discussion among employees of a workplace. In the United States, there is an online community, PoliceOne, for all law enforcement officers to utilize. They are able to sign in with their badge number and from there they can chat with fellow officers. “The development of online communities in industry has coincided with businesses and organizations becoming more aware of the burgeoning development of the Internet,” (Chi-Cheng, 2012, p. 1726).
Online communities started as a popular craze, although many have stuck over the last several years. The evolution of social media has also played a role in this craze. “The growth of online social networks suggests a significant effect on online communities,” (Garg et al., 2011, p. 12). The most popular online communities offer an abundance of information and are focused on trendy or common topics in our lives. “Member participation and retention depends on member attachment, which is cultivated by connecting members with topics of their interest and like-minded others,” (Yuqing et al., 2012, p. 842).
A successful online community provides information, on a chosen subject of interest, for others to absorb and interpret; it also facilitates open two-way communication between each person involved in the online community. “The success of an online community relies heavily on the behaviour of the people involved; that is, the willingness of the members to be active in sharing knowledge and to interact with each other,” (Chi-Cheng et al., 2012, p. 1726). It is important to note that, “As online applications become increasingly popular, the quality of content has become a concern,” (Chen et al., 2011, p. 238). This is due to user-generated content, which has the potential to be incorrect or misleading. While most users present on online communities do not intentionally try to misinform other users, sometimes, they are given faulty information and from there, the vicious cycle continues. Also, users do not ‘owe’ anything to an online community; therefore, it does not matter one way or another if the information is correct or plentiful. “The majority of people who visit online communities contribute little and leave quickly,” (Yuqing et al., 2012, p. 842).
The online communities that are present today are as sporadic as the subjects and conversations that are formed. Though there is readily available information at our fingertips through these communities, one must ask whether the information is accurate or useful. It is the behaviour, dialogue, and interaction found within these online forums and networks that determine their current and potential success. As we continue to advance and prosper in technology, will online communities erode traditional face-to-face communities?
Chen, J., Xu, H., & Whinston, A. (2011). Moderated online communities and quality of user-generated content. Journal of Management Information Systems, 28(2), 237-268.
Chi-Cheng, C., Kuo-Hung, T., & Che-Wei C. (2012). The moderating role of online community participation in the relationship between internal marketing and organization citizenship behavior. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 40(10), 1725-1738.
Garg, R., Smith, M., & Telang, R. (2011). Measuring information diffusion in an online community. Journal of Management Information Systems, 28(2), 11-38.
Schneider, A., & Georg Jäger, P. (2013). What’s coming next? Epistemic curiosity and lurking behavior in online communities. Computers in Human Behaviour, 29(1), 293-303.
Yuqing, R., Harper, M., Drenner, S., Terveen, L., Kiesler, S., Riedl, J., & Kraut, R. (2012). Building member attachment in online communities: Applying theories of group identity and interpersonal bonds. MIS Quarterly, 36(3), 841-864.
It really is all relative isn’t it? I mean if you think of the criteria for a successful online community, you have to have enough people that find the information necessary and interesting; and being reliant on the behavior of the people is also a very big risk. But I do think some of these online communities have merit. One thing that is definitely needed is regulations for the internet and even better filtering of information when you search for things on search engines.
The other day I decided to google my symptoms because I had been feeling awful for too long but some of the answers I got for having a fever and body ache scared the crap out of me and so it does not shock me that people become hypochondriacs because with no way to regulate the explanations they get online for searches on symptoms. Also with so many online communities addressing the same subject matter, how does one decide which one of the communities to pay attention to? also, how many people really take the time or have the time to continuously go through the process of analyzing and interpreting all the information they come about?
The truth is especially with the internet and online communities people have gone back to being largely passive audiences in the sense that most people would react to the information or absorb it without much consideration.
A recent state farm advert, showed a man on his smartphone getting information about his insurance plan and a woman came by saying oh you cannot get that information on your phone and the man asked where she heard that, and she said people say so on the internet that state farm does not provide such information online and on the go, ending her statement with you know everything on the internet is true….
Great post Elizabeth! I agree with Tofe’s comments. There are many online communities that don’t have merit and there is an abundance of passive participants. However, there are many successful online communities out there, with engaged audiences, that ultimately serve a purpose. It is definitely a challenge to determine which ones to pay attention to. Words of advice Tofe: never google your symptoms. Nine times out of ten you will be diagnosed with some form of cancer :).
Haha, Stephanie it is the first time ever I have, but no cancer came up luckily. But never again for sure. lol
Thank you for your feedback, Tofe and Stephanie.
I agree Tofe, a way of filtering information when we use search engines is most certainly needed. If this more efficient way of searching was implemented, I think that Internet users would definitely find it easier to research and find online communities that they’re interested in.
I think it is difficult to determine which online communities a person pays attention to, especially because of the vast amount of them, as well as the diversity that each of them has. What it all comes down to, in my opinion, is personal interest. If a person searches for an online community about a specific topic and yields multiple choices, their ultimate decision falls back on what appeals to them the most. Perhaps they might choose one over another if they like the layout or organization of the chosen one better.
I also agree with you, Stephanie, that there are many successful online communities out there – there is no doubt about that. These online communities serve a purpose and are regularly edited and updated by their users. Kudos to them!