Monthly Archives: May 2008

Segmenting Online Communities: Some Comments

I was recently very pleased to write a few reflective comments on “Segmenting Online Communities,” the Master’s Thesis work of Hjalti Hjaltason and Marie Vernersson at Lund University in Sweden. They have undertaken in a very clear and concise manner, a study that seeks to empirically test the model of online community segments that I first proposed in an article in the European Management Journal in 1999.

That article, and the model in it, have achieved considerable popularity as a way to understand some of the different segments of online community member. The article has been cited 190 times (according to Google scholar), and the model’s quadrants and categories of the mingler, tourist, devotee, and insider are commonly featured in books, including many consumer behavior and e-commerce textbooks around the world.

Yet as Hjalti and Marie write in their introduction to this research, the article’s influential assertions and model have rarely been subject to empirical scrutiny. And that’s where this team of scholars come in.

Using a large sample (they aimed for an N=1000) of online poker players active on the Facebook, they administered a questionnaire that asked them a battery of questions about themselves and their online behaviors. For their theory-testing purposes, chief among these questions were queries that asked about their identification with the consumption practices of poker, and with their affiliation with the online community of poker players.

Their findings were quite interesting, and a bit surprising. In my 1999 article, I had speculated that, following the Pareto rule that seemed to dictate producer-like behavior in the offline world, we might expect only about 20% of online consumers to be assuming the more active, producerly roles of the devotee and the insider. However, Hjaltason and Vernersson instead found that Devotees (at a whopping 36%) and Insiders (at 25%) together account for 61% of their entire sample. Tourists (at 33%) and Minglers (at a paltry 6%) account together for a minority of online consumers, at only 39 percent.

The results themselves are interesting, and most interesting, I believe, because they open up this area to further investigation and questioning. Now, in the same interest of science, I had to ask myself why these results were so different from my own speculations. And I came up with several reasons that might assist further refinement and investigations of these topics.

First, I think that we must be very cautious about choosing field sites that are supposed to be representative of the entire phenomenon of online communities. When I originally wrote my 1999 article, almost all of my research had been based in newsgroups or bulletin boards, which were the main form of online community for over two decades, pretty much since the inception of the Internet. In those speculations of mine, I was including the many lurkers who pass by bulleting boards without ever posting on them. I think that recent research, by key people in this area like Anne Schlosser, indicate that for every person who posts, there are somewhere in the range of 50-100 (at least) who only read the posting and move along. These numbers have been repeated recently as the “Rule of 100,” “One Percent Rule,” or the pyramid, featured in a number of books about online consumer behavior like O’Connell and Huba’s Citizen Marketers.

So there are actually two anomalies to this field site. First, it is a fairly new social form, a social networking site. That makes it significantly different, in my eyes, from the newsgroups that I originally based my theory building upon. So perhaps the original theory holds for bulletins boards, but not for SNS groups. This is then boundary testing research rather than confirmatory or disconfirming research. And the confirmatory or disconfirming research is truly yet to happen.

The next anomaly has to do with the way that community is defined. It seems to be leaving out the lurkers that I explicitly sought to include when I brought in the Pareto rule (on p. 262, I state that “Boards also have wide exposure and influence, because they are perused frequently by tourists who merely lurk and do not post messages.”). So what is the universe of the online community? Is it all of those who visit? Or only those who post? Could it also be those who rate? On an SNS, could it be those who link? This sort of definitional work is important in a field as nascent as online community studies.

Another aspect of the site that makes it quite odd is that there are almost no female members, and it was composed mainly of Icelandic males (about whom I actually know very little). This seems to me to make it quite different from many of the sites I studied, such as fan sites, which had much larger female concentrations. As well, the nature of the site seemed particular. On this site, people actually were given the opportunity to go and play the game they were interested in—and thus to directly consume. Therefore, we’d expect a lot more “activity” to show up, and a logical suppression of “merely social” consuming attitudes of minglers and tourists. And this is just what we observe.

Methodologically, I take issue with the idea that self-reports reveal actual behaviors, especially those as subtle, intertwined, and complex as the various types of identifications and communications of online community members. I think that it would be interesting to see what would happen if we observed actual behaviors. All that is being measured here is the self-reports of behaviors. So if we concur that devotees and insiders are the highest status members of online communities, then people who are subject to social desirability and self-enhancement biases would be much more prone to classify themselves as devotees and insiders than as minglers or tourists. Thus, the results would overstate these two categories.

In conclusion, I’d like to say that I actually don’t know if my Pareto rule speculation will hold up to closer scrutiny. I sort of doubt it. I definitely believe that we are seeing new rules, such as the aforementioned One Percent Rule of 1% emerging to help explain some of the new phenomena were are seeing through emergent online community behaviors.

I’d also like to point other scholars to some of the other elements of the theory I proposed in that article. In particular, I speculate and link these four categories to different relational modes linked to motivational elements: the recreational, the relational, the informational, and the transformational. I also link these motivational aspects to a progression of online community involvement that transpires over time. The theory is actually quite a bit more complex than is accounted for here. It accounts both for a cross-sectional view of community membership, a motivational component, as well as a longitudinal element in which members progress through various stages, from uninvolved to more centrally involved. Well-designed, thorough studies that look deeply into these propositions would be most welcome and, I think, would be well received in the literature.

In conclusion, it has been enjoyable to read what these students have done with this model. We need more solid studies like this one to get the conversation moving about what is actually going on among all of these interesting, consumption-based online communities. We need more scholarship like this work on “Segmenting Online Communities,” by Hjalti Hjaltason and Marie Vernersson to help us to understand and really “crack the code” of online community membership and behavior.

MIT C3 Retreat 2008: Some Comments and Remarks

Last week on May 8-9, 2008, I had the pleasure of attending the 3rd annual retreat of the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the MIT campus. I’ve been involved with the C3 group since their inception as a “Consulting Researcher” (and affiliate faculty member in the department). C3 was founded with Principal Investigator Henry Jenkins’ vision of bringing companies and academics together in a forum that would make idea exchange easier. A number of great people from major corporations were involved this year, including people from Fidelity Investments, Yahoo!, MTV/Viacom, and Turner Broadcasting. Industry speakers included Brian Haven from Keith Clarkson from Xenophile Media, Matt Wolf from Double Twenty Productions, Forrester Research, and Judy Walklet from Communispace. And for me, it was a thrill to meet a who’s who of fan community researchers—people who were absolutely fundamental to my thesis work and who built the universe of fan studies. These included Nancy Baym, Lee Harrington, Jonathan Gray, and Jason Mittell. I also had the opportunity this year and in the past to meet some excellent new scholars in the area, whose work is sure to open up many exciting new avenues of opportunity and insight. This people include Kevin Sandler, Derek Johnson, Gail Derecho, Aswin Panathambekar, Geoff Long, Sam Ford, and Ivan Askwith. And of course it was genuine pleasure to see my friend the esteemed marketing anthropologist and consumer culture icon, Grant McCracken, whose contributions are always elegantly-phrased and thoroughly thought-provoking.

I was asked to give a few opening remarks for the session on Friday morning entitled “Understanding and Managing Audiences as Communities.” I wrote a few notes to present to the group, some of which made it into my opening spiel, some of which I fit into later responses and ideas, and some of which remained as scribbles on paper until I typed them into the computer today. For what they are worth, I am happy to share them with you here:

I began this work in 1995 with a proposition that sounded more than a little bit strange at the time: that we could learn a lot about brand loyalty by studying the consumption of fan communities. It’s perhaps even stranger, but I never saw media brands and other brands as all that different at all.

I was young and naïve—an academic newbie. And I was relying on little more than faith and a few solid pieces of evidence that I’d noticed and held onto as a long-term members of early online communities on CompuServe and then Mosaic and Netscape. But I believe in my heart of hears that the same sorts of passionate communities that gathered for Star Trek, Star Wars, and Green Day would tell us a lot about the kinds of passionate following that could be inspired for Sony, Nike, and Campbell’s Soup.

Essential to my understanding was an early etymologizing of online communities that split out two fundamental motivational orientations in order to segment members’ styles. Those two orientations were how connected the community members were to the consumption activity and how identified they were with the community itself. This yielded a classic MBA 2 X 2 matrix with 4 ideals types: the tourist, the mingler, the devotee, and the insider. It has been found to be useful and explanatory—it serves as the cornerstone of most textbooks’ approaches to the types of online community that exist. In a coming soon blog, I plan to post an updated, complete, and completely revised version of the paper in which I introduced this typology, which will be celebrating its tenth anniversary next year.

In the ensuing years, the notion that people can be “fans” of a grand, and that online communities composed of these brand, product and categories fans has ceased sounding quite so weird, and begun diffusing into marketing awareness, led by several stark realizations about the storied, mediated, mythic natures of brands.

I barely even differentiate between media fans and brand and product fans anymore. Was the Cadbury gorilla a media phenomenon, or a CPG (consumer packaged goods) marketing one? What about Dove and The Evolution of Beauty and its entire Real Beauty campaign? Coca Cola in Second Life? Is that media, fandom, community, product, brand? Or all of them intermixed? There are so many different types of enthusiastic, expressive, lifestyle communities online to study: cooking classes on YouTube, shoe design forums on Niketalk, fashion communities, book communities, technology communities. Are they media, community, consumption, or fan phenomenon? The answer is yes. They partake in all of these elements.

So since 1995, I’ve been developing and expanding the technique that I call “netnography”—a systematic approach to conducting ethnography over the Internet. I’m pleased to find that it has been widely adopted. I’m now adapting it for use in rich new media like blogs, and vlogs, and for different types of social experience like SNS.

Last year, Bernard Cova, Avi Shankar, and I released a volume called Consumer Tribes that looks at this communal phenomenon through the anthropological lens of the tribal, a view that has been influenced by the postmodern philosopher Michel Maffesoli—who we tapped for a new chapter that appears in our book. In the introductory chapter to that book we wrote that there are inherent cultural tensions that the tribal movement (what I’ve been calling “etribes”) seek to negotiate, these are “tensions between consumption and production, between primitivism and postmodernism, between the commercial and the communal, nature and culture, past and present, oppression and liberation, conformity and transcendence.” We’ve found that tribes seek to hybridize and combine these elements in many serious and playful ways.

Four of the different style and activity modes that we found online communities (or, more generally, consumer tribes) using as they developed in the 21st century were: activation and plundering (which were different approaches to the appropriation of commercial marketplace cultural elements), and double agent or entrepreneurs (which were different approaches to how they regulate the flow of power and resources that comes with as combined consumer/producer role). This last role of the entrepreneurial tribes is extremely interesting to me. I believe it is the area of much growth in coming years as consumer will use the networking power of the Internet to gather into powerful social groups that will seek to contribute to the current social and moral issues that concern them, issues that include:” business ethics, the degradation of the environment, multicultural relations, wealth and technology sharing, and education.

Recently, we’ve seen a number of books written by people from the media industry decrying the rise of online communities and fundamentally misapprehending their nature. I’m going to review one of those books in an upcoming blog entry, but I’ll summarize here by saying that in general these books tend to see blogs, vlogs, YouTube, and the rise of Internet New Journalism and New Media creation as a serious threat to traditional media, traditional media being transplanted by a weak, poorly-made, dumbed-down alternative with crummy production values. A dilution of quality and a serious confusion of the standards of quality that results in, say, Reality TV replacing “real” quality TV.

In my estimation, we actually know very little about this phenomenon of online communities, online media creation, and online-inspired shifts in popular taste. That is why we need collaborations like this one—the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium’s blending of corporate interest and sponsorship with that of relevant academics from around the world—to continue and intensity. We need to get grad students working with companies in projects that help them hone their learning, and contribute to companies’ changing needs. We need companies to think closer about the role, availability, and presence of quality academic work. We need companies to inspire more of the types of questions that academics work on. Companies need to look at some of the wider social effects of these changes, and conceptualize how they are changing communities and society as they act. Academics need to turn to more topical, current, socially relevant questions, moving from abstract theory to actionable premises. Rather than leaving thinking about the implementation issues to others, academics needs to explore the “so what” questions themselves—investigating and answering what managers are supposed to do with their research results.

Some of the areas in online communities that we still know very little about, and which need a lot of further investigation are:

  • The different types of communities
  • The role of incentives in communities (when is it corrosive? When is it helpful?)
  • How big communities are different from smaller ones
  • What is the flow of social, cultural, and economic capital across different communities?
  • What is the life cycle of communities (they are a dynamic form)?
  • How are online communities as a phenomenon, and their dynamism., changing over time (the form of the form itself is changing)?
  • What is the relationship between communities as one form of network to other forms of communal reaching out—for example, people post their profiles on an SNS page, then link to their blog, and the blog cite an entry they noticed or made on a bulletin board, and the board post is about their YouTube video….we know very little about this type of communal flow of interrelations, some of which is captured in new social aggregators like Friendfeed

So there is a lot to do. I want to open up this discussion by saying that this is a very energizing time to be studying this phenomenon of online community. There has never been more action, activity, and opportunity in it, both as a phenomenon that is evolving, growing and changing, and in the world of business and academia.

The ACP Virtual Worlds Conference in Philly

Well that’s enough book promotions and griping about bad service for a while. I promise. I want to get back to the focal concern of this blog, and that’s exploring the interface between business and academic research as it pertains to online communities, technology, and entertainment,

I’m in Boston today at a retreat for the Convergence Culture Consortium’s partners at MIT. Writing this from my hotel in Cambridge. We’re going to have a very full agenda that combines academics with businesspeople, and these events are always very stimulating and thought provoking. I’ll post an update for you after it’s done and fill you in.

But first I wanted to provide a little update on a wonderful conference I attended lat week on May 1-2 in Philadelphia. It was the 27th Annual Advertising and Consumer Psychology conference on the topic of “Virtual Social Identity and Consumer Behavior.” The conference got a lot of interest and, again, was one of those boundary-spanning events that drew both academics and working practitioners.

Jeremy Bailenson, the director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford talked about how applications of psychology work out in the virtual world of avatars. His work does a lot of testing of different social psych theories of attraction and repulsion. So, for example, tall avatars are liked better and are more popular than short avatars. Better looking avatars also have an easier time. And, using software, if you get an avatar to mimic your own gestures, or to facially resemble you (with a sort of morph), you will like and trust that avatar more. That was pretty cool stuff.

Lyle Wetsch from St John’s Memorial University presented some very promising and intriguing research he’s doing with students on the socialization in Second Life—they are keeping logs of their own socialization experiences as they move into the culture of Second Life. Alison Bryant from Nickelodeon and MTV, and Anna Akerman from Adelphi, presented fascinating work on the match between kids and particular virtual worlds, and how this linked to their stage of cognitive and social development. I’m over-simplifying, but it was sort of like kids begin with Webkinz tamagotchi-like play world, then they move up to Habbo Hotel, then they get into some of the TV properties like Virtual Hills, and then they graduate into places like Second Life and World of Warcraft. A life cycle of virtual world migration.

Rockstar Georgetown marketing professor Gary Bamossy gave a wonderful presentation on the sacred and profane aspects of online game playing in China, based on his research with Jeff Wang and Xin Zhao. And I thought Bill Minnis, from the company & Billion People, gave a really interesting talk about the problems with online retailing and where it would need to go in order to become as popular and as acceptable as physical retailing. He also compared Second Life programming with cave art and Harry Potter—wondering if the “next Harry Potter” would be a virtual world or a game. This comparison of world creation to art creation is very appealing to me, and I think that conceptualizing these sorts of creations as forms of art could be enlightening to our conceptions.

Newcomer Leila El Kamel from the Universite Laval gave a very scholarly and thorough linkage of Metaverses as Consumer Experiences that drew on a lot of interesting and relevant postmodern theory and philosophy. In such new places, we almost need to draw on elements form science fiction (this was a continual theme) and postmodern theory (Leila was one of the only ones to really push this important point).

Lauren, me, and Ereni

I also like newcomers Lauren Labrecque and Ereni Markos presentation on consumption, marketing, and flow in Second Life. Their research explored the implications of marke4ting and brands in Second Life with a number of interesting observations. I also liked that they got theatrical, dressing up in wigs and gloves so that they physically embodied an “avatar-like” presence during their presentation. And, of course, I also loved that they quoted this blog during their presentation. How cool is that? Readers, you are not alone. In fact, this blog is getting some impressive readership now, well over a thousand unique visitors a day, and rising.

Seeing Lauren and Ereni walk in with their wig and costume on while I was presenting (with my co-author Richard Kedzior) was a Burning Man moment for me. It made me remember just how Burning Man Second Life sometimes feels. This Frontier sense and Wild West mentality with different rules, different social structure, a love of technology and technological possibility, a loose feeling of social chaos, of possibility, of anything can happen. Except that I think Second Life’s lack of rules and greater freedom actually makes it a less interesting place than Burning Man. Burning Man has new rules, participative rules, collective identity rules, rules that build community, while Second Life more anarchist approach actually ends up with a more barren, individualistic, predatory feel. Or maybe that’s just because Second Life has become overly commercialized, while Burning Man has kept the black hounds of business at bay….

The best part of the conference was the conversations. One lively discussion was about the future of Virtual Worlds and who to understand them. I made the point that we really don’t have an adequate overview of the different kinds of virtual world marketing elements that are out there yet, and a link to how that relates to our business models. Are they games that are pay-for-play or subscription? Are they advertising, which supports content development? Are they like e-commerce, stores where we buy something online and which replace brick and mortar? Are they add-on services, providing things like customer service or access to a community? Are they themselves a different kind of service, separate from a game, offering some new element to our product? We just don’t know.

There was also a nice set of volleys about whether there is anything really new here at all. Professor Bamossy made some very good points that there wasn’t anything all that theoretically interesting being show here. People were just showing that theories that apply in one domain (like tall people are more successful and more well-liked) also apply in the virtual world domain of perception. Okay, that begs the crucial question: so what? Richard and I had tried to argue that there were key elements of virtual world experience that were actually quite unique. I’ll share those with you another time. But Gary was pretty adamant that we didn’t need new theories to explain how people behaved, even under those new circumstances or contexts, and that the old ones seemed more than capable of doing the job. Goffman explained how people presented themselves in avatars pretty well. Piaget explained the way kids moved through stages. Freud explained why there was so darn much sexual activity in Second Life. This didn’t seem like it was really “new” at all. It’s a very interesting and important point, and certainly in a half-hour of discussion we only got to dig underneath the surface level just a bit. But that’s what these conferences are great for.

On the plane ride home, I began to sketch out a way to understand and focus our attention on virtual worlds, to organize what is still, in a lot of ways, the Wild Untamed West for Consumption and Marketing Theory and for Business Practice.

So thanks to Natalie Wood and Mike Solomon of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia for co-chairing and organizing such a stimulating and exciting conference. I think the ripples from this conference will continue to spread and build into many worthwhile contributions to our growing knowledge of this fascinating development of virtual world.