Online communities

by Eszter Hargittai on July 6, 2004

It has been interesting to follow the various discussions about blogs and what types of communities and discussions they resemble. I thought I would post a note to remind people (or let people know) that the study of online communities[1] is one of the oldest topics explored by academics about the social aspects of information technology use. There are probably hundreds of papers written about Usenet, mailing lists and bulletin board systems. Of course blogs have some distinct characteristics, but overall the existing body of literature about online communities would probably yield some interesting and helpful reading to those interested in blogs. Let’s not reinvent the wheel. One place to look for such work is the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (almost a decade old), but a simple search in a library catalog will yield numerous sources on virtual communities. Of particular interest to those pondering the social network aspects of online communities may be some of the excellent work by Warren Sack and much interesting research done on Usenet by Marc Smith. I realize mapping the blogosphere is a somewhat different issue, but some of the questions that have been raised are relevant to other online communities as well. People have worked for years to find some answers, let’s not ignore them. A piece that seems especially related to some issues that have come up is “Community without Propinquity Revisited: Communications Technology and the Transformation of the Urban Public Sphere” [pdf] by Craig Calhoun.

fn1. When I use terms such as “online communities” and “virtual communities”, I do not mean to suggest that these exist in isolation from other types of communities. See this piece [pdf] by Barry Wellman and Milena Gulia for more on this point.

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Crooked Timber » » A great resource
07.06.05 at 6:05 pm



degustibus 07.06.04 at 7:58 am

“A granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings.”
–Kurt Vonnegut :: who must have been talking about fans, Hoosiers, (presciently about) Netizens, online communities…..


Lee 07.06.04 at 8:07 am

Phillip Greenspun wrote his MIT ph.d on the subject. He’s something of crank, but he’s got a lot of experience.


lady c 07.06.04 at 8:11 am

Most of the things I’ve seen about the blogosphere focus on the bloggers, who’s popular and why, not the readers/commenters or the mechanisms for creating community. Sometimes the bloggers themselves discuss their participation rules or controls, or why they don’t have comments, but generally these are from the view of the single blog, and the blogger/host, rather than commenter communities or what makes for different types of reader/commenter experiences. So Usenet experiences might be of interest.

Nonetheless, blogging remains very distinct from Usenet because the blogger makes such a difference, not only in attracting readers via “voice” and selecting topics and content. The blogger affects participant interaction via language style, use of humor, freqeuncy and “news”-ness of posts, rythmn, whether there are comments, whether conversation is monitored, how links are used, whether dialog with other blogs is common, whether supplemental features are part of the site, navigation tools, and aesthetics. Yet its interactive nature makes the blog much more than just the product of the blogger, unlike a passive website or magazine published electronicly (even if it has a “forum”). It’s more like night clubs, where the crowd is as important as the physical setup, music, food or drinks. And word-of-mouth is more important than formal advertising.

I’m curious whether anyone has tried to produce a preliminary “typology” of blogs based on the various permutations of blog-comments-links mechanisms to try to sort out some of these dynamics.


CalGal 07.06.04 at 10:59 pm

Blogging is distinct from usenet because, as Clay Shirky points out, blogging is broadcasting, not community. One person (or persons) is the owner; the commenters are just the audience.

Blogs are far easier to manage than forums, and that’s a perfectly good reason to choose them. But bloggers should never fool themselves. Weblogs aren’t the equivalent of online communities. Bloggers have admirers and detractors, and whenever the comments get out of hand, the owners stop the comments. That’s why most major bloggers discontinue comments or never allowed them to begin with.


eszter 07.07.04 at 12:06 am

Many mailing lists have moderators who will filter messages to the list so it’s incorrect to think that all mailing lists are just a complete free-for-all.


des von bladet 07.07.04 at 5:22 pm

I sort of assume that everyone knows about the “online, edited collection” Into the Blogosphere.

But I also sort of don’t, since you can’t be sure with online, edited collections. (An important service intermediaries like bookshops (“bookstores”) serve for me is to tell me what’s new without me having to have my ear to the word of ground’s mouth.)

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