C. Caravello 3/8/2009

Online Communities: The Present and Future

Introduction
This research is aimed at determining the future of online communities. With the rise of social network sites (SNS) there has become a distinct difference between websites set up for users to connect with one another based on common interests, and social sites that allow for a more personal network. This first paper discussed the past of both topical based communities (referred to as “forums” in this project) and social networking sites, and how the members of these communities connected before the rise of such sites. This second paper will examine the present state of these communities and how there seems to be a blending of public discussion websites and SNS’, as well as a bridging of both offline and online communities. This paper will also examine where online communities are headed based on the theories and trends discussed in these two papers. This project is being conducted to determine the future of online communities, and will draw on sources relevant to forums and SNS’, in particular one such community that has incorporated both. This research will answer an important question: Will internet forums become obsolete or evolve? The future of internet forums quite possibly will involve incorporating many features of social media, which opens the discussion of whether or not forums will exist as being separate from social media. Either way, it is obvious that forums will remain a fixture of online communities in the future; it just needs to be determined in what form this will be in.

Online Communities: The Present and the Future
The purpose of this paper is to display the present state of online communities, and where these communities are headed. With the rise of social networking sites in the last few years, people have been able to communicate with individuals from all over the world. There are two questions this paper will attempt to answer: What communities have risen to the top of the ever changing internet landscape? How are they changing the way members of our society interact with one another, both online and offline? Answering these two questions will show how online communities have impacted the way members of our societies communicate with one another. As the use of the internet continues to spread, its use as a communication tool will rise as well. Joe Trippi, author of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, writes “…77 percent of Americans now say they use the internet to interact with the news of the war in Iraq. The key word here is interact. These people aren’t just reading web sites for news of the war. They’re emailing stories to one another, posting messages, blogging…” This rise in social interaction online has been integral to the growth of online communities and SNS’, as this paper will show.

The Current State of Social Network Sites
Currently, there are two SNS’ that dominate the internet landscape. These are Myspace and Facebook. While these two are community based communication networks, there are hundreds of other sites that incorporate to varying degrees new information and communication tools, such as mobile connectivity, blogging, and photo/video-sharing (Boyd & Ellison).

Before discussing Myspace and Facebook, it is important to look at an SNS that came into play just before these two sites came into existence. While considered one of the biggest disappointments in SNS history by some, Friendster is important in that it set the stage for SNS in the mainstream. Friendster was launched in 2002 as a social complement to Ryze, as a way to compete with an online dating website called Match.com (Cohen, 2003). At the time, most dating websites were focused on having two complete strangers meet and build relationships, instead of going this route Friendster attempted to have friends-of-friends meet, based on the assumption that friends-of-friends would make better romantic partners than would strangers (J. Abrams, 2003). Friendster gained traction among three groups of early adopters who shaped the site—bloggers, attendees of the Burning Man arts festival where it was put on display, and the gay and lesbian community (Boyd, 2004)—and “grew to 300,000 users through word of mouth before traditional press coverage began in May 2003” (O’Shea, 2003).

With this surge in users, Friendster began to encounter problems (Boyd, 2006). The sites’ serves and its database could not handle this amount of activity and the site crashed often, frustrating users who replaced email with Friendster. Because organic growth had been essential to creating a functioning community, the massive intake of new users who learned about the site from media coverage upset the cultural balance. Furthermore, exponential growth meant a collapse in social contexts: Users were no longer just interacting with their friends, they also were seeing their former classmates, coworkers and bosses join Friendster. This complicated growth in the community would be something that changed online networks forever.

Friendster initially was designed to only allow users to view the profiles of those that were within “4 degrees” (friends-of-friends-of-friends-of-friends) of their profile. If a profile was outside of this connection, their profile could not be viewed. Of course, this did not sit well with users who wanted to get to know random users. To connect with these additional profiles, users began adding acquaintances and interesting-looking strangers to expand their network. Some users decided to connect with as many friends as possible, an activity that was implicitly encouraged through a “most popular” feature. This led to people creating entirely fake profiles, posing as popular icons in culture, such as movie starts and musicians. These “Fakesters” outraged the company, who banished fake profiles and eliminated the “most popular” feature (Boyd).

The companies attempts to delete Fakesters (and genuine users who chose non-realistic photos) were warning flags that the company did not share its users’ interests. Due to technical difficulties, social collisions, and a rupture of trust between users and the site, many early adopters quit Friendster and interest in the site faded (Boyd).

Myspace Takes Over Mainstream
In 2003 and onward, a plethora of SNS’ were launched, prompting social software analyst Clay Shirky (2003) to coin the term YASNS: “Yet Another Social Networking Service.” The vast majority of these sites tried to be centered around user profile-type communities, as an attempt to copy Friendster and target specific demographics. In addition to this, as social media became popular and user-generated content turned into a phenomena, websites focused on media sharing began implementing SNS features and becoming SNSs themselves. Examples include Flickr (photo sharing), Last.FM (music listening habits), and YouTube (video sharing) (Boyd). With the vast majority of these SNS’ being developed in Silicon Valley, few people paid attention to SNSs that rose to prominence around the globe, even those built by major corporations. Although being very popular in Europe, Google’s Orkut failed to catch on and gain a large U.S. user base. Microsoft’s Windows Live Spaces also failed to gain a warm U.S. reception but became extremely popular elsewhere.

When Myspace was launched in Santa Monica, California, few people were paying attention it seemed. As MySpace began to compete with sites like Friendster, Xanga, and AsianAvenue, according to co-founder Tom Anderson the founders wanted to attract estranged Friendster users (Boyd). As rumors began to go viral that Friendster was about to start charging a fee to use its site, these estranged users began posting on blogs encouraging other users to join other SNS’, including Tribe.net and MySpace (Boyd). This fueled MySpace’s growth by allowing them to capitalize on Friendster’s alienation of its early adopters. One group in particular that joined Myspace were independent rock bands that had been kicked off of Friendster for failing to comply with Friendster’s user profile agreements.

This proved to be an unintentional way to spread Myspace even further. “Indie-rock bands from the Los Angeles region began creating profiles, and local promoters used MySpace to advertise VIP passes for popular clubs. Intrigued, MySpace contacted local musicians to see how they could support them” (Boyd). Rock bands were not the only source of this growth, but the symbiotic relationship between bands and their fans helped MySpace find a way to expand beyond just former Friendster users. This relationship between these bands and their fans proved mutually beneficial to both, as bands were able to advertise and promote themselves, and fans could show allegiance to these bands by adding them as friends and leaving public comments on the bands profile pages. This has led to invaluable exposure for bands, as well as groups that focus on music scenes.

Alex Batess, an administrator of an up and coming music and lifestyles community described a situation detailing how his network has bridged the gap between online and offline work and helped the community accomplish projects while using SNS tools such as Myspace:

Thanks to the use of Myspace, John Lucas, another admin of our network, was able to contact a band, Outlaw Order, about filming their concert when they played in Houston, Texas and if he would be able to conduct an exclusive interview sometime during the night with the band members. Once he got in touch with the band and was given the okay for the interview, John, did the interview and recorded the band’s entire set. Within the next 24 hours, our group uploaded both the interview and show and created the pages on our site for them. As soon as it was up, I made a post on our blog announcing the new material we had just added to the site. And since several of us have our blog’s RSS feed imported to our Facebooks, the blog post also appeared on our Facebook walls, allowing for more people to see it. While I was posting the blog announcement, John was uploading a teaser of the concert onto Youtube with a link to the show’s page in its Youtube description. The greatest accelerator to getting the word out was band themselves also posting a blog on their Myspace to further spread the news of the new exclusive content that we had just added. All of this eventually led to new people joining our message board and adding us on various SNS, not to mention, increase traffic through the website. Without all these SNS, not only would be have a much more difficult time spreading the word of it but we probably wouldn’t have ever been able to contact the band and plan any of this out.

To further show its ability to listen to its users, Myspace regularly added new features that were suggested by users (Boyd) and by allowing users to personalize their pages. This ability to add HTML to existing profile pages was unique and set Myspace apart from other SNS’ that had become before it (Perkel). By its second year, teenagers in America began joining Myspace in large numbers. Unlike many of the early adopters of Myspace, most teens were never on Friendster. Some of these teens joined to connect with bands they were listening to, or by hearing about the site through older family members. Soon teens were telling their friends about Myspace, and word of mouth led to more and more members signing up. Seeing this as an opportunity to expand, Myspace did away with its age limit policy and allowed underage users. As Myspace began to grow, three distinct populations began to form: musicians/artists, teenagers, and urban socialites. These last two groups had little interaction with one another except through bands. Myspace had yet to reach mainstream heights, although that would soon change.

By 2005 Myspace was gaining several million users a month. This led to the News Corporation purchasing MySpace for $580 million (BBC, 2005), which attracted massive media attention.

Facebook and Niche Communities
Other SNSs were started to support niche demographics before growing to encompass a larger audience of users. One of these rose from the group and would eventually become large enough to challenge even Myspace. This site was called Facebook. What set it apart from other SNSs was that Facebook was designed to support distinct college networks only. “Facebook began in early 2004 as a Harvard-only SNS” (Cassidy, 2006). To join, a user had to have a harvard.edu email address. Facebook began to grow and include other universities, the only requirement was that users had to use a university email address, which kept the site relatively closed and unique, and “contributed to users’ perceptions of the site as an intimate, private community” (Boyd).

In September of 2005, Facebook expanded and allowed high school students, professionals inside corporate networks to join and form their networks. Soon after this, everyone was allowed to join. However, these users that joined were still limited to their specific network, and no one could view profiles on specific networks without that networks specific email address. To join a high school network, one has to gain approval from that networks administrator. The only way to get around this is by changing a privacy setting to allow anyone access to view a profile. A major feature on Facebook is the ability for outside developers to build “Applications” which users may add to their profiles as well as perform certain functions, such as show support for favorite sports teams or musicians and chart travel histories.

Figure 1(wan-press.org) Shows that Facebook has caught Myspace in visitors to the site.

How Interest Based Online Communities Adapt
The steady growth of SNSs shows a change in the organization of online communities. Before, there used to be a distinct line between online communities based on common interest, as SNSs were primarily organized around people, not interests. “Early public online communities such as Usenet and public discussion forums were structured by topics or according to topical hierarchies, but social network sites are structured as personal (or “egocentric”) networks, with the individual at the center of their own community” (Boyd). This setup mirrored unmediated social structures, where “the world is composed of networks, not groups” (Wellman). However, as SNS’ continue to add new features that allow users to associate themselves with their offline interest and passions, this distinction has been blurred. There is now the ability on Facebook to form groups for topics, musicians, sports figures, and a myriad of other interests that users wish to display public support for. Within theses groups, discussion with other users is possible, therefore becoming a feature that previously only was possible on interest based online sites such as message boards. The development of these SNS features has introduced a new organizational framework for online communities.

To co-exist with SNS’, online communities have begun to incorporate tools that allow SNS’ features to exist within the community. Blogging services with complete SNS features have become popular. In the U.S., blogging tools with SNS features, such as Xanga, LiveJournal, and Vox, have all been able to attract new users. Phpbb3, a message board that is actually an evolution of the bulletin board, now allows its users to develop modifications, much like Facebook and its applications, and with these “mods” users are able to incorporate features that allow users on the board to display info from their SNS’ sites, such as Youtube, Last.fm, and instant messenger services (Douglas).

Figure 2(Tyronehood.com) A profile on a phpbb3 message board showing features linking to SNS’ sites that the member is on, including Youtube, Flickr, Twitter, Myspace, and Facebook. A chart showing the members recently played tracks imported from Last.FM is shown at the bottom. These features are imported using RSS feeds.

Bridging the Gap
A co-founder of an online community had this to say about his group’s ability to coordinate offline activity between its members using online tools provided by SNS’ and the group’s message board:

In a very short amount of time, both the number of social networking sites, SNS, and the possibilities they offer have increased by leaps and bounds. In July of 2008, just over half a year ago, the online community that I helped found decided to plan and host its first offline meet up in Daytona, Florida. Back then the only tools we used to plan the meet up was our message board and our Facebook group page. After the meet up was over and everyone was back in their home states, we used a couple other SNS, Youtube and Flickr, to host all our videos and pictures which could be tagged and linked back to our site. Now, in January 2009, the planning process has just begun for Daytona in July again, making this the 1 year anniversary of our first offline meet up. The only difference this time is the use of many more SNS being used. Everything from micro-blogging sites such as Twitter and Plurk to feeds like Friendfeed and Plaxo Pulse. And just about every other SNS we could find. Since our first meet up, we’ve found joined almost every new SNS we could find, then joined them and started using them. Now, this year, thanks to all these new SNS combined with the message board, we’ll be able to plan and coordinate the meet up better among our members who are scattered all over the nation. Then, we after the meet up, we’ll have more options for sharing the event with everyone else. Again, Youtube and Flickr and tagging all the videos and photos but also, everyone’s updates on their Twitters and Plurks. With about four months before the actual meet up and the rate of these new SNS, who knows what we’ll be using before we’re all hanging out in Florida.

These offline actions coordinated online are the tip of the iceberg for what is possible using SNS’ and online communities. These communication tools have powerful ramifications in a world that is seeking to communicate and discuss events that are impacting multiple nations and cultures.

An e-Revolution
There have been several incidents that have occurred since the rise of online communities that point to significant accomplishments offline being done by groups organizing online. As SNS’ continue to play a role in organization among interest groups with lofty goals such as impacting the political atmosphere, governments will be forced to take notice and adjust how they deal with internet access in their countries. These online communities are capable of a “e-revolutions”, presented in “…alternative model of secession consisting of free and independent virtual communities, which can help the majority undermine a powerful minority without recourse to unnecessarily violent total wars of ideological revolution… such as were used to usher in this era of democracy under so-called leaders from Napoleon Bonaparte to Woodrow Wilson” (Behr).

By organizing groups online, it is possible to gather an enormous amount of attention to a particular cause or interest. With no physical limitations, all types of potential people can be notified of groups that they may become very passionate about, despite never meeting any of its other members face to face. An example of this is shown in Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organization”. A man had left his cell phone in a New York taxi cab, and when his attempts to retrieve the phone from the girl who had found it in the cab were rebuffed, he did not go away; he went online. First, he made a website for his cause, laying the groundwork for what was about to become a very goal driven online community that would attract a myriad of users from all over the globe that without this community, would have never interacted with one another in the first place. As the story was circulated around the internet using various forms of social networking, the cause picked up steam and the phone’s owner sent the story to Digg, and online news site. This further escalated the situation and attracted more and more people interested in seeing justice served. A message board was set up to allow these people a way to voice their thoughts and opinions, as well as discuss the situation with one another. This “internet army” gained so much steam that it led to NYPD taking the matter seriously, instead of blowing it off as they had previously tried to do, and to make a long story short, the phone was retrieved and a victory for an online community had been won. Without the ability to form communities online, this would have never occurred, meaning just a few short years ago the phone would have been lost forever and hundreds of people around the world would have never even known about it.

While using the ability to organize online and rally to a cause is a powerful new tool, it doesn’t stop at rescuing phones or discussing petty theft online with strangers. Entire countries governments now have to feel the wrath of online networks. One of the first large scale displays of this occurred in Belarus in May of 2006. Unhappy with an oppressive government that many believed rigged the previous election; Belarusian youth used LiveJournal to organize a “flash mob”, which exhibits spontaneous yet synchronized behavior. This mob would determine a date and time to assemble by checking the LiveJournal page. On the 15th of that month, the flash mob met and simultaneously began eating ice cream. The police were ready for a mob, and despite the mob not showing a display of violence, began arresting all of the ice cream eaters. This was documented with photos that were uploaded to the LiveJournal page as well as a photo sharing network site called Flickr. Using these social networks to coordinate the flash mob and in turn show the results, the Belarusian government was shown to be the oppressive state that it was (Shirky).

In the past year alone, there have been several international protests initiated by groups using Facebook. The country of Venezuela is estimated to have ten percent of its country on Facebook, so with support for its leader, Hugo Chavez, in a state of controversy lately, it’s thought to be only a matter of time before Facebook is used to launch a protest. A group was set up on Facebook to see if it could find 1,000 people that were displeased with Chavez as a leader. As of now, it has attracted over 55 thousand members, enough to gain attention worldwide in mainstream media outlets.

These governments that do not seem willing to accept the rise of social media fit the description Trippi uses to describe companies following archaic business models that are unwilling to change and adapt to the wave of new technology and the internet age. It comes as no surprise that a political figure that did embrace these social media tools is now the president of the United States of America. Networks such as Facebook allowed supporters of Barack Obama to gather support across the internet. “…a twenty six year old in Columbia Missouri was so excited about Barack Obama’s candidacy that he started a group on Facebook.com named “One Million Strong for Barack.” I didn’t know who the hell the guy was – no one knew who the hell the guy was – but by the time I joined Edwards in April, just six weeks later, more than four thousand people had joined…..More than four hundred thousand in just six weeks. Oh, shit” (Trippi). And none of this was organized by Obama’s campaign. Seeing online communities for the powerful tool that it is, Obama embraced this type of movement by his supporters and hired Chris Hughes, one of Facebooks founders, to become Obama’s online social networks director. As the balance of power shifts and a new President assumes his duties while embracing this new technology and social tool, it is apparent that social networking sites and online communities are here to stay, in an evolving state that shows adoption of features that previously were unique to each type of media. Eventually they may very well considered versions of the same type of social media.

In conclusion, these tools are on a path to being hybrids of each other, and will exist as communication tools that span both our online and offline lives.

REFERENCES

Batess, A. (2009) Telephone Interview.

Behr, S. (2009) Facebook Interview.

Boyd, D & Ellison, N (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), article 11. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol13/issue1/boyd.ellison.html

Chafkin, M. (2007). How to kill a great idea! Inc. Magazine. Retrieved February 1, 2009 from http://www.inc.com/magazine/20070601/features-how-to-kill-a-great-idea.html

Douglass, R. T., Little, M., Smith, J. W. (2005). Building Online Communities With Drupal, phpBB, and WordPress, Apress.

Preece, J., Maloney-Krichmar, D. and Abras, C. (2003) History of Online Communities (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Community: From Village to Virtual World. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Rheingold, H. (2002). Smart mobs: The next social revolution. Cambridge, MA: Perseus
Publishing.

Shirky, Clay. (2008). Here comes everybody : the power of organizing without organizations / Clay Shirky Penguin Press, New York :

Smith, M. A., & Kollock, P. (1999). Communities in cyberspace. London, UK: Routledge.

Trippi, J. (2008) The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, The Internet, and The Overthrowing of Everything. New York: Harper.

One Response to “The Present and Future of Online Communities”


  1. […] Past of Online Communities The Present and Future of Online Communities Presentation Annotated […]

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