D'Etre for Three Types of Order in Online Forums
conversations in public forums such as the interest-specific usenet
newsgroups generate a special breed of interaction. We cannot simply
turn to analogies to the real-world to begin to understand and characterize
such a strange phenomenon. Wittaker et al. are too kind
in dubbing this a "mass interaction." There is little
global coordination, as that phrase may lead some to believe, but
rather, it is an interaction fraught with and motivated by individualism.
Mass chaos or mass mayhem may be more suitable. But on second thought,
there are islands of order in the sea of the disorderly,
many islands. The reasons for their existence are many, even if
you exclude the moderated aspects of some forums, and resist temptations
to chalk up organized interactions solely to elusive forces such
as "netiquette" and social altruism. In this paper, we
speculate on several raisons d'etre for these islands of
online forums, the motivation of the poster seeking an answer to
a question is the obvious one. And perhaps we can say that the motivation
of the poster answering that question is also somewhat known --
it gains the poster social capital, builds reputation, and can simply
be a satisfying thing to do. But what motivates the volumes of posts,
organized vaguely into "threads"? What is the raison d'etre
of the motivations of forum participation? After prowling through
several online newsgroups, my personal assessment is that the nature
of motivation is heavily dependent on the subject of the forum.
forums are dominated by information seeking, e.g. comp.answers,
misc.immigration. In these forums, public
conversations form around questions, and the substance of these
threads, although occasionally social in nature, are only propelled
forward by the fact that not all raised questions have been answered.
When it comes to having answers to objective questions, it is my
observation that, running somewhat counter to intuition, the in-forum
reputations of the answerers are rarely questioned. Fiore et
al. drew the conclusion that newsgroup readers would benefit
from information about the tenure and interactivity of author reputations.
This may be true in other types of forums but my assessment is that
in information seeking forums, it is fairly evident if an answer
is suitable and sufficient, without much question to its veracity.
Perhaps this wanton trust of author information is because questioners
are rarely involved in the community, that it is more casual, dyadic
exchanges that happen to be in a public forum. Although I looked
for stable user bases in these types of forums, I did not find any
over the long term (except advertisers and others with clear agendas).
The motivations for this type of forum is a symbiosis between answer-seekers
who need information and answer-givers who need an ego boost (cf.
ego-driven theory of altruism).
forums are dominated by character building, e.g. soc.feminism,
talk.philosophy. In these forums, users peruse
through the opinions of others, and spout their views where-ever
possible and appropriate (to avoid embarrassing censure for inproprieity).
What's interesting here is that users are clearly not looking for
cooperation or community cohesion. In The dynamics of mass interaction,
Wittaker et al. reported that common ground did not
wield strong influence on forum interactivity. I think this can
be explained in part by the non-cooperative nature of forums such
as the character building type. The common ground is a reference
to a particular offline, everyday topic, such as feminism and philosophy.
In subjective matters, it is not so important that there are shared
beliefs, so much as strong arguments. In
soc.feminism and talk.philosophy, strong arguments, regardless of
which side the issue they are on, are always viewed kindly. I dub
this type of forum "character building" because there
also seems to be a tendency for all users to characaturize themselves,
slightly exaggerating the affect of their opinions to be just a
little funnier, or more wry, or more pessimistic. In essence they
are developing a persona, or "character", to 1) get noticed,
and to 2) be remembered. In these types of forums, users seem to
type-cast themselves into elective identities more so than with
users in information seeking forums, who tend to stay more "real".
The motivation in this type of forum is likely less information,
and more enjoyment from fantasy, from acting out a different persona.
It is a way for a Dilbert type office guy to vent, to go on an identity
type of forum is community building. Forums like alt.support.depression
and soc.adoption.parenting exist because
its members need the group. Whereas in information seeking forums
members are casual and fleeting in their participation, community
building forums see more regular members with longer tenure.
Fiore et al.'s observations about members paying attention
to author tenure and interactivity seems most true here, as entrants
into the community look for the experts and long-standing stars
of the community. It is these experts who hold the collective memory
and experience of the community. In Managing the Virtual Commons,
Kollock & Smith submit that it is remarkable that cooperation
takes place in some online communities. With community building
forums, it is clear what motivates cooperation: common concern,
strength in numbers, vicarious success through helping others, and
support network. These are the types of forums where it really pays
to invest time and energy to build up reputation and tenure.
examined the most general raison d'etre, that of why people participate
at all, we look at the question of acknowledgements in a forum --
a major force for order and organization in forums. Certain people
stand out because of something outrageous they say. This is usually
a casual poster, who is often ignored. Other people however, stand
out because of something particularly poignant that they say. These
people and their posts are more likely to be read, followed-up on,
and, in the ultimate glorification, referred to and used as ammunition
for someone else. A person would benefit to acknowledge someone
who has a good reputation, as it improves repore with that person,
and shows a certain knowing about the politics of a community. Acknowledging
someone with a good reputation or good community standing is often
a selfish act. It is meant to improve the centrality of the poster
himself by broadcasting subtle assessment signals that he is in
kahootz with the community and its important people. A casual reader,
reading that a poster makes subtle reference to others in the community,
can be perceived as reputable and someone with tenure in the community.
type of order in online forums is a notion of boundaries and integrity.
If anyone can post in a forum, why should it be that there isn't
more destructive behavior and intrusions? I posit that just as with
real communities, there is nothing to be gained from intentionally
negative behavior. Posting off topic, false information, and unwarranted
flames will result in being ignored, flames, and ostracization.
The topicality of a forum's purpose is usually set by the central
figures with the longest tenure, and enforced by a more inclusive
group of moderate tenure users. They maintain the integrity and
boundaries of a forum from intrusive behavior, being quick to ostracize
intruders like an immuno-response. My observations of this immuno
response behavior is that it is quite effective. Users gain a commonsense
that the only way to have a voice and be effectual in a forum is
to educate oneself about the forum's agenda (as recorded in its
history, and dictated by the central figures) and stick to it somewhat.
The only pesky intruders who often persist are advertisers, who
often have nothing to lose, and only have to succeed a small fraction
of the time to justify continuing to spam a forum. The only solution
there is to have a moderator or admin of some kind to delete these
posts to frustrate away these intruders, or, in the case of craigslist,
to have community members flag rogue posts.