Within online communities exist people who gather together to form groups – or guilds if you’re a gamer. Groups are generally the result of a joint interest beyond that which brought them together in the community in the first place. Many communities welcome groups as they increase the number of postings or bring together experts in a particular field. In video games such as World of Warcraft the formation of guilds is imperative in completing many of the given tasks. Although it brings rewards such as being able to defeat more enemies, being in such a group can lead to devastating results.

In November 2005, online gamer ‘Snowly’ died after playing World of Warcraft continuously for several days. It is said that she was a key member of a particular guild who were preparing for a big battle within the game. As a leader, Snowly felt much pressure was placed upon her… if the guild failed in their battle, she would feel personally responsible – despite it only being a world of virtual reality. This kind of behaviour can be linked to B.F. Skinner’s theories on group formation in that Snowly gained much reward from supporting others with tasks.

In one report regarding the death of Snowly, it is said that she had told friends “that she felt very tired”. This shows some degree of bystander apathy. Instead of continuing with the quest, her friends should have advised her to rest which would have saved her life. Hiding behind a gamer identity can affect feelings and responsibility for your own actions. Couple this with being part of a very large guild and nobody felt it was their place to speak up (“Why should I? Someone else will do it…”).

Following her death, 100’s of gamers gathered in a particular place within in the game for a virtual funeral. Although many of these will have been genuinely mourning her death, I think it is fair to say the vast majority will have only attended because of compliance… acting as expected within a group. As it was such a large guild many of the members may have never even come into contact with Snowly. If they did not attend, however, this would have sent out negative messages regarding their loyalty to the guild and so went along so they were not the odd one out.

Have you experienced being part of a group in an online community? What did you gain from it?

In 1970, R. F. Bales released a book titled ‘Personality and Interpersonal Behaviour’. It dealt with the communication patterns between a group of people. This has since been used to analyse online communities using what is commonly known as Bales’ Interaction Process Analysis (or IPA). IPA contains 12 different categories which can be used to breakdown the communication within a given environment.

It was interesting to notice when comparing the different communities which I visit just how much they differed from one another using the IPA. On social network sites such as Facebook, the majority of the discussions, as I expected, fell under the social-emotional heading at number 2 (Shows tension release, laughs, jokes, shows satisfaction). What surprised me, however, was that the majority of the communities I am part of followed the same trend.

Despite being dedicated to a specific video game, the discussion forum PESGaming.com also fell under category 2 when analysing a number of topics. It seemed although people had gathered in the community for shared enjoyment of a video game, once they were there they wanted to talk socially as opposed to discussing the game its self. The only community where I found predominantly task orientated topics was SitePoint.com – but even then, over a third of the topics I looked at began as task orientated but quickly turned social and falling under the same category as Facebook.  This thread is a good example of this happening.

Certainly from my own observations, the web seems to becoming much more of a social environment as opposed to task related; people are using the Internet as a second form of socialising.

In the early days of the WWW, nobody wanted to be anonymous. The whole point of Internet based communities was to interact with people who you would not normally meet and share your life experiences. These days, the trend has shifted and many now use the Internet as a way of hiding away from their ‘real life’ issues.

In almost all of the communities I have encountered there is no certainty people are who they say they are. In fact, I dare say only the Leeds Metropolitan message boards which I use are the only place I can be almost sure of the persons identity. Even on Facebook, a social network which prides it’s self on the privacy of it’s users, there is the possibility of users creating accounts under fake identities.

In many situations it is harmless, but there are occasions when it can spill over into the ‘real world’ and become a ‘real’ problem.

In a blog on which I write news there was a particular post which harboured much attention this week. The entry had over 300 comments in 24 hours and became a nightmare to moderate. Because the blog did not require users to sign up, there were hundreds of comments where the username was simply listed as ‘anonymous’. Not only is this a problem for me as a moderator, but also for users as it became almost impossible to reply to individual comments.

Furthermore, a user decide to post a telephone number claiming it was that of a local game shop (to save explaining in full what all the comments were about, have a quick read here). It turned out to in fact be the home telephone number of a friend who he wanted to annoy. I received a phone call at 2am from a very irate chap asking why his number was plastered all over our blog. Of course I explained it was not us who had posted the number, but nevertheless apologised as it was my fault for not putting in place a better system for stopping this kind of commenting. Need less to say we have since improved our commenting system, but there is nothing stopping people signing up with false names and e-mail addresses.

As the Internet and it’s communities continue to expand, I dare say the problems with anonymity will only grow. But then there is the problem of just what to do about it. Is there any way around these kind of issues without asking everyone for a N.I. number on sign-up?

Anyone who has spent time using message boards or social networking will be fairly familiar with the concept of being misunderstood. We can often try our hardest to put forward a well structured argument, only for another user to turn it around and take it as something totally different.

As an administrator of a forum myself (see last week’s entry), I regularly find conflicts starting between users because one of them read a post in a way other than how it was intended. The most difficult type of conversing is that which includes ironic humour. Here is an example of such usage where it was misinterpreted:

Originally posted by user ‘Darren’ at PESGaming
I think we should sign Essien. They’ll take 5 million plus Essien won’t want to stay.

In this instance, ‘Darren’ was referring to Manchester United football club signing Michael Essien from Chelsea for a low sum. Many users picked up on the fact he was being sarcastic, due to the fact Manchester United already have far too many central midfield players as it is. However, several users responded as if believing what he had suggested:

Originally posted by ‘MUFCDean’

Are you a complete idiot, why on earth would we need another centre mid? Thank **** you are not the manager.

Fortunately, the original poster ‘Darren’ corrected ‘MUFCDean’ and the matter was closed. But there are many occasions when this is not the case and users can start arguments.

Let’s look at the style which ‘Darren’ used. His tone was very formal that the format and, to the untrained eye, could easily be looked upon in the same way in which ‘MUFCDean’ viewed it. When conversing online it is often recommended you should include a smiley if you intend on including sarcasm or ironic humour. It lightens the atmosphere, makes people feel at ease and generally a ‘wink’ is accepted as meaning you are not being entirely serious.

Of course, in the professional environment, this practice is not recommended. Posting smiley faces at the end of the account figures for the month just to cheer up the boss is not going to win you praise!

Thank you for stopping by. My name is Peter Willis, a student (and webmaster, but I’ll get to that shortly!) at Leeds Metropolitan University in the final year of a degree studying Web Media Management. As part of my final year I am currently doing a module looking at online communities.

When we talk about online communities, just what is it that we mean? For me an online community can be just about anything where we are conversing with others via the Internet as opposed to face-to-face. The two most obvious examples of these would be discussion forums and social networking. But there are a whole range of other unique communities where it may not be instantly recognisable as being a community such as deviantArt (artwork sharing), World of Warcraft (computer game) and del.icio.us (social bookmarking).

On a personal level, I actively partake in around 5 different online communities – Facebook, SitePoint, PESFan, YouTube and DigitalPoint. Each of these has their own unique characteristics, which gives me a broader prospective when looking at the issues which arise in communities. I also administer several discussion forums of my own, one of which has over 100,000 members (PESGaming) which gives me some great background knowledge.

Over the next 12 weeks I will be taking a look at the various aspects of online communities.

Something which came up during my first tutorial for the module was the issue of SHOUTING. I went on to raise the issue in the online discussion forum where other students can share their thoughts. The general consensus seemed to be that using capital letters for entire words or phrases is a big no-no online. Apparently, some American geeks decided in the 90’s that it was to be deemed ‘shouting’.

For me, I think there are certain instances where it IS acceptable to make use of capitals to highlight keywords (OK, so that was a bit of a poor example there on the ‘is’, but you get the idea!). I much prefer this method to the suggested ‘bolding’ of words or phrases. This is not to say, however, that the director of a company should send out memos in bold capital letters. This approach can easily be deemed patronizing by the reader.

On that note I will leave you to get on with your travels around the web. Next week I’ll take a look at the problem of being misunderstood online.