Monday, December 04, 2006

Online Community Research and Data

There's a new report out today, from USC's Annenberg Center for The Digital Future about online communities. There's some good data bits in the summary, including:

  • 2/3 of Americans are using the Internet at home
  • more women than men go online
  • 1/3 of Internet users watch less TV
  • People spend an average of 8.9 hours per week online
But the real excitement in the report comes around their discussion of online communities, and it is where my skeptical nature rears its ugly head. The report says they "found" that people who participate in online communities "feel as strongly" about their online community as they do about the real world.

I don't buy this. I mean, I believe that's what people said, but the truth is a little more complicated. That is, people say they find the online community as important as the offline, but they say this, in part, as a way of communicating how they want to be represented in the real world. They want to be seen as someone who is deeply in touch with an online world.

But, the fact is, online communities are, at their root, media. The real world, at its root, is the real world. There is not mediating agent between two people. Between two avatars, profiles or chat icons, there is. Does that mean that the interaction that takes place is meaningless? Of course not. Deep discussions have occurred online and I understand they have had an effect on people.

Advertisers, however, must be practical about their view of this space (and I am talking to advertisers here). This is a unique and novel media experience, of course. No one ever had a relationship with anything broadcast that approaches the relationship that people have with members of their buddy list.

Interacting in a community, though, remains an activity in which people engage, which is mediated by not only technology, but interface and the allowances made by the designers of the world.

That second part--allowances--is critical to understanding this distinction, partially because it allows us to think about telephones differently and distinctly. That is, you could argue (with me) that a telephone call between two people could be considered a media-activity, under my definition. But the phone remains a part of the real-world, in part because there is only a core feature: transmitting voices. There is no other significant allowances built in by the designers.

Ultimately, I believe we will come to understand online communities, and people's connections with them, along a spectrum, that will absolutely include media. So we will say that it is not watching television, but it is also not sitting down with someone.

Perhaps we can consider a break-up litmus test. That is, we can ask two questions: if you are done with the relationship, do you need to break up with the "person" on the other end, and--if so--can you do it over the medium. So, when you get sick of watching a tv show, you don't need to actually break up. You just stop watching. But if you are dating someone, can you break up with their avatar, and still feel good about yourself?
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Blogger Vera Bass said...

I'm wondering what the definition of online communities was, after reading your post and the highlights of the report.

If blogs are being called communities, then I agree with your skepticism.

There are, however, numerous long standing forum communities where members do act as stated and also form real long term relationships. Personally, I've found this far more often where the majority of community members are women.


6:51 PM  
Blogger Gary Stein said...

The gender split is a good point. I definitely need to do more research. I think I am starting with a healthy skepticism, though. That is, I hear what the audience is saying, but I am not entirely sure that I understand why they are saying it.

10:02 AM  
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