hugo :: brainstorms in sociable media (mas.961 '03)
"only as an æsthetic phenomenon is
existence and the world justified"

- nietzsche


emotus ponens picture
::: public conversations :::
~There are some conversations you don't want to only hear half of. There are some conversations you don't want to hear any of at all.~ Anonymous

monty tagger picture

Raisons D'Etre for Three Types of Order in Online Forums

Online 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 order.

In 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.

Some 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).

Other 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 vacation.

A third type of forum is community building. Forums like 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.

Having 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.

A third 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.










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