Changes in Online Community Thinking #3

This is the third post concerning what has changed – and what has not – in the OC landscape since my thesis published five years ago. The first one dealt with the over-reliance on communication technology and the second one was about the rise of crowdsourcing. Now I will turn into the communication platforms themselves.

From the very beginning, my interest has been in conversational technologies: Internet-based channels that enable discussions among a large base of users. I adopted the concept from Wagner and Bolloju. Surprisingly few scholars within the Knowledge Management field have been able to meaningfully combine the social dimension (communities) with technology dimension (online platforms supporting human-bound knowledge sharing, not only storing information into systems as within the ancient KM generations). There I am very grateful to Christian Wagner for his pioneering studies.

Conversational technologies have various benefits from the knowledge worker’s perspective. Above all, they support many objectives simultaneously, such as organizing information and ideas, sense-making, negotiating meanings, and maintaining social networks (Kosonen 2008, p. 21). Whereas a few years ago it seemed reasonable to focus on weblogs, wikis and discussion forums, today we should definitely incorporate micro-blogs and social networking services – yet bearing in mind that simply creating a personal profile and thereafter being passively online is far from interactions which build a community.

We also have a set of popular online services which allow OC members to easily share resources with each other, but the same warning applies here: simply pumping out photos or videos and collecting information into one place does not equal an online community. What we truly need is conversation.

Online communities – be they communities of interest (COIs) or more formal communities of practice (COPs) – are, first and foremost, about social capital members generate and maintain through social exchange. Social capital is the invisible glue that holds a collective together. Here I like to follow the categorization proposed by Nahapiet and Ghoshal in 1998:

  1. Structural social capital is about network structure, linkages and connections between people. It answers the question ”Where to share?”
  2. Relational social capital is about community members’ trust in each other, shared norms, obligations, and identity building. It answers the question ”Why to share?”
  3. Cognitive social capital is about shared meanings and language; respectively, it answers the questions ”What and how to share?”

Considering what has advanced in terms of conversational technologies and community-level social capital, I figured out the following illustration.

OC soca

I was delighted to note that Twitter has actually filled in an important gap in the conversational technology landscape: it provides unique opportunities to nurture networks for interest-based communities. Messaging systems, chats and discussion forums (or nowadays, topical groups organized easily using Facebook or LinkedIn) are typically used to greet other members, organize shared activities and meetings, or exchange insights about what is highly valuable and important for community members right now. In other words, they have the greatest potential in terms of building relational and cognitive social capital.

Twitter fits nicely in here with its fully-open mode of exchange. Two examples are to follow.

Firstly, for an established online community – be they community managers, teachers, surgeons, researchers, photographers or football club fans – Twitter offers a means to broaden and renew the existing network. We have a long history of discussion-forum based OCs, which would indeed benefit from ”coming out” from the rather closed system, by making themselves visible to the larger public and thus attracting new members to the site. Otherwise, these communities may really die – which is always a pity, when you have an established set of linkages, relationships, knowledge, and memorable moments spent together over the years. The opening-up efforts could also benefit from using blogs or wikis, but these require much more time, effort, and content.

The key challenge here is how to become understood for that larger public – and using only 140 characters. OCs always have their own jargon and specific vocabulary understandable only to the community members. Visualization, videos or games might spread the message better than just explaining who we are and what we do.

Secondly, for a random network not yet acting as a focused community, Twitter (as well as blogs) serves as the ground for finding the like-minded hobbyists or professionals. The key challenge, as in any early-stage of community building, is in how to gain and maintain users’ attention. Here it might be valuable to listen to communication specialists and Twitter gurus: putting your personality in, being active enough, and appreciating others – which, by the way, are the core of building not only your network but also relational social capital.

I decided to post these thoughts to illustrate that the world of conversational technologies is not black-or-white or a battlefield, but constantly evolving and offering us new opportunities. The social-media phase we are still facing will not kill online communities, even if their popularity may have declined in terms of hosting an own online platform vs. relying on external platforms. This is only the technical part of the story.

But from the social perspective, the whole idea of communities dying is rather absurd. It is like saying that people would cease to value physical proximity.


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