Saturday, November 1, 2008

Architecture of online community - psychological and cultural elements

Amy Jo Kim in her book Community Building on the Web (2000) explored some of the elements necessary to promote successful interaction in online communities. Kim uses a design based on Abram Maslow's psychological hierarchy of needs to define both individualized and group actions. In the chart below we can see that there is not much difference between what a individual requires to reach self actualization on line and off. The intrinsic value of this model provides us with a glimpse into how and why our members shift their positions depending on the moment and activities within the forums. Like Maslow's hierarchy, the lower levels of security must be satisfied before the group is able to progress to upper level desires. A breech of privacy whether real or imagined, will focus a successful volunteer on safety while their other tasks fall by the wayside until they once again reach a comfort level and are able to return to full participation. This is illustrated in the chart below adapted from Kim (2000)

Designing a useful framework for understanding group dynamics leads to greater predictability when designing spaces for online communities. The ethnographic features of groups follows a pattern closely mirroring the needs and actions of individuals.

  • At the base of the pyramid, members bond together by virtue of mutual interests that in turn confer a modest sense of belonging and identity. A basic social contract only requires limited investment of time so people may join and abandon at will. However, an issue with one member will affect all members of the group so key players work together to find resolution. The psychological and social needs of the group are met by reciprocal support that takes place both inside and outside the forums.
  • If a member of the group is threatened, the participants frequently work together to remedy the predicament. Once the menace disappears or is reduced to a tolerable level most groups move on to other more productive activities or dissolve. In rare instances, a perception that the external threat will return provides a rationalization to perform vigilante type actions or boycotts. Individuals within the group may actively sabotage other users or imagine destructive scenarios that maintain the negative energy. Private user groups, off site discussion boards, email, phone calls and instant messenger services are used as secretive instruments to exchange information and maintain the anxiety. In extreme cases members reveal the activity going on behind the scenes to the general population and ask people to join the cause. These problematic coalitions are driven by excitement and fear and may never move to upper level functions.
  • As group development moves up the hierarchy more opportunities are provided for individual expression and meaningful activities. At this stage we start to see regular discussion and planned events. Members participate because they want to be part of the group and because they enjoy the companionship of others. Recognizing important life events and taking care of one another becomes the norm. The group is still focused inwardly but the actions revolve around mutual benefit, economic viability and predictable activity.
  • Much like individuals, self-esteem is important for growth. When the group starts functioning as a discreet entity progress can be made toward expansion and the group looks for potential members. They also work at disseminating knowledge and take pride in their efforts. Special topics may come to the fore and people join in locating new sources of information that help expand their expertise. The group may become known as reliable, informative and busy.
  • The ultimate measure of success for any group is when its members are able to work together in a cohesive fashion to make improvements to the community. Mentoring groups, volunteer clubs and successful charitable efforts fall under this umbrella. The group is rock solid and the members have unique responsibilities such as the editor of the newsletter or recruitment committee based on individual skill sets. Competition is seldom a problem and cooperation is the established norm. Long term members demonstrate a wealth of experience and are often in leadership positions. Because of this specialized knowledge the group is able to circumvent many of the issues plaguing less developed groups.

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