Why do people bother to provide information and advice to complete strangers – hiding behind screen names – in virtual communities? This is the basic problem of the latest JCMC article I’d like to write about.
It’s quite an interesting piece, that starts from the proposition that altruism and traditionally accepted norms of reciprocity might not fully explain the phenomenon of online informational gift giving. Instead, it might have to do with the online status- and identity-building of members of these virtual communities.
The article then goes on to explore differences between the practical factors that affect status building IRL and online; and to discuss results of a survey, which found that status seeking (following various strategies) is indeed a highly important motivator for virtual community members. The authors also establish that formal, direct systems of status building and maintenance – such as the “rate-and-reputation” systems of websites – might eventually damage communities:
While status competition that results from such systems can increase participation by providing more tangible ego incentives, the same systems can also discourage [informational] gift giving by many who thus far have enjoyed the casual informality of online interaction.
A possible consequence, apart from (and probably in connection to) the discouragement of potential new members, is that the whole raison d’etre of the site will get compromised. This is what happened to Digg, who had to get rid of the rating system they’d started with, as users were increasingly seen as submitting and voting for stories not because they were interested in them, but in order to reach higher ranks in the top-list of users. (Forgive me for not being able to provide a reference link here.)
Anyhow the article also provides a list of potentially relevant motives for participating in online communities, which I believe will serve as a good starting point in doing my own research into social news sites. The assumed potential motives are: altruism, complying with norms of reciprocity, constructing positive self – image, seeking status through reputation and an interest in promoting certain products / services / (in the case of non-consumer communities:) views. I suspect that this last one will be found as especially important in the case of social news websites – but for the moment, this has to remain unconfirmed.
Lampel, Joseph and Ajay Bhalla (2007): “The Role of Status Seeking in Online Communities: Giving the Gift of Experience”, in: Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, (12), 435-455.
ps: Lampel and Bhalla surveyed the communities of 3 consumer websites (the communities are largely built around the members’ reviews of products and services (and travel destinations)). In that case, providing a review about a particular good can be seen as parallel to simply owning and using various consumer products IRL, as symbols of one’s status. The interesting thing here is of course that online, this requires active communication – you might be wearing a Rolex when you’re typing your message, or drive a Rolls every day to work, but nobody will know about it unless you make it explicit by writing about it or giving some kind of clue about it in your online profile.
I’m sorry if, again, this was already obvious to you. Blogging can be really uncertain. Like writing on other people’s wall on Facebook, you never can be sure who you are talking to.