Membership Size, Communication Activity, and Sustainability: A Resource-Based Model of Online Social Structures
The article opens with an introduction to the emerging importance of digital communication networks for social interaction. These networks promise to "support significant social activity," but the availability of communication systems is not sufficient for social activity. Social structures are also needed. Electronic infrastructure does not automatically provide social structures. However, computer-mediated-communication systems can "encourage the emergence of sustainable online social structures."
This article draws from theories of social structures to develop a "resource-based model of social structure sustainability." The key idea behind the model is that social structures must confer benefits to members in order to persist. The development of sustainable social structures over communication networks depends on the ability of social structures to transform resources into benefits.
Group size in a key variable in the model. Since larger groups provide more resources, they may be more likely to survive. There is a feedback loop between members and benefits: Members are a key resource. The social activity of members transforms resources into benefits, but providing benefits is essential for attracting and retaining members. Membership also reflects the "audience resources" that provide benefits like visibility.
On the other hand, group size can also increase the cost of transforming resources into benefits. These derive from logistical and communication problems and from social loafing and free-riding.
Butler sees the advantages and disadvantages as very complex and nonlinear, affecting member attraction and retention in different ways, and leading to dynamics that are difficult to predict. In the end, empirical evidence from group studies suggests that sustainable social structures tend to be small. Larger groups often use internal structures like teams, internal organizations, and roles to enable larger sustainable social structures.
One of the big promises of computer mediated communication for organizations is the possibility of further enabling large sustainable social structures. Butler enumerates several ways CMC might do this:
- Enable "flatter" organizations with more fluid processes
- Using group support systems that draw together more knowledge and aggregate the efforts of more people
- Buffering and archiving to reduce logistical problems
- Anonymity and pseudo-anonymity reduce psychological effects of sizes
Social structures over digital networks use communication activity to transform resources into value. As with group size a larger amount of communication activity may increase the benefits to members, but may also create problems like increasing the amount of noise users experience. The interaction of communication volume and variation determines the benefits to each individual. The costs associated with communication activity includes the direct costs in time, energy, and attention used in communication. Even audience members who receive communication contribute resources and incure costs. Again as with group size, internal structures and technologies can be used to alter the cost structure of communication activity and enable sustainable structures. These include
- Formal summaries and agendas
- Content filtering
- new text-based communication technologies
The resource-based model has three components:
- Resource availability (e.g. membership size)
- Benefit Creation Process (e.g. communication activity)
- Member attraction/retention (membership growth and loss, sustainability).
The causal structure of model is a cycle that goes from member attraction/retention to resource availability, from resource availability to member attraction/retention and to benefit creation process and from benefit creation process to member attraction/retention. Instead of treating communication activity or group size as fixed and allowing the other to vary, this model sees both variables as dynamic.
To study how technologically mediated communication might be used to support sustainable social structures by mitigating some of the costs of communication activity and group size, Butler applies the model to analyze a sample of listservs. At the time (2001) these were perhaps the single most used medium for online communities. He used a stratified sample of 1066 listservs to make sure that his sample had a diversity of topics. He removed groups that had identifiable internal structures like moderators, newsletters, or "formal new-member screening." After applying these inclusion criteria, he had a sample of 206 listservs.
The key measures in the study are size (number of active members), communication activity (number of broadcast messages), communication variation (1 - the concentration of messages across threads), and membership gain and loss. The analysis is longitudinal with measures constructed for each month.
He used time-series log-linear, random-effect, regression models. He fit three models and used F-tests to find support for the structure of the model. According to the models, group size is positively related to communication activity, and to both member gain and member loss. Communication activity is positively related to member gain and member loss, while communication variation is only positively related to member loss. To check that the relationship between group size and member loss was not just because big groups have more to lose, he also fit a model predicting proportional member loss instead of the number of members lost and the results held up. This also lets him estimate how much of membership gain and membership loss is attributable to group size and how much is attributable to communication variance using a t-test between the two models. He estimates that about 23% of member attraction and 44% of membership loss are due to group size.
In discussion, Butler emphasizes that the central contribution of this framework and analysis is to treat resources like membership and the communication activity process not as "outcomes predicted by a set of factors" but as "a set of opposing forces that serve to simultaneously promote and hinder the processes of change. In particular he calls out critical mass theory for ignoring the role of communication activity and systems. It is important to think about both group size and "the type and volume of communication activity" when it comes to understanding the growth and survival of online communities. He suggests that future work add other aspects to the resource-based framework. For example you might consider the role of internal structures and variation between different sorts of technologies (e.g. whether messages are pushed like email or pulled like www). He doesn't think that CMC is going to fundamentally change the model. Even though it will change some parameters of the model like communication costs, online social structures still have to balance the positive and negative aspects of size and communication activity as do traditional groups.
Theoretical and practical relevance:
This is an early and very influential model that not only applies extant theories of group communication to study online communication, but actually develops a new and improved model of the survival of social structures inspired by online communities and tested using data from listservs.