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Why People Participate in Online Communities

circlepeopleWhy do people hang out online and what motivates them to participate in online communities?

There are two very interesting studies that provide some insight into the answers of these questions.

One is a study conducted in 2004 which researched online bulletin board communities.

The second is a study conducted in 2010 the researched a crowdsourced content community.

Lets take a quick look at some of their findings and then talk about how you can apply this research to your own work as a community manager.

1. Virtual community attraction: Why people hang out online

Ridings & Gefen (2004) [1] carried out an exploratory study which focused specifically on bulletin board communities.

The communities were categorized into five broad groups:

  • heath/wellness
  • personal interests (hobbies)
  • pets
  • professional/occupational
  • sport/recreation

As a result of their research, they identified the following main drivers for “hanging out online”:

  • Information exchange
  • Friendship
  • Social support exchange
  • Recreation.

A closer look revealed an interesting aspect: The five types of communities could be regrouped into two overall categories:

1. Topics of importance beyond members’ free choice

ie. health/wellness and professional/occupational

Here, individuals also sought information in the first place but cited social support as the second most popular reason.

2. Freely chosen topics of interest

ie. (special interest, pets, and sport/recreation

Information exchange was cited most often with friendship being the second most popular reason.

2. Motivations to participate in online communities

Lampe et al. (2010) [2] examined a user generated encyclopedia and (creative) writing platform: everything2.com. Here are some of the findings:

1. The reasons that led the users to the site are different from the reasons why they continue to participate. Users come to the site for information in the first place. But it seems that they get some extra benfits like receiving entertainment or providing information and therefore return to the site. Another explanation might be that motivation evolves over time.

2. Anonymous users mainly come to the site to get information and to be entertained.

3. Social enhancement motivations, a feeling of one’s importance to  the online community, and the individual motivation of providing content precede the creation of an account. Users with an account are then motivated by a sense of affiliation and identity to the site through feelings of importance and value to the site.

4. Participation between users is predicted by social motivations (maintaining connectivity, sense of belonging) whereas participation directed to the whole community is predicted by the individual need of providing information which is centered on informative content and not on social interaction.

5. In sum, social and cognitive factors seem to be more important than issues of usability in predicting contribution to the site.

Takeaways for Community Managers

1. Mind your members’ (co-)motivation because it might vary with the topic of the community.

Although information is a strong motivation (for joining a bulletin board community!), social aspects like support or friendship are second in place, depending, so it seems, on whether the objective of the community is centered on members’ freely chosen topics of interest (friendship) or whether it is centered on topics of importance beyond their free choice (support).

2. Facilitate the access to and the efficiency of information exchange

Here, several things can be done:

  • Provide a clear structure/meaningful naming for the community/sub-communities so that members can find the appropriate place for their posting — and therefore exchange information more efficiently
  • Include advanced searching capabilities for locating specific threads of interest
  • Provide additional links to non-member generated material related to the community topic
  • Win “experts” in a particular area to interact with community members on either a periodic or ongoing basis

3. Ease the development of friendship and social support among community members

Ridings & Gefen cited one member who mentioned that he liked the format of the particular community because he could see who responded to each post, and the simple fact of who responded told him a lot about the post. He also mentioned other communities he did not like as much because they were not constructed in this way.

If this can be generalized, the display of the messages and replies, including the ID of the poster, could be important in building connections among members — connections that could lead to friendship. It would allow members to more easily identify conversations among their friends in the community.

Other features of the community such as the ability to search for all posts by a particular member or access to member profiles could aid in friendship building.

4. Use different strategies for newcomers and long-term members

Newcomers came to the site to get information, regulars want more than just information, they go for social factors or entertainment as well.

Good quality content is great for attracting people to the site, in order to stay there or to come back, they must either develop the wish to provide information or to bond with others – ideally both. Unfortunately, good content only makes avid readers.

Make sure the long-term members get their extra benefits.

5. Promote social enhancement because it influences the willingness to create an account

Positive feedback from the community (a quick response to someone’s posts, the number of responses, the content, the calibre of people that respond etc.) foster social enhancement because they show that the new participant’s contributions are appreciated by the community.

Of course this is only possible if visitors can submit posts before they are asked their name and password.

6. Secure continued participation

Once the new member has stepped over the threshold of the registration procedure make sure to socialize her/him to the community.

Getting to know other members and communicating with them will help develop a sense of belonging (one antecedent of the sense of community, the very heart of every community, be it virtual or face-to-face).


[1] Ridings, C. M., & Gefen, D. (2004). Virtual community attraction: Why people hang out online. Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication, 10(1), 00-00. Google Scholar

[2] Lampe, C., Wash, R., Velasquez, A., & Ozkaya, E. (2010). Motivations to participate in online communities. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1927-1936). ACM. Google Scholar

Photo Credit: Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha via Compfight cc

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About the author

Juergen Derlath

Juergen Derlath is head of R & D and social media executive in a publishing company. His main fields of interest: the psychology of virtual communities and instructional design. Visit the blog or follow on twitter for more about that stuff.

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