A virtual community, e-community or online community is a group of people that primarily interact via communication media such as letters, telephone, email or Usenet rather than face to face. If the mechanism is a computer network, it is called an online community. Virtual and online communities have also become a supplemental form of communication between people who know each other primarily in real life. Many means are used in social software separately or in combination, including text-based chatrooms and forums that use voice, video text or avatars. Significant socio-technical change may have resulted from the proliferation of such Internet-based social networks.
The agglomeration of all online communities is sometimes called the metaverse.
A membership life cycle for online communities was proposed by Amy Jo Kim (2000). It states that members of virtual communities begin their life in a community as visitors, or lurkers. After breaking through a barrier, people become novices and participate in community life. After contributing for a sustained period of time they become regulars. If they break through another barrier they become leaders, and once they have contributed to the community for some time they become elders. This life cycle can be applied to many virtual communities, most obviously to bulletin boards, but also to blogs and wiki-based communities like Wikipedia.
Membership life cycle for virtual communities
Lave and Wengers' theories on situated cognition can illustrate the cycle of how users become incorporated into virtual communities using the principles of legitimate peripheral participation. They define five types of trajectories amongst a learning community:
The following shows the correlation between the learning trajectories and Web 2.0 community participation.
Peripheral – An outside, unstructured participation
Inbound – Newcomer is invested in the community and heading towards full participation
Insider – Full committed community participant
Boundary – A leader, sustains membership participation and brokers interactions
Outbound – Process of leaving the community due to new relationships, new positions, new outlooks Legitimate peripheral participation
Example – YouTube
Peripheral (Lurker) – Observing the community and viewing content. Does not add to the community content or discussion The user occasionally goes onto YouTube.com to check out a video that someone has directed them to.
Inbound (Newbie) – Just beginning to engage the community. Starts to provide content. Tentatively interacts in a few discussions The user comments on other user's videos. Potentially posts a video of their own.
Insider (Regular) – Consistently adds to the community discussion and content. Interacts with other users. Regularly posts videos. Either videos they have found or made themselves. Makes a concerted effort to comment and rate other user's videos.
Boundary (Moderator/ Expert) – Recognized as a veteran participant. Connects with regulars to make higher concepts ideas. Community grants their opinion greater consideration. The user has become recognized as a contributor to watch. Possibly their videos are podcasts commenting on the state of YouTube and its community. The user would not consider watching another user's videos without commenting on them. Will often correct a user in behavior the community considers inappropriate. Will reference other user's videos in their comments as a way to cross link content.
Outbound (Legacy) – Leaves the community for a variety of reasons. Interests have changed. Community has moved in a direction that doesn't agree with. Lack of time. User got a new job that takes up too much time to maintain a constant presence in the community. That and the YouTube culture seems to be drifting to a corporate commercial endorsement model rather than a social, grassroots platform that it once was.
Learning trajectory — online community participation
Several motivations lead people to contribute to virtual communities. Various online media (i.e. Wikis, Blogs, Chat rooms, Internet forums, Electronic mailing lists) are becoming ever greater knowledge-sharing resources. Many of these communities are highly cooperative and establish their own unique culture. They also involve significant time from contributors with no monetary gain. Some key examples of online knowledge sharing infrastructures include the following:
Several researchers have investigated motivation in virtual communities. Studies show that over the long term users gain a greater insight into the material that is being discussed and a sense of connection to the world at large.
Usenet: Established in 1980, as a "distributed Internet discussion system," it became the initial Internet community. Volunteer moderators and votetakers contribute to the community.
The WELL: A pioneering online community established in 1985. The WELL's culture has been the subject of several books and articles. Many users voluntarily contribute to community building and maintenance (e.g., as conference hosts).
AOL: The largest of the online service providers, with chat rooms which for years were voluntarily moderated by community leaders. It should be noted that rooms and most message boards are no longer moderated, however.
Slashdot: A popular technology-related forum, with articles and readers comments. Slashdot subculture has become well-known in Internet circles. Users accumulate a "karma score" and volunteer moderators are selected from those with high scores.
Wikipedia: Wikipedia is now the largest encyclopedia in the world. Its editors, who voluntarily publish and revise articles, have formed an intricate and multi-faceted community. Kollock's framework
A person is motivated to contribute valuable information to the group in the expectation that one will receive useful help and information in return. Indeed, there is evidence that active participants in online communities get more responses faster to questions than unknown participants (Kollock 178).
Recognition is important to online contributors such that, in general, individuals want recognition for their contributions. Some have called this Egoboo. Kollock outlines the importance of reputation online: "Rheingold (1993) in his discussion of the WELL (an early online community) lists the desire for prestige as one of the key motivations of individuals' contributions to the group. To the extent this is the concern of an individual, contributions will likely be increased to the degree that the contribution is visible to the community as a whole and to the extent there is some recognition of the person's contributions. … the powerful effects of seemingly trivial markers of recognition (e.g. being designated as an "official helper") has been commented on in a number of online communities…"
One of the key ingredients of encouraging a reputation is to allow contributors to be known or not to be anonymous. The following example, from Meyers (1989) study of the computer underground illustrates the power of reputation. When involved in illegal activities, computer hackers must protect their personal identities with pseudonyms. If hackers use the same nicknames repeatedly, this can help the authorities to trace them. Nevertheless, hackers are reluctant to change their pseudonyms regularly because the status associated with a particular nickname would be lost.
Profiles and reputation are clearly evident in online communities today. Amazon.com is a case in point, as all contributors are allowed to create profiles about themselves and as their contributions are measured by the community, their reputation increases. Myspace.com encourages elaborate profiles for members where they can share all kinds of information about themselves including what music they like, their heroes, etc. In addition to this, many communities give incentives for contributing. For example, many forums award you points for posting. Members can spend these points in a virtual store. eBay is an example of an online community where reputation is very important because it is used to measure the trustworthiness of someone you potentially will do business with. With eBay, you have the opportunity to rate your experience with someone and they, likewise, can rate you. This has an effect on the reputation score.
Individuals may contribute valuable information because the act results in a sense of efficacy, that is, a sense that they have had some effect on this environment. There is well-developed research literature that has shown how important a sense of efficacy is (e.g. Bandura 1995), and making regular and high quality contributions to the group can help individuals believe that they have an impact on the group and support their own self-image as an efficacious person.
Wikipedia is a good example of an online community that gives contributors a sense of efficacy. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia which uses online software to enable anyone to create new articles and change any article in the encyclopedia. The changes you make are immediate, obvious, and available to the world.
Sense of efficacy
People, in general, are fairly social beings and it is motivating to many people to receive direct responses to their contributions. Most online communities enable this by allowing people to reply back to contributions (i.e. many Blogs allow comments from readers, one can reply back to forum posts, etc). Again, using Amazon.com, other users can rate whether one's product review was helpful or not. Granted, there is some overlap between increasing reputation and gaining a sense of community. However, it seems safe to say that there are some overlapping areas between all four motivators.
Sense of community
A problem for providers of online communities is some of their members will not participate through posting messages. These members do not participate for a number of reasons, including that they believe they did not need to post and that they believe they are being helpful by not doing so. Other community members that have been participating for a long time, known as elders, regularly participate because they believe that their actions will have positive outcomes. Previous attempts to understand why community members participate or do not participate has suggested that individuals are needs-driven or goal driven. Maslow's Hierarchical needs theory has suggested that the reason lurkers do not participate is that 'lower needs' are not being met, or 'higher needs' are being met elsewhere and that the reason elders do participate is that they are meeting their 'higher needs'.
Theories that suggest that individuals are needs-driven and so-called needs are met in the order of a hierarchy are not suitable for online communities. It is quite likely that community members will desire to do two things at the same time, something that needs-based theories do not take into account. Theories that suggest that individuals are goal-driven are more appropriate for online communities as users will develop and change goals based on their interactions in an online community. However, these theories are not entirely appropriate for explaining why some individuals desire to participate in an online community, but do not actually do so.
Virtual community pioneer Jonathan Bishop proposed an alternative framework for understanding such behaviours (see Bishop, 2007), which is based on the principles that individuals are driven to action by desires, these desires lead to plans that need to be consonant with their existing plans as well as their goals, values and beliefs, and how they carry out an action will depend on their interpretation of their environment. Some online community members, such as lurkers, believe that they do not need to post messages to online communities or believe that they are being helpful by not posting. Such beliefs prevent these individuals from carrying out their desires to be social and participate in the community. Bishop argues that online community providers should attempt to change these beliefs, even if it creates a degree of Cognitive dissonance with the individual's cognitions. The use of persuasive text is the main means by which an individual's beliefs can be challenged, though providing alternative information to the beliefs that the individual holds whilst not being consonant with an actor's goals. Challenging these beliefs may lead to the individual increasing their participation in online communities through allowing them to act out their desires.
Below are some guidelines that can be of use when trying to design an online community or foster a better knowledge sharing environment in your organization:
Virtual community design
See also: Metcalfe's law
See also: Bass diffusion model
Most online communities grow slowly at first, due in part to the fact that the strength of motivation for contributing is usually proportional to the size of the community. As the size of the potential audience increases, so does the attraction of writing and contributing. This, coupled with the fact that organizational culture does not change overnight, means creators can expect slow progress at first with a new virtual community. As more people begin to participate, however, the aforementioned motivations will increase, creating a virtuous cycle in which more participation begets more participation. It can be likened to a network, whereby the network's value is directly proportional to the square of the number of users it has. Many online community members describe their participation as "addictive".
The growth in community adoption is often forecast (that is, estimating the number of users in the community) by use of the Bass diffusion model, a mathematical formula originally conceived by Frank Bass to describe the process by which new products get adopted as an interaction between users and potential users.
Online community virtuous cycle
Usenet, one of the original decentralized, distributed discussion group architectures.
BBS: The WELL, GEnie, The Meta Network
Academic: EIES, USENET
Blog: LiveJournal, Xanga, MySpace, Facebook, Blogger
Webcomic: UserFriendly, Penny Arcade, Sluggy Freelance, Ctrl+Alt+Del
Virtual world/city: LucasFilm's Habitat, Second Life, Millsberry, Red Light Center, IMVU
IM: ICQ, Yahoo! Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, AIM
MMORPG: EverQuest, Final Fantasy XI, RuneScape, World of Warcraft, Silk Road Online
Mososo: Dodgeball, Meetro
P2P: Kazaa, Morpheus, Napster, Limewire
Wiki: Wikipedia, WikiWikiWeb, MeatballWiki, Wetpaint, PBWiki
WWW: eBay, GeoCities, Slashdot, Digg
Consumers: eBay, Amazon.com Benchmark virtual communities
Additional virtual community listings
Dead Runners Society
TOTSE Discussion boards
See article: List of social networking websites
[The Corrupted Canvas]
Newgrounds Art communities
Some companies sponsor online discussion groups to facilitate online networking and consumer discourse. Many are not true communities, because there is no commitment or interpersonal connectivity. However, some do inspire such community, especially when developed by aficionados who are independent of the sponsoring company. One set of such communities is the
BMW Forum  Product-Oriented Online Communities
Category:MU* games MUD, MUSH, MOO
Fillos de Galicia
MIT BBS Ethnicity-based communities
Del.icio.us (social bookmarking)
MordorBBS (Global community, role-playing game, gallery, communal blog system)
doof(online games community, where users can meet, play and compete)
vMix (online video sharing community)
GameTZ.com (an online game, music, movie, and book trading community)
CouchSurfing (free accommodation world wide through hospitality exchange)
Hospitality Club (free accommodation world wide through hospitality exchange)
Meetup (an online service designed to facilitate real-world meetings of people involved in various virtual communities)
Meetro (local focused communities)
Stumbleupon (web surfing)
YTMND (Picture, Sound, Text)
TakingITGlobal (Youth - social networking for social good)
Vipera (Vipera network: Photo blogging, user opinions)
RedLightCenter (Multiplayer web community with ADULT content)
BeatCreators (News and content sharing community for Music Producers)
723.com (Fine Arts) Other types
Amy Jo Kim
Marilyn Mantei Tremaine
Rebecca B Newton
Marc A. Smith
Mark Zuckerberg Virtual community pioneers and experts
Bulletin board system
Community of practice
Internet social network
Massively distributed collaboration
Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games
Network of practice
Social evolutionary computation
Video game culture
The Virtual Community
Virtual Community of Practice
Web of trust
Category:Virtual reality communities Notes
Virtual communities and domestic violence crimes committed by their users - A detailed discussion about whether popular virtual communities should be held legally responsible for online domestic violence crimes committed by their users.