Community Effort in Online Groups: Who Does the Work and Why?

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Citation: Brian Butler, Lee Sproull, Sara Kiesler, Robert Kraut (2007) Community Effort in Online Groups: Who Does the Work and Why?.


Tagged: Computer Science (RSS) NatematiasGenerals (RSS), cooperation (RSS), community (RSS), sociology (RSS), review chapter (RSS), HCI (RSS), altruism (RSS), community building (RSS), community managing (RSS), mailing lists (RSS)


Why do people invest so much time to maintain the online communities they are part of? In this paper, the authors offer an overview of maintenance and leadership roles in online communities and present the results of a survey of listeserv owners. They conlude that "owners, who have a formal leadership role, do more of the effortful community building work than do regular members" but that "other members also take on some of the work." They also observe that "members who value different benefits are likely to contribute to the development of an online community in different ways."

What is Community Effort in Online Groups?

The paper offers an overview of social interaction online, ranging from conversations, questions, and commmerce. Across these different structures, the authors argue that "in all cases, these groups are faced with the communal challenge of developing and maintaining their existence as an identifiable social entity." Community effort is the effort required to do so. The paper offers useful references to literature on paid and unpaid variants of this work in communities that predate the Internet. The focus of this research seems to be primarily on volunteers rather than people who are paid to do online community work.

Online, community effort is conducted in collaboration between people and "technical tools and mechanisms to support online social interaction in groups," including mailing lists, bulletin boards, and chat services. People carrying out community effort must:

  • Tend the tools themselves (upgrading software, etc)
  • Recruit members to replace those who leave (annual drop out rates of 22% among list-servs were observed)
  • Manage social dynamics[1][2] (encouraging good norms, managing disputes, controling detrimental use)
  • Participate themselves

Many socio-technical systems require someone to take a leadership role, someone prominently identified in community descriptions and holding special privileges of moderation and delegation. The authors point to research suggesting that "a formal administrative role and in-role administrative behavior creates further administrative competence and psychological role identity, which encourages further commitment to the group." In online communities, they note that owners and leaders are often led to take on a greater proportion of the community effort than others.

The authors identify several benefits for participating in online communities, citing substantial literature for each benefit identifiead. People participate to:

  • gain information
  • build and maintain social ties
  • gain visibility beyond the boundaries of their local communities[3]
  • support the goals of the community (the authos consider this to be altruism)

The authors also speculate on contextual factors that influence the kind of community work required, including the size of the community and the the type/goals of the commuity.

Piliavin and Colleagues on Community and Volunteer Behaviour

Throughout the paper, the researchers set out to compare their results to research by Jane Piliavin and colleagues on altruism and prosocial behaviour. They reference research on "Helping behavior as role behavior"[4] and "Role-identity, organizational commitment, and volunteer peroformance"[5], which argue that people are more likely to help others when put into a role focused on helping. They also refer to Piliavin's book "Giving blood: The development of an altruistic identity." [6]



To study community work, the researchers surveyed a sample of members in 284 unmoderated, unrestricted public English-language list servers in 1998, including groups that were work-related and non-work-related. Medical and psychological support groups were excluded. They stratified their sample by:

  • List owners
  • Active participants (in the top 20 most active posters)
  • Silent participants

The resulting sample included 2992 people from 212 different lists, including 25 list owners, 273 active participants, and 87 silent participants.


  • Lists were coded as "non-work" or "work-related."
  • Group size was counted in Nov 1997
  • Content volume was the mean number of daily messages over 130 days
  • Respondents were surveyed on:
    • how many hours a week they spent reading, componing, and maintaining the list
    • whether or not they cross-posted messages to other groups
    • whether they mentioned their groups in their email signature
    • whether they sent private messages to discourage "off-topic" messages


From the survey results, the authors created six indices of community building activity:

  • Content Provision
  • Infrastructure Maintenance
  • Social Encouragement
  • Social Control
  • External Promotion
  • Audience Engagement

They also created indices of motivations:

  • Visibility benefits
  • Information benefits
  • Social benefits
  • Altruistic benefits


The authors present a series of tables exploring the experience of community building work. It's very much worth looking through the result tables themselves; here are some of the findings:

  • "members reported investing significant amounts of time in community building work, with an average of almost four hours a week" (19)
  • "owners did not differ significantly from either silent or active participants on the total time they expended in community building work" (20)
  • "Owners did significantly more of the active work of infrastructure maintenance, social control, and external promotion work than did other members" (20)
  • "There was no difference in the level of content provision of owners and active participants."
  • "Overall, the control variables of group type (non-work vs work-related) were not significant.
  • "Owners valued different community benefits than did other members...Owners perceived altruistic benefits to be significantly more important and information benefits to be significantly less important than did other members."
  • (Table 7 compares silent participants to owners across motivations and types of work.) The main interpretation from this table is that "the leadership role itself" when holding all else constant "accounts for some of the additional effort that owners contribute in active community building"
  • "The degree to which participants' valued benefits from the groups also predicted their community building work, over and above their type of membership and group attributes" (24)


Drawing from this analysis, the authors argue that "unlike what seems to happen in many real world groups and organizations, technical responsibility in online groups goes hand in hand with social responsibility." However, "despite this evidence that the formal leadership role is important, our data also show that other members also engage in time-consuming, community-building work." They also observe that contributors were more likely to engage in community building work if they knew more of the other contributors outside the mailing list.

The authors make one recommendation for leaders from their results: "if leaders want to increase community building work done by other members, they can focus on increasing the social benefits and relationships that members derive from the group."

Theoretical and practical relevance:

This paper offers a great overview of early research on community-building effort in online communities. Based on research up through the late 1990s, it also connects to related work within social psychology up to that point. Although I might pause before applying the quantitative results (or even the motivational framework) to our contemporary understanding of online communities, this paper offers a nice starting point for quantitative methodologies that can offer rich results for interpretation on the labor of community maintenance and management. -- Natematias (talk) 17:17, 11 February 2015 (UTC)

Notable References

  1. Kollock, P., & Smith, M. (1996) Managing the virtual commons: Cooperation and conflict in computer communities. In S.C. Herring (Eds.) Computer mediated communication: Linguistic, social, and cross-cultural perspectives (pp.226-242). Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing.
  2. Sproull, L. & Faraj, S. (1995). Atheism, sex, and databases: The net as a social technology. In Brian Kahin and James Keller (eds.), Public Access to the Internet (pp. 62-81). Cambridge: The MIT Press.
  3. Lerner, J., & Tirole, J. (2000, February 25). The simple economics of open source.
  4. Callero, P. L., Howard, J. A., & Piliavin, J. A. (1987). Helping behavior as a role behavior: disclosing social structure and history on the analysis of prosocial action. Social Psychology Quarterly, 50, 247-256.
  5. Grube, J. A., & Piliavin, J. A. (1996, May). Role Identity, organizational commitment, and volunteer perofrmance. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, Ann Arbor, MI.
  6. Piliavin, J. A., & Callero, P. (1991). Giving blood: The development of an altruistic identity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.