Social Roles in Web Communities

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by: Roger Dooley

Every community operator knows that it takes different kinds of participants to be successful. Some people come looking for answers, others come to help. Some like to expound at length, while others say little. Some are lurkers, others are prolific contributors. Researchers from Cornell and Microsoft have produced some interesting research that graphically represents different community roles.

In Visualizing the Signatures of Social Roles in Online Discussion Groups, researchers Howard T. Welser of Cornell University, Eric Gleave of the University of Washington and Microsoft Research, Danyel Fisher and Marc Smith (both of Microsoft Research) analyzed data from several discussion forums and represented the posting activity of members in graphical form. A column of bubbles represents the posting activity for each day, while the size of the bubbles represents the length of each post. The researchers then categorized members with similar charts into groups, notably “answer people” and “discussion people”. In addition, posts in threads they started themselves appear on a positive axis, while replies in threads started by others were put on the negative axis.

Answer people were readily identifiable due to a lack of thread starts (most activity was below the horizontal axis) and a lot of small bubbles. The behavior of these members was to respond to the questions and comments of others, typically in relatively brief posts. Discussion people, as illustrated above, had a markedly different look: they started threads, and as a result often had as much activity above the line as below; in addition, they had quite a few larger bubbles, indicating that some of their posts were much longer than others.

The researchers also plotted relationships between community members. Answer people tended to have simple, star (or hub and spoke) relationships, indicating quick, one-time interactions with members (many of whom may have been passing through). Discussion people had more dense networks of relationships (see below).

None of this will be surprising to forum admininstrators, but it is always good to have a reminder that community members fill different and important roles. Many communities are characterized by a constant influx of new participants seeking help (e.g., a technical problem or medical question). Answer people fill an important need by helping these new members quickly and efficiently. Discussion people, meanwhile, are a key part of the glue that holds communities together. Their network of relationships and occasionally lengthy posts engage other members and help bring new arrivals into greater participation.

With the emphasis on Web 2.0 and the growth of social networks as a powerful model for community building, this study reminds us of the different but important roles in online communities and provides us with an interesting way to visualize them.

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