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Signal vs. Noise in Online Communities

I do not make much use of online communities in a social sense. I have a facebook account, and I frequent a few forums, but on the whole I feel that I use such services less than the average college student, certainly. Of the forums that I visit, 3 are technical forums, and one is related to a MUD that I play. On all of these forums I generally either do not post, or post only very rarely.According to "Interpreting Soap Operas", I fall into the majority of posters, who post less than 5 times per month. The essay goes on to note that generally a small group of posters (in newsgroups) makes the majority of posts. I have found this to be true on all forums that I read. I have also noticed that two of the technical forums that I read have declined noticeably in terms of quality since I began reading them. It seems to me that, for a technical forum or newsgroup to be successful, the few big contributors (mentioned by Baym) must not only be both interested and dedicated, and also must be very technically skilled. In my experience, the greater the ratio of new (to both the forum and the field being discussed) members to experienced members must not exceed some threshold before the more experienced members will cease reading and posting. In each of the aforementioned forums it seems that this threshold is being approached or exceeded.

In terms of "social" online communities, I certainly found Boyd's discussion of the social awkwardness of rejecting a friend request (in my case, on Facebook) is frequently more trouble than it is worth. A few months ago I was going through the process of removing anyone from my (already meager) friend list that I didn't know or particularly care for, and accidentally removed an acquaintance that was a friend of a friend. He proceeded to message me, wondering why I had done so, and it was easier for me (socially) to simply add him back than to explain to him that we weren't "close enough" friends to bother having him on my list. I think that this situation is similar to one where, for example, when a person that you do not consider a “close enough� friend calls on the telephone, you choose not to answer, but when you run into him or her in person, you do not ignore his or her greeting, either. In both the online and real cases, one entails significantly more possible social fallout than the other.

Finally, a brief side-note: I think that some of the elements that Baym observed in "r.a.t.s" were an effect of a small and dedicated community, and likely would be markedly different today. Specifically, in 1993 it is likely that the people participating in the community were relatively early adopters of the internet and newsgroups, and that the community itself as relatively small. In such a community, just as in a community in "real" life, it is far easier to ensure that certain norms are followed. As an example, it might not be possible to limit the number of "flames" in a larger community simply through self-policing and scolding offending members.

Comments

Hi Zach

Nice observation about the early adopters in 1993. The people participating in these newsgroups had to stumble through a new technology on their way to the blog. They had to be dedicated to their forums but also the new technology.

Good post

Mike

Your remark about having a relatively small user community making it easier agree on and uphold group manners (like NO FLAMING!!!!) made me think of "trolls". As I understand it, these are the people who post controversial/offensive comments on discussion boards for the sole purpose of attracting attention, or derailing the conversation. I wonder whether the proportion of troll posts to well-intentioned ones has stayed the same since the early days of BBSes... Is trolling becoming as much of a hobby for some as honest discussion is for others?