Understanding Online Communities – What is an online community?

large__142056834Defining online communities, also known as virtual communities, in an accurate and timeless manner is not easy. Although there is an enormous amount of literature about online communities, there is still no consensus among researchers regarding an appropriate definition of this term. What are some of the definitions and what is my own definition?

Howard Rheingold, one of the most cited authors in the online community literature, describes online communities from a social perspective. He defines virtual communities as “social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspaces” (5). Hagel and Armstrong take a business perspective and describe virtual communities as “computer-mediated spaces where there is a potential for an integration of content and communication with an emphasis on member-generated content” (11). Jenny Preece, researcher in this field, gives a more detailed, technical definition. She states that an online community consists of four underlying elements: “People, who interact socially as they strive to satisfy their own needs or perform special roles, such as leading or moderating. A shared purpose, such as an interest, need, information exchange, or service that provides a reason for the community. Policies, in the form of tacit assumptions, rituals, protocols, rules, and laws that guide people’s interactions. And computer systems, to support and mediate social interaction and facilitate a sense of togetherness” (18). Lee et al. decided to build consensus among researchers in the information systems field and compared nine of the most popular existing definitions. Based on this they came to the following definition of online communities: “cyberspaces supported by computer-based information technology, centred upon communication and interaction of participants to generate member-driven content, resulting in a relationship being built” (51).

More recently, there has been an interesting discussion going on among bloggers – people who regularly post their personal thoughts on weblogs – about the best way to define an online community. According to blogger and web strategist Jeremiah Owyang, online communities can be best described as “bodies of people joined together by a common interest”. Jake McKee, blogger at Community Guy, came up with the following definition: “An online community is a group of people who form relationships over time by interacting regularly around shared experiences, which are of interest to all of them for varying individual reasons” (Mack).

Although Jake and Jeremiah’s definitions both feature important components of an online community I think they are still not yet complete. In their definitions it is not clear that it is about an online community. Their definitions could also describe an offline community, for example a tennis association. Luckily, Dawn Foster refined their definitions and posted one on her blog, which is just Jeremiah’s definition, but with a few tweaks based on elements of Jake’s meaning. According to Dawn, an online community is: “Where a group of people with similar goals or interests share experiences and build relationships using web tools”. Yet, I still do not entirely agree with her definition, because she basically states that relationships are a factor of online communities. Although it is very common that members of online communities form relationships over time, I think it is not a main component. Not all members of online communities have the intention or need for building relationships. Some members might regularly join without ever adding content or contribute to the community. They just listen without actively participating. More elaborations on these kinds of members and other roles that people play in online communities will be shown in section 5.3.

Hence, I decided to come up with my own definition: an online community is a group of people with a shared interest and/or goal who meet with a certain frequency on the Internet. I tried to keep it simple and broad in order to make it is as timeless and reliable as possible. Still, it can be concluded that there is no single accurate definition of this concept. I agree with Preece her opinion: “online community can mean different things to different people” (6).

In my next post about understanding online communities, I will talk about the different types of online communities.

Until next time,

Anne-Sophie Gaspersz

Photo credit: Qaanaaq via photopin cc

Photography: Adam Brock

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