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Challenges and prospects of online communities

1. Introduction

The development of networking and communication technologies in recent years brings together individuals with mutual interests using electronic mediation to overcome the same-place same-time limitation inherent in face to face settings. This has completely set a revolution in the way information is acquired, stored and disseminated. A significant transformation of the traditional face-to-face communities to online communities has empowered users of the internet to reach out to their counterpart in a manner that is unimaginable.

A critical review of online communities will be considered, with the aim to propose a sequence of success attributed to the migration from offline to online communities. Fichter (2005) recognizes considerable number of users in online communities as information consumers, ranging from reading world news to reviewing weather forecast. But acknowledge that many assumed the role of information providers with contribution to important topics such as wikis, blogs, more recently Photos and videos.

2. Defnition of online communities

There are two different perspectives when defining on-line communities: Social and Community Relation. Leroy and Iriberri, (2009) reported in their work that, Rheingold, define online communities from a social perspective as “social aggregations that emerge from the net when enough people carry on public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace”. These emphasize a meaningful relationship that emerges between users or representatives of organization.

From community relation perspective, Blanchard and Markus, (2004) define online communities as groups of people usually interact through computer-mediated communication, who identify with and developed feelings of belonging and attachment to each other. Of course they are meant to aggregate people, but they also dominate the aggregation of information and other resources.online_community

Earlier research (Precee and Krichmar, 2005) described online communities as a group of people who are geographically dispersed and interact in a virtual environment. They usually share common purpose, supported by a particular technology and are subsequently guided by the same norms and policies.

Due to the variant semantics of the term online communities in various field of endeavor, which are mostly determined by factors of sociability and usability. This research work strongly recognized all the areas that exist depending on purpose, size, or culture. Then critically make a distinction based on the social interaction of the members (sociability) and the design of user- interaction (usability) that connects the communities together. These definitions reflect the complex view and significance nature of online communities that should be a subject for further study.

3. Evolution of technologies supporting online communities

The notion of an online community is complex in the sense that, the geographical boundaries inherent in the traditional community is not longer relevant (Peter, 1997). Because the uniqueness of the internet as a medium has provided the mechanism of communication, that knows no geographical boundary. It current cost is extremely low and is certain to provide persistence history of interaction over time. Hence, the need of this section to explore the evolution of various technologies which online communities uses as a tool of the trade, to achieve the desired goal of turning the world a global village.

3.1 Electronic mail

Developed by ARPAnet in 1972, as the pioneer conduit by which information is distributed on the Internet to their respective audience. Bellotti, et al. (2006) analyzed the dramatic contribution of electronic mail through reliability and urgency of delivery. The technology becomes functional in the event of task management, personal archiving and contact management of Personal Information Manager (PIM), a substantive diary of online communities.

The task management feature of email as reported by (Bellotti, et al. 2006) reminds the online community members about current task and it relevant maintenance status, by exploring the inbox to ascertain the associated criteria attached to task in question. In another development (Whittaker, et al. 2006) reveals that email serves as very important repository of information, by way of classifying and organizing information into folders to make it accessible in future. Kumar, et al. (2006), states that the advent of large social online communities has empowered people to be interacting in an online setting. This development has contributed to the success and failure of many companies and organizations in the internet space. Because it is evident in the way yahoo mail homepage engines are managing users of the online communities. Sending and receiving mails via their accounts, freely created and bello

3.2 Discussion forum

Raghavan, et al. (2010) describe online discussion forums as web-based communities that allow users to share ideas, post problems, comment on posts by other users and obtain feedback. This makes the large fraction of discussions to be problem solving threads where many members of the forum collaborate to solve an issue faced by a member in hardware or software related. For instance techrepublic and .netForum are discussion forums that capture participants from software programming and hardware engineering field.

Balaji and Chakrabarti (2010) state that, discussion forum otherwise known as newsgroup, bulletin board or conference is regarded as the most popular online stage in electronic communication. Because the conversational tune is asynchronous, meaning that is not necessary for people to be present in the same virtual communities at the same time before participation. As such, messages are threaded with the first message starting the thread followed by responses directly beneath it as stated by Lampe, et al. (2010). online community

Figure 1: Online communities (Source: Hobgood, 2007)

3.3 Instant messaging

Patil and Kobsa (2010) describe chatting system as a useful tool for collaboration in the online community. It significance was observed from the synchronous nature of the system, that makes it mandatory for correspondents to be present online during conversations. Lederer et al. (2004) categorize IM systems based on the drawbacks of insignificance and inadequate control, mostly attributed to security and impersonation risk. Additionally, the effect of technological understanding discovered, suggests that making the IM system more transparent to users could facilitate better privacy decisions.

Table 1. A summary of the advantages and disadvantages of different online community tools adapted from Bishop (2009).

Online communities tools Advantages and Disadvantages
Personal homepage Advantages: Regularly updated, allows people to connect with those that they know through leaving messages and joining circle of friends.Disadvantage: Members often need to re-register for each site and cannot usually take their ‘Circle of Friends’ with them.
Message boards Advantages: Posts can be accessed at any time. Easy to ignore undesirable content. Disadvantages: Threads can become very long and reading through the messages is time consuming.
E-mail lists and newsletters Advantages: Allows a user to receive a message as soon as it is sent. Disadvantages: Cannot always access an archive of messages.
Chat groups Advantages: Synchronous. Users can communicate in real-time. Disadvantages: Posts can be sent simultaneously and the user can become lost in the conversation.
Weblogs and directories Advantages: Easily updated, regular content. Disadvantages: Members cannot start topics only respond to them.
Wikis and hypertext fiction Advantages: Can allow for collaborative work on literary projects. Disadvantages: Can bring out the worst in people, such as their destructive natures.

4. Privacy and security implications of online communities

Recent studies in the field of online communities reveal tremendous participation, which it success is strongly influenced by the extent of security and privacy of the systems. Paulen and Dourish (2003) explained privacy as a process that regulates disclosure of identity temporarily within a given boundary to an unauthorized member. Zhana, et al. (2010) believes that proper security mechanisms with strong cryptographic protocol are essential for mutual authentication of communication in online communities. Stanjano and Wilson (2009) reported that Instant Messaging is vulnerable to security violations in the context of online communities. Because multiple aliases are created by fraudsters to give impression to users that many people share the given opinion. For instance in eBay auctioning, backed by automatic feedback message to the bidders and auctioneers to track the history of transaction. Clearly, such a system is vulnerable to fraudsters boosting their reputation by clocking up positive feedback to defraud the online participants (Macknik, et al., 2008).

Phishing emails was reported by (Fette, et al. 2006) as purported to have come from trusted entity that attempt to deceive users to provide account or identity information. This posed threat to security and privacy, as the traditional spam filters are not adequately detecting these undesirable emails. In a counter action to stop this menace, (Mehta et al. 2008) offer solutions which uses the visual features for classification with 98% improvements over the existing spam filters.

Fiore, et al. (2002) reported that Usenet newsgroups regularly receive noisy and voluminous messages that are mostly of limited value. Despite the merit of collaboration through computer networks, poor quality messages and flood newsgroups content have prove too difficult to be worthwhile. In an earlier research work, (Sack, 2000) highlighted that news browsers would be design to reduce the noise and increasing volume of articles traffic in online communities. So that users will be allowed to sort and search for dates of author’s contribution to messages and threading process in the community of users about a specific topic.

A flame war is a tendency for a user to go off-topic and attack personality rather than their opinion. Likely candidates for flame wars are usually religion and socio-political topics, or topics that discuss pre-existing rivalries outside the forum.

5. Importance and benefits

The recent study of Li, et al. (2010) states that, social networking services (SNS) are becoming quite popular. SNSs provide an online private space for individuals and tools for people to interact with others in the cyberspace, that many people are drawn to the internet for the benefits of social interactions. Millen, et al. (2002) reported the inherent benefits of forming a social group give opportunities to exchange information in terms of social or emotional support.

In another development (Ridings and Gefen, 2004) discovered that research communities through asynchronous learning networks (i.e. online teaching) use the platform for knowledge collaboration and dissemination of valuable information. Ganley and Lampe (2009) argue that despite the aggregation of information and other kinds of resources. The significance had extended to successfully aggregate people and engages them in environment to virtually connect to other people, and create interactive atmosphere of trust and insight.

The modern online community is viewed as a more conducive organizational form to human-centric computing than traditional business organizations (Zhao et al. 2007). Previously using the FTF technique, the discovery of people with the same interests or a similar context was accomplished manually by the users themselves. There are four basic needs that strengthen the bond and reliability of online communities, which are interest, relationship, fantasy and transaction. Moreover, online communities facilitate social bonding and development among members.

Benefits of Online Communities [Millen et al. 2002]

  • Opportunity to obtain feedback and information on customer needs and requirements
  • Opportunity to improve customer service
  • Opportunity to improve reputation
  • Increased access to expert knowledge
  • Information exchange with highly credible sources
  • Increased quality of knowledge and advice
  • Increased idea creation and enhanced problem solving
  • Increased new business and product innovation
  • Time saving during information seeking and sharing

6.Classifying online communities

Bishop (2009) reported that, in order to make it easier to understand the variety of online communities, it is necessary to classify them at some level. Researchers have made these classifications based on many different criteria. Due to the newness of the area, there are a limited number of researches concerning the classification of online communities within the marketing literature. Technically, the classification is to weather pages can be created and edited by many, such as Wikipedia or there exist control that only certain users can post and edit entries as in the case of weblogs. The following table is structured with the views of authors in terms of classification and the emphasis focus on each aspect.

Table 2. Classifications of online communities [Mittilä and Mäntymäki (2002)]

Author(s) Defnition/Important element
of online communities
Classification of online communities Main emphasis
Howard Rhengold
- virtual community are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace Commercial,non-commercial The human relationships
Hagel & Armstrong (1997− People have four reasons to join: interest, relationship, fantasy and transactions − Distinctive focus as to membership, emphasis on member-generated content, choice among competing vendors, commercially motivated community organizers Consumer-focused: geographic, demographic, topical B-to-B-focused:Vertical industry, functional, geographic, business category communities The economical benefits of an online community
Klang & Olsson (1999) − Functioning effective infrastructure, active membership Non-profit and profit, non-company and company The classification of online communities
Amy Jo Kim (2000) − Purpose, places, profiles, roles, leadership program, etiquette, events, rituals, subgroups Geographic, demographic, topical, activity-based The building process of an online community
Cothrel (2000); Warms, Cothrel & Underberg (2000) − Online communities are groups of businesses, customers, or employees with common interests interacting via Internet. − Community elements: member-generated content, online events, Member-to-member interaction, outreach Consumers (b-to-c), business customers or partners (b-to-b), and employees (e-to-e). The active management and the community programs
Schubert and Ginsburg (2000) − Virtual communities describe the union between individuals or organizations who share common values and interests using electronic media to communicate within a shared semantic space on a regular basis Community of interest (leisure time, research and business community) and Network community (Internet community) The concept of online communities, communities of transaction
Jennifer Preece (2000, 2001) − An online community consists of: people, purpose, policies, computer systems People, purpose, policies, computer systems The sociability and usability
Dorine Andrews (2001) − Online communities consist of three elements: trust and the nature of computer-mediated communication, online community implementation, the impact of economics Traditional, audience-centric Computer-mediated communication and the impact of economics

7. Discussion

Popular interest in online communities has grown rapidly in recent years, with the recognition that participation is unevenly distributed and that a core subset of actors plays a key role in sustaining the group (Jones, et al. 2004).This development had posed a unique challenges of balancing security and privacy with usability and sociability. The illegal disclosure and improper application of member’s private information can result to serious consequences to the online community structure and integrity.

The participation of members in the online communities actively, is proportional to the benefits accrued for the individual member and the community as a whole. These contributions will sustain the communities and increase it chances of achieving success. Hence, the research recognizes the significance of the modern technology effort in bridging the gap inherent with the traditional face-to-face setting to virtual communities affordably and comfortably.

The technologies that support the online communities are categories into synchronous and asynchronous mode of response. It was observed that the application of email, discussion forum or instant messaging to pass information across the online communities all depend on the sensitivity and the urgency of delivery attached to the information.

8. Future directions of online communities

Future research may benefit from ceasing to conflate similarities among online communities and more carefully evaluating the specific context of each online community in fundamental classification. Indeed, even though the online communities share the same topic (technology) and technology platforms, they still demonstrate measurable community-specific differences (Katz and Rice, 2002). This is evident that a future work is needed to ascertain how these findings generalize to a more diverse set of online communities in terms of topics, size, and stage in online community life cycle.

9. Conclusion

The research of online communities is essentially multi-disciplinary due to the need of good software usability from computer scientists and cordial interaction from social scientists. The aggregation of usability and sociability will produce thriving online communities.

The security and privacy implications of online communities is an area that require constant research and development, as fraudsters and intruders gain access and perpetrate fraud. However, the collaboration of social scientists, network security communities and other relevant field of behavioral sciences had facilitate a secure mechanisms and policies that will enhance the present situation. The classifications of online communities were presented based on pioneer researchers’ opinion. These dimensions were selected from earlier theories of online communities, such that purpose, size and geographical factors were considered in the nature of classification. The benefits derived from FTF migration to CMC are tremendous. It facilitates the exchange of technical, political or social information among participant in a way that is convenient using any of tools of the trade of online communities (i.e. discussion forum, chat systems, emails, skype).

As in any new area it takes time to gather knowledge and develop theories. It is hope that this work will motivate OSN researchers and developers to move forward with more creative design of OSNs without compromising users’ data security and privacy.


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Salameh Abu Rmeileh, 2011/04/05 06:23

Good practice Ibrahim :) I just added the discussion part.

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