Blogs as Virtual Communities: Identifying a Sense of Community in the
Anita Blanchard, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Blogs as Virtual Communities: Identifying a Sense of Community
Researchers, practitioners, and the media have used
the term virtual community to refer to vastly different computer-mediated
communication (CMC) groups. EBay, a soap opera newsgroup, The WELL, a website
for wristwatch enthusiasts, and more have all been referred to as virtual
communities (Baym, 1995; Boyd, 2002; Rheingold, 1993; Rothaermel & Sugiyama,
2001). Should blogs be considered virtual communities, too?
To answer this question, we must understand,
first, why virtual communities are considered important, and, second, what
the characteristics of a virtual community are. Then, we must determine if
at least some blogs have these characteristics.
Why are Virtual Communities Important?
The term "virtual community" is used quite
frequently. Some definitions of virtual community have become so broad that
they essentially refer to any CMC group (Bieber, Engelbart, Furuta, & Hiltz,
2002; Evans, Wedande, Ralston, & van 't Hul, 2001; Falk, 1999; Kardaras,
Karakostas, & Papathanassiou, 2003).
Some community analysts might argue that calling any online group a virtual
community represents yet another example of the overuse of the term "community"
to the point that concept has lost any real meaning (Harris, 1999).
But why does this overuse exist? What is
so important about being a virtual "community" that all these CMC groups claim
to be one? The answer to this question is twofold. First, virtual communities
are considered important for social reasons. As CMC groups initially became
popular, community activists argued that they would help replace the relationships
lost as people became more isolated from their neighbors (Rheingold, 1993; Schuler, 1996). Some researchers even argued that virtual
communities could allow people to connect with others from around the world
who share similar interests (Wellman & Guilia, 1999) This would not necessarily create a global
village, but it would expand a person's village around the globe (Hampton & Wellman, 2001). As people became more connected with others
through these virtual communities, they would reap the benefits of social
relationships with like minded others.
More locally, researchers have argued that
virtual communities can increase involvement within people's face-to-face
communities by increasing democratic participation and other community activism
(Bakardjieva & Feenberg, 2002; Blanchard
& Horan, 1998; Schuler, 1996). Some researchers have even empirically shown that participation
in virtual communities can increase participation in face-to-face communities
(Blanchard, in press; Wellman, Haase, Witte,
& Hampton, 2001). So
there are arguments for and evidence of the positive social effects of virtual
A second, more practical, reason for the
importance of virtual communities relates to the CMC group's sustainability.
The term "community" implies an emotionally positive effect to which even
critics of the use of the term agree (Harris, 1999). Information science professionals and
psychologists argue that this positive emotion creates an intrinsically rewarding
reason to continue participation in the group (Kuo, 2003; Whitworth & De Moor, 2003).
When participants experience feelings of community, they are more likely to
increase or maintain their participation in the virtual communities. Additionally,
the lack of this feeling among participants may be the key to explaining the
frequent demise of many CMC groups. A virtual community, therefore, is more
likely to be self-sustaining than a "regular" virtual group, and sustainability
is a goal important to both for the sponsors and the participants of any particular
Overall, then, virtual communities have
both social and practical importance. The key, however, is that not all virtual
groups are virtual communities. The next sections will describe the characteristics
of a virtual community and then examine whether the newest form of popular
virtual groupings, blogs, demonstrate at least some of these characteristics.
What are Virtual Communities?
Jones (1997) argues that researchers need
to differentiate between the technology on which the virtual group exists
and the actual virtual community. Jones (1997)
proposes, and others concur (Liu, 1999; Nocera, 2002), that we should first consider the virtual
settlement within which virtual communities exist. Jones defines virtual
settlements as the virtual place in which people interact. He uses the analogy
of archaeology to develop his model: archaeologists understand a village by
understanding the cultural artifacts (e.g., arrowheads, pots, etc.) that they
find. Similarly, Jones argues that we can understand virtual communities
by understanding the artifacts of its virtual settlement: its postings, structure
Jones (1997) proposes that a virtual settlement exists when there are a)
a minimal number of b) public interactions c) with a variety of communicators
in which d) there is a minimal level of sustained membership over a period
of time. Additionally, Jones (1997) submits that even though virtual communities
and virtual settlements are conceptually separate, if one finds a virtual
settlement, then one has found a virtual community. He adds that the feelings
and social relationships that develop within the virtual settlement help distinguish
a virtual community from a virtual group.
Although Jones (1997) regards these feelings as important, he does not provide much
insight into their nature. Blanchard and Markus (2003), however, do focus on these feelings, defining them as a psychological
sense of community. They go further than Jones and argue that sense
of community is an essential characteristic of virtual communities. Essentially,
virtual settlements are necessary, but not sufficient conditions for a virtual
community. It is the sense of community that distinguishes virtual communities
from mere virtual groups.
What is Sense of Community?
Sense of community (SOC) has been the focus
for face-to-face (FtF) community researchers for some time. McMillan and Chavis
(1986) have the most well-regarded and well-researched conceptualization of
SOC. They define SOC as consisting of the following four characteristics:
- Feelings of membership: Feelings of belonging to, and identifying with,
- Feelings of influence: Feelings of having influence on, and being influenced
by, the community;
- Integration and fulfillment of needs: Feelings of being supported by others
in the community while also supporting them; and
- Shared emotional connection: Feelings of relationships, shared history,
and a "spirit" of community.
Many researchers have adopted this conceptualization
of SOC (e.g., Garc�a, Giuliani, & Wiesenfeld,
1999; Zaff & Devlin, 1998).
Other researchers have modified the SOC measure with varying degrees of success
(e.g., Burroughs & Eby, 1998; Hughey,
Speer, & Peterson, 1999).
Still others have created their own measure of SOC (Royal & Rossi, 1999; Schuster, 1998;
Skj�veland, G�rling, & M�land, 1996).
Even McMillan (1996) later reconceptualized SOC to include more of the "spirit"
and "art" of communities. Nonetheless, McMillan and Chavis's definition is
considered the strongest (Chipuer & Pretty, 1999). Chipuer and Pretty have even criticized
these and other researchers' continual redefinitions of the SOC concept, arguing
that such efforts do not build on the theoretical strengths of McMillan and
Chavis's model of SOC.
Research on SOC in virtual communities has
not been as prolific. However, some researchers have reported findings similar
to what has been reported in FtF SOC. They report the existence of:
- Membership, boundaries,
belonging, and group symbols (Baym, 1995, 1997; Curtis, 1997; Greer,
2000; Herring, 1999; Kollock & Smith, 1996; Markus, Manville, & Agres,
2000; Phillips, 1996);
- Influence, in terms
of enforcing and challenging norms (Baym, 1997; Kollock & Smith, 1996;
Markus, 1994a, 1994b; McLaughlin, 1995; Pliskin, 1997);
- Exchange of support
among members (Baym, 1995, 1997; Greer, 2000; Preece,
1999; Rheingold, 1993);
- Shared emotional
connections among members (Greer, 2000; Preece, 1999; Rheingold, 1993).
So there is evidence that SOC exists in
virtual communities. And there are arguments that SOC is essential to distinguish
virtual communities from mere virtual groups. Is it, therefore, possible for
blogs to be virtual communities?
Can Blogs Be Virtual Communities?
To answer this question, we must first determine
if blogs have the characteristics of a virtual settlement and then determine
what their sense of community is. Blogs, or weblogs, are interactive webpages
in which the blog owner, or author, posts regular updates. Blogs can be about
a particular topic, current events, or personal thoughts and expression, much
like that of a personal journal. As information is updated, it is added to
the "top" of the blog.
In addition to the space where the primary
information is updated, there may be places for readers to post comments about
the blog entries or to email the blog author. This creates two opportunities
for interaction on the blog for the readers: one with the blog author and
one with other readers.
Additionally, blogs can have links to other Internet
sites. Sometimes these are links to online newspaper articles or other traditional
media. In other instances, these are links to websites to which the author
refers in his/her entries (e.g., restaurants, stores and other people's homepages).
Often, there are lists of other blogs that the blog author reads, a technological
feature called a "blogroll." Blogs can develop networks of blogrolls which
refer to each other. That is, Blog A lists Blog B, C, and D in a blogroll.
Blog B lists Blogs, A, D, and F in a blogroll and Blog C lists Blog A, B,
F and E in a blogroll, etc..
From these characteristics, is it possible
that a blog could be a virtual settlement? Some researchers would argue "no."
From the definition, virtual settlements need public interaction among
a minimal number of participants. On a blog, instead of the many-to-many communication
found in much group CMC, there tends to be a one-to-many form of communication
from the author to the readers, especially on the main blog page.
Readers who wish to read the comments or
to comment themselves may have to move off the main page onto a separate space
for comments. Some blogs don't even have a place for comments. Thus, from
Jones's (1997) perspective, the lack of public interaction would preclude
a blog from being a virtual settlement and, thus, from being a virtual community.
Others might argue that at least some blogs
could be virtual settlements. Despite there being no place for public interaction
directly on the main page of the blog, blogs do offer interactivity.
Blogs are regularly updated. So the author is clearly interacting, through
updating, with the audience. In addition, there is clearly an audience as
indicated by the presence of comments. Even if the readers do not comment,
blog authors may know people are reading because of the number of "hits" or
visits to their blog site as reported through their blog software.
In addition, although the main page of the
blog is based on a one-to-many interaction, the blog author may interact individually
with his or her readers. This may occur through private email, thereby creating
private online interactions between the blog author and the readers. Some
blog authors even reference comments and emails from their readers within
their blog entries publicly opening up the interaction to the rest of the
participants. By definition, it would appear that blog authors are aware of
and writing to their audience. Thus, for the blog author in particular, there
There is also interaction between blogs
authors through blogrolls, the lists of other blogs that the blog author reads.
Readers can see which blogs the author fancies and click on a link to go to
the blog site. Blogrolls provide a link between blogs, inter-connecting them.
Additionally, through the blog's software, blogrolls allow the recipients
of the link to notice 1) that they have been added to someone's blogroll and
2) to identify who added them. Occasionally, the recipients of a blogroll
link will then add the referring blog to their own blogroll.
Blog authors will also refer to other blogs
in their posts. They may refer to something the other blog author wrote about
or simply encourage the readers to "check this blog out." Thus, blogs create
a social network between themselves through their references links to each
Finally, although comments may not be stored
on the main blog page, they are nevertheless included in a public space for
many-to-many communication. Commenters can communicate with the blog author
and each other, and readers can review these interactions. Thus, blogs with
active comments can have spaces for public interactions.
Is there something special about those who
choose to comment and those who do not? Those who choose not to read or respond
to comments in blogs are most similar to lurkers in other virtual communities.
Lurkers are members of a virtual community who regularly participate by reading
messages but do not contribute to the conversation. They are generally viewed
negatively by many researchers because they do not actively contribute to
the virtual community (Kollock & Smith, 1996). Nonetheless, lurkers may comprise the
vast majority of participants of a virtual community (Blanchard & Markus,
2003). Additionally, Blanchard and Markus (2003) report that lurkers do have a clear sense of community within
the virtual community, although it is weaker than that of the more active
members. It seems reasonable to expect that non-commenters in a blog would
We can conclude, then, that some blogs,
especially active, popular and highly referenced blogs, may fit Jones's (1997) definition of a virtual settlement. They meet the requirements
of having a minimal level of public interactions. These interactions, however,
are not nearly as public as other forms of CMC-based virtual settlements.
There is evidence of a sustained number of members shown by the presence of
regular commenters, a stable number of daily hits, and links in blogrolls.
Thus, a blog could be a virtual settlement. But, can it have a sense of virtual
Case Study of a Blog
To answer this question, I examined a very
active blog, the Julie/Julia Project.
The Julie/Julia Project follows the blog author, Julie Powell, as she
cooks her way through Julia Child's book Mastering the Art of French Cooking
in one year.
This blog was hosted on Salon.com's blogs
and was regularly one of the most popular blogs.
The blog covers topics such as the difficulties
of cooking in a small, un-air-conditioned kitchen, buying "offal" for some
of the book's more exotic recipes, eating new foods, and generally the triumphs
and tribulations of cooking, living and working in New York City. The blog is entertaining, profane, informative,
and very, very, funny.
The Julie/Julia Project is an active
blog with posts nearly every weekday and some weekends. Readers commented
quite often and as the project progressed; comments would number in the dozens.
People would discuss the topics in the blog as well as Julia Child, problems
with cooking, and the frustrations of living in New York City.
The Julie/Julia Project was receiving
over 7,000 hits per day during its most popular period. The author and the
blog were even featured on mainstream media like the CBS evening news, the
CBS Early show, the Los
Angeles and the New York
Times. Clearly, this was a very active and popular blog, but does it classify
as a virtual community?
Is it a Virtual Settlement?
To answer this question, we must first determine
if the Julie/Julia Project is a virtual settlement. During its one
year existence, the Julie/Julia Project had
regular updates on most weekdays and also on many weekends. It was a very
popular blog with hundreds and then thousands of daily hits. There were frequent
comments by readers. Julie would sometimes respond to the comments; other
commenters would also respond to each others' comments. The Julie/Julia
Project did not have a blogroll; the author did not indicate what other
blogs (if any) she read. However, many other blogs and web sites had links
to her blog. Thus, the Julie/Julia Project is a virtual settlement.
What Is its Sense of Community?
To examine the Julie/Julia Project's
sense of community, a web survey was conducted of the blog readers. The survey
was conducted in the eleventh month of the blog's existence. At that point,
the Julie/Julia Project was receiving nearly 7,500 hits per day. These
hits do not each account for individual readers of the blog, as they also
represent multiple visits from individual readers. Nonetheless, they do reveal
a high volume of traffic to the blog.
The survey included measures adapted from
McMillan and Chavis's (1986) sense of community measure. References to neighborhoods were
changed to reflect the context of the blog (see Chipuer & Pretty, 1999). Sample items included "Other readers and
I want the same thing from this blog," "I think this is a good blog to read"
and "I recognize the names of most readers who post comments on this blog."
Responses ranged from 1=strongly disagree to 5=strongly agree.
In order to assess interactivity, survey
items also asked respondents how many months they read had been reading the
blog, how frequently they read it, how frequently they read the comments and
how frequently they posted comments. The frequency variables ranged from 0=Never,
1=Rarely, 2=Occasionally, to 3=Quite a lot. Demographic information was also
asked including age, gender, and whether the respondents were blog authors
themselves. In addition to the quantitative questions, respondents were asked
open ended questions about why they read about the Julie/Julia Project
and what they felt about it.
To survey readers, I contacted Julie Powell
who agreed to participate in the study. She posted a link to the web survey
twice over a one week period. She also encouraged readers to fill out the
A total of 501 participants responded to
the survey. 81% of the respondents were female at an average age of 38 years
of age (SD=11.4).
In order to examine sense of community,
the individual items from the scale were combined into a sense of community
measure (Cronbach's α = .72). Descriptive analyses and correlations were
then run on the measures. See Table 1.
Sense of community is reliably correlated
to all of the demographic variables and each of the four predictors. However,
the magnitude of the sense of community measure itself is at a moderate level.
1: Descriptive Analyses
Sense of Community
How long reading
How often read
Note: Gender is binary coded
with women=1; Own Blog is binary coded with owning a blog=1. N=501. *p<.05,
To test which of these measures most effectively
explains sense of community, sense of community was regressed on each of the
variables in a two step hierarchical regression. First, the demographic variables
(age, gender and owning a blog) were entered and then the predictor variables
were entered. Table 2 lists the results.
2: Regression of variables predicting Sense of community (N=481)
How long reading
How often reading
How often read comments
How often post to comments
Note: Model Adj for the final model is R-Squared=.16***,
R-Squared Change=.15***, *p<.05, **p<.01, *** p<.001
From this analysis, length of time and frequency
of reading the blog are the strongest predictors of sense of community. Reading and posting to comments also predict sense
of community, but not as strongly. The demographic variables do not account
for any of the sense of community variance once the predictor variables have
Is the Julie/Julia Project a virtual
community? It is certainly a virtual settlement. However, from the results
of this study, the members reported a moderate sense of community at best.
On a 5-point scale, the average sense of community measure was a little bit
about 3, around neutral. Although the measure itself represented a moderate
sense of community, comments revealed very strong and very positive feelings
"[I read because the Julie/Julia Project
is] (a)bsolutely the finest reading entertainment I have found. Julie is a
skilled writer, I love her style. Her sense of humor aligns with mine."
"I am impressed by her dedication to such
a huge undertaking. I find her writing extraordinarily accessible, entertaining,
funny. She is able to express a fully realized personality in her writing
about food, her life, her difficulties and triumphs in this project. I also
enjoy her descriptions of the bizarre things she has to cook and eat. Sweetbreads
and brains - looking forward to that."
"[I read because I like] 1) To see how julie
deals with problems/life similiar (sic) to mine. 2) I develeoped (sic) some
sort of attachment to julie, some what like a one sided friendship, i care
w hat (sic) happens to her, what she's thinking (this also goes for (in a
much lesser degree) for the comment posters)."
"I love her style, the subject matter, the self-selected
glimpse of another person's life, the interaction of her long-time friends
with the newcomers/ 'complete strangers' who have joined in over time. I have
a great many people from her generation who I consider to be my friends in
'real life' and she and her buddies seem like a group of young folks with
whom I would be comfortable 'hanging out' sometime and would have a great
deal of fun (even though I neither smoke, nor drink vodka tonics! ;) Her blog
is a sure fire 'upper' to start the morning, and the interplay of comments
that can spin off and build on each other as the day goes on, I find fascinating."
respondents did believe that the Julie/Julia Project was
a virtual community:
"J/JP is an example of human search for growth and emergence,
reflecting both highs and lows common among humans. It attracts like-minded
folks who are 'foodies' and/or seeking and sharing similar experience of human
emergence; for this reason it feels like it attracts and creates a community
of its own."
"I do think there is a community, but just like in real
life, I am one of the people who rarely says anything. I am an observer."
many others did not:
"No, it doesn't feel like a community for
me. It's not very intereactive (sic) - I mostly just come to read Julie's
latest post, and very rarely make a comment if I have something valuable to
"I don't consider it a community; instead, I enjoy reading
Julie's entries. Ultimately, the only thing that everyone who reads the blog
has in common is that we like to read Julia's fabulous entries."
"The project is entertainment to me. It sort of seems
like a community, but just one I am looking at from the outside. A lot of
Julie's actual friends make a lot of the comments. I haven't had much response
to any of my comments."
qualitative responses reinforce the survey results that despite really liking the Julie/Julia Project most people
did not consider it a community in a "traditional" sense, a sense of community
to which this measure was particularly focused.
In understanding where feelings of community
could potentially develop, the regression analysis reveals that it is frequency
of reading the blog as well as reading and posting to the comments that contributes
to members' sense of community. This result holds in many of the comments
in which members' reported feeling a sense of community:
"It's definitely a community. The comments show that."
"Julie's humorous escapade has become my
workday morning coffee fix. Absolute community can be found in the comments,
from dedicated readers to newbies. We all thank Julie for something: the cooking
tips to the life commentary."
members who felt that the Julie/Julia Project was
a community did so because of their participation in the comments.
The results of this study have implications
both for virtual settlements and our understanding of sense of community in
virtual communities. First, the Julie/Julia Project does appear to
be a virtual settlement. However, it is limited in the amount of public interaction
which may occur more frequently in other forms of group CMC. Public interaction
occurs only in the comments section of this and most other blogs. It is telling
that members who participated in the comments section of the blog had a higher
sense of community.
But is it a virtual community? Using a traditional
measure of FtF sense of community, for the most part, it is not. However,
for a vocal and active minority of the respondents, it is. For these members,
social connections were made and emotional attachments were established. But
for the majority of participants, particularly those who did not read or contribute
to the comments (i.e., the blog lurkers), it was not a virtual community.
This finding is quite different from Blanchard
and Markus' (2003) finding that lurkers have a clear, albeit weaker, sense of
community in other virtual communities. One reason for this difference may
lie in the CMC technology. In most other virtual communities, lurkers have
to participate by reading most of the other participants' communications.
In a blog, lurkers only have to read the blog author's postings to
participate and can easily bypass everyone else's communications.
As was argued previously, being a virtual
community is important for sustainability. It is worth noting that at the
end of the blog author Julie's endeavors to cook her way through the cookbook,
she stopped her blog posting. Although several participants tried to create
an online group for fans of the the Julie/Julia Project to
interact, it failed. The Julie/Julia Project was
not self-sustaining. It depended heavily on Julie to succeed.
These findings have implications for our
understanding of the importance of sense of community in determining whether
or not a virtual group can be correctly called a virtual community.
The Julie/Julia Project was described as "wildly
popular." It was uniformly liked to a great degree by the survey respondents.
This is one of the few blogs that has crossed over to mainstream media. The Julie/Julia Project was a highly successful
Yet, it lacked a large enough group of people
who considered it a virtual community. Without a critical mass of engaged,
connected, and attached participants, its survival depended primarily on the
blog author alone. Clearly, there must be a large enough subset of the members
who have a strong enough sense of community for a virtual group to cross over
to a virtual community.
Blogs, because of their technical features,
may have some particular challenges in creating a critical mass of participants
with a sense of community. Their main challenge may be in providing public
spaces for member interaction. Comments may take a greater importance to blog
authors who wish to develop virtual communities. Additionally, blogrolls (which the Julie/Julia Project did
not have) could increase public interactions by increasing interactions between
Interactive blogrolls connecting blogs with
highly active comments' sections may create communities of blogs who share
an audience. If this interlinking of blogs develops around particular topics,
it is possible that a sense of community may develop and be shared between
these interactive blogs. This will decrease the dependence of the virtual
community on any one blog author and increase the chances of viability for
the virtual blog community as a whole. We should then expect to see the benefits
in terms of increased social relationships and sustainability that we see
in other CMC groups and technological forms of virtual communities.
The sense of community concept as it has
been traditionally formulated does not allow us to take that scenario into
consideration. We can only expect that CMC technologies are going to continue
to evolve and that groups that interact on these technologies will continue
to evolve with them. As Sarason (1986) has argued, sense of community is unique to the community
in which it develops. In order for us to use the sense of community concept
to effectively discriminate between mere groups and true communities, the
construct must be flexible enough to accommodate it.
Blogs are the newest popular form of group
CMC technology. As shown by the participants who expressed a sense of community
within the Julie/Julia Project ,
blogs have the potential to evolve into socially beneficial, self-sustaining
virtual communities. Future studies of blogs as virtual communities should
continue to assess not only members' sense of community, but also how members
adapt to and modify the CMC technology to meet their needs in developing a
vibrant virtual community.
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