Online community is one of the most revolutionary ideas to have come up to make the internet more interactive and to bring people closer from all walks of life. People from all walks of life meet online to chat, to find like-minded people, to debate topical issues, to play games, to give or ask for information, to find support, to shop, or just to hang-out with others. They go to chat-rooms, bulletin boards, join discussion groups or they create their group using instant messaging software. Short messaging (also known as ‘texting’) is also gaining popularity in some parts of the world.
These online social gatherings are known by many names and one of that is ‘online community’, a name coined by early pioneers like Howard Rheingold, who describes these online communities as ‘cultural aggregations’ that emerge when enough people bump into each other often enough in cyberspace. Howard Rheingold defines online communities as: social aggregations that emerge from the net when enough people carry on those public discussion long enough, with sufficient human feeling to form webs of personal relationships (Rheingold, 1993).
"A working community has at least three characteristics:
• It enables multidirectional interaction between people, including one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many communications .
• It involves ongoing, not ephemeral, interactions.
• It offers a comprehensive toolset for communication."
Online communities gained more attention in the 1990s as computer enabled technology had made it possible to enable new forms of communication and community building in the virtual space.
2.2 CLASSIFYING ONLINE COMMUNITIES
There has been a number of ways looked upon by the authors to classify online communities so as to better understand how they are structured. It has been argued that the technical aspects of online communities, such as whether pages can be created and edited by many, as is the case with Wikipedia, or whether only certain users can post entries and edit them, as is the case with most weblogs like IEEE, can place specific online communities into types of genre.
Other research has looked at the particular users of online communities. Amy Jo Kim (Community Building, 2000) has classified the rituals and stages of online community interaction and called it the 'Membership life cycle'. Others have suggested character theories to break particular patterns of behaviour of particular users into certain categories.
The different types of communities can be broadly catagorized as follows:
• Social networking, such as MySpace, Match.com, and LinkedIn
• Distributed marketplaces, such as eBay
• Post-sales support sites
• Collaborative sites, like Wikipedia
• Social bookmarking, including sites such as digg and Newsvine
Figure (1): Communities cloud
2.2.1 PUBLIC VS PRIVATE COMMUNITIES
One of the decisions to be made when an online community is created is to decide as to whether to make it public or private. This decision can be made based on the way the online community is supposed to function or behave. It would have to be considered whether everyone has access to the community as in a public one or whether only certain people are allowed access as in a private community.
There are number of factors which may seem beneficial or disadvantageous in both public and private communities so the decision to select one of the either can depend on the kind of environment the community is supposed to host or the type of functionality expected. Private communities are safer from unwanted individuals who can sometime make things a lot more difficult for other members of the community. There are good for families, private firms, illness support groups, NGOs or for groups trying to discuss private or confidential information. Public communities on the other hand can be used as a way to advertise or communicate without each other in an open environment, it can also be used for socialising or finding new friends.
In a private community there are a lot of moderation issues involved as to who gets into the community, how long can they stay there, what the rules of the community are and what are the requirements to be satisfied to be allowed in the community. Private communities have the problem of not able to get enough community members to create what’s known as “critical mass”- where there are enough people participating for the community to take on a life of its own. Public communities as compared to private communities tend to generally have more potential for growth and diversity.
Any online community needs the help of tools in order to better their performance. There are many different kinds of tools available to build and improve the performance of an online community. Some of the tools along with their advantages and disadvantages are discussed as follows:
An email list, sometimes called a Listserv, after the Listserv™ software which often used to run email lists, is a community tool which connects people via email messages.
An email is a “push” technology that is one doesn’t have to remember to go and check the email instead the messages come to the inbox of the user and the user can get alerts when a new message arrives. Messages can be composed and read offline but for sending messages the user has to be online. It’s inexpensive for people with high access costs.
Messages in an email sometimes arrives out of order and cannot be sorted and there is also the difficulty of organising messages according to the preferences. The major disadvantage in email though is the problem of “spamming” where a user can get unsolicitated emails where a “spammer” can obtain a user’s email address and can sending advertising and phishing messages. This can be avoided by the user by not letting out personal information like email address or phone numbers in an online discussion.
Chat is one of the fastest and easiest form of communication between people who are online at the same time. It is highly interactive and can connect people anytime from anyplace. Chat can be done in public rooms which are open to anyone or in private rooms where only people of a certain community can enter. Chat is usually, but not always, a many-to-many communication mode - in other words, there are a group of people in a room at once, conversing. It can also be used for personal meetings, brainstorm sessions and other work-oriented applications. So it’s not just a casual social tool.
It's also possible online to use software to send "live" or "instant" messages to one particular user. This is a one-to-one communication. On some systems you can use built-in "live message" features to do this.
The chat facility is useful for meetings where everyone can have a real time discussion or guest speaker to answer questions. Moreover there can be a log of the transcript which can be posted later.
The problem in the chat facility is that it would seem difficult to schedule a particular time for a conversation especially if the user’s are from different parts of the globe. There is also the problem of incompatibility where inexperienced chatters might find it difficult to keep up with the pace of other experienced users. Another issue is the access to the chat room which might depend on the software and software versions being used which might not be available with all the users(Java is often used to power chat rooms, and some operating systems and browsers have difficulty with Java).
Newsgroups are like a mix between public message boards and an email list. The user has to subscribe to a newsgroup, and sometimes only subscribers can post a message. They are usually not moderated, and it's not unusual for newsgroups to get quite contentious. There are well established formal rules about how to behave in a newsgroup.
The advantages and disadvantages are at the same lines as an email but has some differences as follows:
Newsgroups are not "push" technology - you still have to remember to go check them. And with news readers, you can download just the titles ("headers") of messages and avoid downloading the entire message if, based on the title, you don't want to read it.
2.3.4. Administrative Tools
Any community needs host tools. Common host tools are broken into two basic categories: content management and user management.
This deals with how to deal with the topics in the community. The decision to delete dormant topics, add new topics, assign host tools to others, log the chats if a user uses them are done with the help of these tools. It can sometimes also have the ability to allow a user or “moderator” to hide or delete posts of the members on the community, or to move to a more appropriate area
These tools are used to control the activities of the members in a community like granting certain privileges to users or to revoke privileges of users. It is also used to moderate their posts or review the post before actually posting it. Sometimes in a chat it would be necessary to forcibly remove a member and kept for a certain discussion or sometimes remove the member permanently from the community.
2.3.5 Community Tools: Future
The future of the community building tools seems to be very promising with the applications growing from te single desktop to other areas such as mobile phones and podcasts. Some of the examples are as follows:
• Moblogging [Hard]
Example: Nokia’s Lifeblog. 7MP Camera Phones.
• Podcasting/Audio Music and Spoken Word [Med]
Example: iPod and iPod Mini. Audible.com, but free (after purchase of $200-300 player).
• Games/Entertainment [Varies]
• Location Based Filtering (GPS, GIS) [Hard]
• Collaborative Filtering (“Amazon for the rest of us”) [Hard]
Allow members to rate stories, filter based on rating, generate dynamic content from the collaborative filters.
2.4. GROWTH OF ONLINE COMMUNITIES
The online community although new in the information era has been expanding at a tremendous rate. It has been used by many organizations, companies or just normal people to expand their prospectus, share new ideas or just simply interact with each other. The statistics shown below gives an idea as to how rapidly the online communities have been expanding.
Figure (2): Members' reported frequency for visiting the Readers Advisory wiki
The above figure shows the breakup of how frequently users visit the wiki site. It can be observed that users tend visit the wiki the most on a monthly or weekly basis each of which share a similar proportion of visits.
Figure (3): Blog Subscribers & Visitors
Here we see the interaction of the users in terms of the subscribers, the number of visitors, the comments left by the visitors and as we can see the graph is seen to be increasing from the initial period till the end period both for the email and the RSS feed subscribers.
Figure (4): Facebook Fans & Activity
Here the graph shows as to how often the user’s visit of take part in an activity in a popular online community “Facebook”. Here we can see the activities increasing and also we can see the breakup of the male and female participants, although this could just be a specific example and not be generalized and other online communities may have different patterns.
2.5. SOCIAL INTERACTION
Social interaction means how people communicate and organize on the online communities using the tools provided by the online communities. Howard Rheingold sees communities as an extension of prolonged online interaction. With this progression comes the notion that the definition of community in terms of online communication is much broader than that which is applied in face-to-face society (Whittle, 1998). Online interaction has made it easier for people with similar interests to converge and unite across a large distance. The online definition of community is boundless by distance and is rather characterised by common interest.
Social interaction can be used in many ways members of the community can be able to find new friends, find discussions of their interest or simply interact with each other. The way of social interaction through online communities has expanded to a large extent that there are dedicated social networking sites like Facebook, Linkedin where people can register and interact with each other. Some of these sites are public in the sense anyone can become a member wheras some are private where the access is limited.
2.6. SECURITY AND PRIVACY ISSUES
When it comes to online communities there are a lot of security and privacy issues to be considered as in how secure the community is or as to how applicable and feasible it is on a wider network. "As new media technologies enter society, privacy has become an issue for all members of virtual communities, particularly when conducting online transactions/e-commerce with fellow members/businesses" (Poster, 1997). Because of this uncertainty, some members of society are hesitant in regards to conducting business online, thus delaying the reach of e-commerce amongst online communities. Therefore, this issue will remain within the public sphere until adequately addressed by Government and business (Flew, 2005).
Some of the concerns and issues relating to this are as follows:
- Recent malware exploiting social networks
- Malicious Banner ads
- Phishing attacks
- Customizable scripts
- Facebook’s controversial decision to make visible relationship actions to entire social group
- Everyone reading everyone’s shared information
Apart from these there are also the tangle of legal issues which determine as to how an online community should run. Some of the community monitoring bodies and their roles are as follows:
- COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998) makes it very difficult to do a site for minors. No more un-moderated chat rooms for teens, etc.
- DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998) requires a "Copyright Complaints" form so you can remove copyrighted material posted by users.
Due to the Internet’s fluid and decentralised nature, Government and legal bodies now face the challenge of implementing a system that does not detract from the economic, social and cultural advantages experience by going ‘online’. One way in which this is achieved is via individual privacy policies stated on business websites, explaining that users have control over the information they wish to publish online, whilst explaining what personal information and purpose of this data collection (Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, 2005, http://www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs23-shopping.htm). Though even with these laws, cybercrime and spamming remain a significant concern throughout virtual communities, and will continue to do so as the Internet filters throughout society.
Online communities have expanded the way organizations do business. They provide a comprehensive tool kit for the enhancement of a product or the company as a whole especially in the field of marketing, some of the ways in which the online communities help in marketing are as follows :
1) Branding: Online communities with the help of blogs can generate leadership and reinforce market expertise. Many companies are jumping into the online community craze to better their network and establish a better name. The benefit of this is of course most of the publicity comes for a very low price if not for free.
2) Lead generation: Online and social networks help in opening up new channels to reach prospects with the aim of “give to get” rather than randomly sending emails without proper specification, marketers can then connect with prospects based on the interests or needs identified in their online profiles and also online communities allow members to share opportunities with each other.
The Richardson (Texas) Chamber of Commerce and Metroplex Technology Business Council gathered more than 100 new leads for new members in two months by offering free seminars on how to use social network site LinkedIn to generate new business. Organizers identified prospects by scanning current LinkedIn member profiles and identifying b-to-b interests. "Two leads have already become members, and at least half will give back to us by attending or sponsoring an event or outing," said Julie Alexander, communications director. "When you're passionate and pass along the word about how to help your business, awareness grows like crazy."
3) Customer affinity: Webcasts have been a tried and proven lead generation channel for more than a decade but customer affinity is low. At the best case scenario the attendees can simple ask a question of presenters but not of each other. After the event it’s up to the sales staff to nurture leads.
Today, inexpensive social networking tools make it possible to start a conversation during an event and continue it afterward.
Makino, a global machine tools maker, developed a webcast that includes an online conversation about the subject of the event. Attendance has increased with every webinar from a handful when the series launched in 2005 to between 270 and 300 attendees per session today. "It may not seem like a big number, but these people are buying half-million-dollar products," said Rick Segal, chief executive of GyroHSR, the b-to-b agency that oversees the project.
4) Media: In the present age of shrinking media marketers are taking advantage of online communities to further their goals. Social networking and business networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, Amazon are been used to make products more available and make then cheaper and easier to publish. The media are also increasingly tapping into corporate blogs and community feeds to find out what’s happening at the companies they cover.
Software maker Compuware Corp. chose to take a message directly to customers and prospects at a recent Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference. Staffers searched Twitter feeds to see who was talking about the trade show and whether they might be good prospects. They set up a Twitter account specifically for the event and began following and "retweeting" comments from key prospects to develop a following. As a result, three executives from tier one accounts came by the trade show booth for a demo. One visitor wasn't on Compuware's key account list but turned out to be an ideal target customer. "From a sales and marketing perspective, this is huge," said Bridget Weir, Compuware marketing analyst.
5) Advertising: This can be perhaps the most noticeable advantage in an online community. It takes almost nothing to set up a group on any online community like Facebook or Twitter or to upload videos on YouTube. Marketers are no longer in the mercy of the media to advertise their products. They can reach new audiences at practically zero incremental cost and plus they can test offbeat or experimental ideas with little risk.
Hypertherm Inc., a maker of plasma cutting tools, has a series of instructional and humorous YouTube videos showing employees slicing up all kinds of industrial materials, as well as unusual items such as a Thanksgiving turkey and a mud flap from a tractor trailer. The campaign has generated nearly 27,000 click-throughs to the corporate Web site at negligible cost.
"B-to-b marketers are in the best position to capitalize on social networks because their task has always been focused on a community of people," GyroHSR's Segal said. "While there may be only 400 people involved in purchasing a jet aircraft, there are 10,000 people involved in the roll-up that leads to that decision. That makes every b-to-b buy a community decision.
Online community is a very powerful tool of interaction from which people can be benifited from. It has a very large variation in terms of the way its implemented and modified. In today's world these communities keep changing by the second with new features and discussions been added. There are a lot of different patterns as to how user's use the online communities. Some may use it for organised business structures and some just for a casual discussion but nevertheless online communties are becoming very popular with an expanding list of subscribers and memberships. The online communities though popular comes with resposibities as to how the community member's should behave and the way the communities are structured and as to what information is been conveyed in these communities. There are regulating bodies to monitor the activities of some of these communities. The online community as a whole is a very helpful tool for people to get together and exchange information and would increase to many other areas in the future.