Should you ban off-topic discussions in your community? Is it always a good idea to promote growth? Does a large number of anonymous members threaten your community?
Three different questions it seems—but the answers have one thing in common: the way the member is attached to the community.
Two basic types of communities can be distinguished: members may be attached primarily either to the community as a whole, or to other members.
This has some interesting implications:
Community type forms members’ expectations
Dholakia, Bagozzi & Klein Pearo  distinguish
- network-based virtual communities (VCs), where members show identification with the online site itself and not so much with particular members (e.g.: in a bulletin-board on gardening).
- small-group-based VCs, where members maintain a dense web of relationships with other members and identify with them in the first place.
In general, participants of a network-based VC are more purpose-oriented, they seek information and expect the community to bring them together with others who will provide this information. In small-group based VCs interpersonal connectivity and engagement in social interactions are the drivers of participation. This holds true for business-sponsored communties and for member-initiated communities.
Community type influences the quality of lurking behavior
Yeow, Johnson & Faraj  develop their typology in the context lurking. Lurking is considered to be either an online form of “social loafing” or a phase in which the member-to-be learns “da rulez” by observing the community. But how do we know if somebody is a loafing lurker or a learning lurker? Well, we’ll never know for sure but the community type can tell us something about the probability:
- Transactional-commerce-oriented VCs are often business-sponsored and the primary driver behind participation is search for and exchange of information (e.g. product support groups for users of a certain software).
- In relational-interest oriented VCs, the focus lies on relationship and interactions among members. Often, they are initiated by members themselves (e.g amateur sports enthusiasts meet in an open group on the Internet. Some members may know one another through joint activities).
In both types, social loafing motivation as a cause for lurking is more dominant on average but there is a dampend effect within relational-interest VCs: Social learning by observation is more relevant in relational-interest oriented VCs.
Community type determines the relationship among members
The pattern that emerges behind these and other studies is described in social psychology in terms of common identity theory vs. common bond theory (Ren, Kraut & Kiesler ).
- In common-identity groups, members feel more attached to the group as a whole. Identity means that a member feels commitment to a group’s purpose or topic. Seeking and providing information is a primary driver (e.g.: a movie-talk group).
- In common-bond groups, a member feels socially and emotionally attached to particular members as well as to the group as a whole. Here, the focus lies on social interaction (e.g.: pupils who meet after class on a social network site).
In both types attachment leads members to perceive a group as cohesive and to have a good opinion about the group and its members. It increases participation and the likelyhood that the member will remain in the group. There are also diverging consequences: Both types differ in their effects on:
- social loafing (common-bond groups tend to be more tolerant with loafers but members are less likely to compensate for other’s under-participation);
- the experience of newcommers (bond attachment based groups tend to set up bigger obstacles for newcomers);
- the compliance with group norms (which is stronger in common-interest groups);
- the topics people talk about (engagement in and tolerance for off-topic discussions are more stronger in common-bond groups);
- the amount and type of reciprocity/social exchange of information and support (members with identity-based attachment are more likely to help any member and not just those who have helped them);
- the robustness or salience of community membership (members tend to perceive each other as interchangeable in common-interest groups).
But how about those questions?
Ok. A first step towards answering the questions at the beginning of the blog post is to assess the type of attachment to the community. This isn’t an easy task: both types can coexist. Community type can change over time and there seem to be no rules of thumb, like ‘business-sponsored communties are always interest-based.’ Here, the community manager’s experience with his/her community is crucial.
Next, you should look for the above-mentioned tendencies and their influence on the purpose of the community:
- Should community management force members to stick to on-topic discussions? In an interest-based community it is to the benefit of all because identity-based attachment to the group would likely decrease as the discussion drifts away from the core topic.
- Is it always a good thing to promote growth? It may be a problem for some groups because bond-based attachment might decrease with membership turnover.
- How about anonymity? Interest-based communities may cope even with a large number of anonymous members, but bond-based communities profit from repeated interaction of its members—and this requires that member’s actions are visible to each other and that people meet frequently. Public and private communication will also enhance the likelihood of forming ties. These prerequisits are not compatible with anonymity.
Which type is your community? How do you deal with issues like off-topic-disscussion, growth or anonymity? Do you agree with these findings? I am really looking forward to your comments!
 Dholakia, U.M., Bagozzi, R.P., Klein Pearo, L. (2004). A social influence model of consumer participation in network- and small-group-based virtual communities. Internation Journal of Research in Marketing 21 (2004) 241 – 263. Google Scholar
 Yeow, A., Johnson S.L. , Faraj, S. (2006). Lurking: Legitimate or illegitimate peripheral participation? 27th Conference on Information Systems, Milwaukee 2006. Pre-Publication Draft
 Ren, Y., Kraut, R. , Kiesler, S. (200?). Identity and bond theories to understand design decisions for online communities. Google Scholar