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IMS5023 : Information Enterprise Management and Marketing

Week 8




In earlier weeks we noted that information communities spread out along a spectrum with sponanteous, largely self-organising, non-commercial communities on the one end, and information communities resulting from purposive, commercial activity on the other. In particular you should have explored Vicnet: Victoria's Network and the communities hosted by MultiMedia Victoria's MC2 intitiative in some depth, where you would have encountered many examples of voluntary, self-organising information communities.

This week we explore some of the characteristics of such groups, what rules apply within them and how they might develop and/or be enforced. We will be treat this in two sections: Governance of self-selecting communities and the Issues for Government (This will be dealt with in Week 10). These notes are intended only as an introduction and you should also be aware that while we are starting off by considering self-selecting communities, much of the discussion is applicable to any Internet-based community.

Part 1 - Governance of self-selecting communities

In the words of Howard Rheingold:

One of the great problems with the atmosphere of free expression on the Net is the fragility of communities and their susceptibility to disruption. The only alternative to imposing potentially dangerous restrictions on freedom of expression is to develop norms, folklore, ways of acceptable behaviour that are widely modelled, taught, and valued, that can give the citizens of cyberspace clear ideas of what they can and cannot do with the medium, how they can gain leverage, and where they must beware of pitfalls inherent in the medium, if we intend to use it for community building.
(Virtual Communities. Howard Rheingold http://www.rheingold.com/vc/book/)
There are a number of issues implicit in that quote, but the two we will focus on this week are that the Internet can be used for community building at a broad level if you are aware of the pitfalls, and that when communities are established they also need to establish norms of acceptable behaviour that enhance rather than threaten their cohesion.

To some extent, almost everyone who publishes on the Internet at the moment claims to be some sort of virtual community and this applies to those who publish commercial sites as much as those who work in non-profit areas. Amazon.com is a prime example of this, with features such as the ability of users to contribute book reviews often cited as evidence of an online community.

Rather than accepting the rhetoric at face value, you should examine such claims in more detail, to determine whether there is any truth in them - and of more immediate concern - whether the features offered have any benefit to their users. In many cases, you will find that the concept of 'community' is based on simple interactive features that they can assist in building an ongoing subscriber base by involving users. Of itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If a feature adds value for the user, then it is worthwhile. If the publisher uses strategies adopted from online communities in such a way as to get the most value out of that feature, then they are just following good practice. The only point we are trying to make here is that it is not necessarily the foundation of an online community.

Consider the following questions to clarify what you think might be the characteristics of a virtual community.

(a) What purposes do virtual communities intended to serve? What activities do they facilitate?

(b) What activities can virtual communities replace?

(c) What is lost in virtual versions / extensions of communities when compared to "real" communities?

(d) What are some of the characteristics of virtual communities?

(e) What are some broader issues related to virtual communities?

(f) Do virtual communities act to undermine real communities? Can they support them?

(g) What can bind people together in a virtual community?

These are very important questions if the Internet is to be used to move communities, or at least some aspects of community interaction, into a more virtual environment. There are many studies that point out that the danger is of reducing actual interpersonal or community interaction, and increasing isolation instead. For example, the 2000 study Internet and society: A preliminary report, by Nie and Erbring, (http://www.stanford.edu/group/siqss/Press_Release/Preliminary_Report-4-21.pdf) - quoted below - points to the possibility of such an outcome.
"Internet time is coming out of time viewing television but also at the expense of time people spend on the phone gabbing with family and friends or having a conversation with people in the room with them ...

Most Internet users use e-mail, and undoubedly have increased their "conversations" with family and friends through this medium. E-mail is a way to stay in touch, but you can't share a coffee or a beer with somebody on e-mai, or give them a hug.

The Internet could be the ultimate isolating technology that further reduces our participation in communities even more than television did before it....

Of regular Internet users, who use the Net 5 or more hours a week, about one quarter reported spending less time with family and friends, either in person or on the phone, and ten percent say they spend less time attending social events outside the home."

Another perspective on this is provided through the work of Liza Hopkins and Julian Thomas, of the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology. Their research, based on a project at the Atherton Gardens housing estate in inner city Melbourne, suggests that the real situation is actually more complex. For example, they suggest that virtual communities can strengthen geographically dispersed groups (e.g. bringing scattered ethnic groups closer to cultural resources) while having the potential to weaken the ties between physically close but culturally diverse groups (e.g. different ethnic groups within the one housing estate).

Virtual communities are also of interest because of their potential to contribute to 'social capital', defined by Putnam (1993, p. 167) as the "features of social organisation, such as trust, norms and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions". Social capital is important because it is related to positive outcomes in a number of areas including health, education, effective governance, sustainable development and economic growth. There have been many studies attempting to explore this issue, for example that of Kavanaugh et al. (2003). They studied an online community based on a geographic area - the Blacksburg Electronic Village. They found that, in terms of group membership and participation, use of the Internet adds to social capital among heavy users who are already socially active, but decreases it among heavy users who are not. It does little to help in the creation of social capital where it does not already exist.

It is important to realise the new techologies can benefit communities, particularly in bringing physically separated groups together. It should also be recognised that they cannot replace the live interactions of local communities, but may serve an important function by facilitating or supplementing them.

Types of behaviour setting responses

Communication and community building on the Internet can take place in a variety of environments and using a variety of software on the Internet, such as Usenet news groups, email, email discussion groups, IRC (Internet Relay Chat), MUDs and MOOs, online conferencing, etc. There are many decisions involved in establishing these services and the rules under which they operate, and the effectiveness of these rules can obviously determine the success of the community.

Usenet news groups were one of the first examples of online community established on the Internet, and much has been written about them. If you are not familiar with them, they are worth a look and you should spend some time examining them - you can access them via the "Groups" area on Google (http://www.google.com/). In may ways they act like the archives of an email discussion group.

The following readings and resources discuss the way in which these groups have evolved, with particular reference to behaviour and rule setting. When going through the readings please also consider whether the same comments apply to an email discussion group such as ours.

Donath, Judith S. Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community

Howard Rheingold's Virtual Worlds Resources is not a single reading but a major resource with a wealth of related material. http://www.well.com/user/hlr/vircom/index.html

Rinaldi, Arlene. The Net: User Guidelines and Netiquette. http://www.fau.edu/netiquette/net/index.html

Blanchard and Markus discuss the ways in which MSN conforms to a virtual community in their paper 'Sense of Virtual Community - Maintainging the Experience of Belonging', which can be found online at http://www.psych.uncc.edu/alblanch/SOVC.pdf.

Implications for Practice

The above readings raise a number of issues and describe a number of rules, many of which would at first glance appear to be mere formalities or the making explicit of certain interactions we take for granted in face to face contact. They can range from simple communication devices (eg smilie faces ;-) to register different feelings through to rules designed to cope with antisocial behaviour such as that aimed at disrupting the group, deceptive behaviour, harassment, interference and censorship. It is interesting to note that most of these issues also occur when using SMS.

Examples of more formal sets of statements can be found at Vicnet or in the terms and conditions statements for Google Groups.

Issues in information communities can be grouped into two broad categories - organisational and behavioural. Having said that there is considerable overlap, and of course the interaction between the two is continuous.

Remember that while all of these issues will apply to most groups, the comparative importance varies considerably according to the nature of the person/body setting up the community. For example, issues of equity and accessability will be paramount to governments, who will also be particularly sensitive to commercial use of there services. Employer groups will be particularly wary of illegal activities such as harassment while commercial groups might be concerned with identity and community groups may place more emphasis on privacy. It is important that you be aware of these differing priorities.

Organisational issues -

Behavioural issues


For thinking about such information communities - and specifically virtual communities or human networks on the Internet - we have included a list of resources as a starting point.

In addition to Vicnet (already cited) resources are as follows:

Association for Community Networking (AFCN) http://www.afcn.org/

The Community Network Movement http://www.scn.org/ip/commnet/cnm.html

Hopkins, Liza and Julian Thomas. 'Wired High Rise: Constructing a virtual community in an inner city public housing estate' in G. and L. Stillman (2002). Electronic Networking 2002- Building Community: Conference Proceedings (CD Rom), Monash University, Centre for Community Networking Research.

The Intranet Journal http://www.intranetjournal.com/

Journal of Computer Mediated Communication http://jcmc.indiana.edu/

Kavanaugh, A., Reese, D., Carroll, J. and Rosson. M. (2003) Weak Ties in Networked Communities in Huysman, M. Wenger, E. and Wulf, V. Communities and Technologies: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Communities and Technologies; C & T 2003. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands. 265-286

Net-Life Research Group http://www.informatik.umu.se/nlrg/

Rheingold, Howard. Virtual Communities. http://www.rheingold.com/vc/book/

Smith, Greg. "Community - arianism" http://homepages.uel.ac.uk/G.Smith/community-arainism/gsum.html

Virtual Communities: Abort, Retry, Failure? Jan Fernback and Brad Thompson http://www.well.com/user/hlr/texts/VCcivil.html

Tutorial 8 Week 9

The UK-based newspaper The Guardian published a special report on the state of privacy and privacy legislation in the UK. The report can be found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/bigbrother/privacy/yourlife/0,12383,783365,00.html and contains much that relates to much of what we have been discussing.

The task this week is to read the three sections listed below, make some notes on the issues and come to next week's tutorial prepared to discuss how these issues affect the information enterprise.

Tom Denison