I have been reading an book that has a clever title, Weisband, S. (2008). (Ed.). Leadership at a distance: Research in technologically-supported work. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.
There are many interesting chapters, but one in particular that has some interesting results of a study of how online communities work and how to build community relationships.
Here are some of the key ideas in this article:
Although technological tools explain part of the answer to the question of how online groups are sustained, the authors note, "social behavior sustains these groups over time" (p. 173). In particular, they note that four types of behavior seem necessary to sustain groups. These four types of behavior are
1) maintaining the software interaction tools themselves so that they work for the group;
2) recruiting new members to the group to replace those who leave;
3) managing social dynamics or group process;
4) participating or contributing to the interaction.
The authors write, "Without these group maintenance activities, even sophisticated tools and infrastructure will not sustain viable online groups" (p. 173).
Perhaps the most important aspect is "partcipation." Butler et al. note, "... without participation, few of the beneficial characteristics of most online groups would not come about.... In online communities, participation means generating messages, responding to messages, organizing discussion, and offering other online activities of interest to members. If members do not create relevant content, other community building activities are largely irrelevant. Participation also means consuming content; if members do not regularly read the material that others provide, an online group will not remain viable. Group identity and personal relationships are constructed through the messages that members send and read. Attending to and reading messages are prerequisites for others to provide them. Thus, active participation by providing and consuming content play a crucial role in sustaining an online group" (p. 174-175).
"A major challenge in sustaining an online group is inducing people to devote the time and effort needed to perform these community maintenance activities" (p. 175). Butler and his colleagues suggest that online community members can gain four types of benefits from participating in groups-- informational, social, visibility and altruistic. Roughly, they suggest that group members obtain information from other members, this may be the initial reason that they participate. They can find out about things that are of interest to them that are shared by other group members. Social benefits may be that they are able to develop and maintain ties to other community members that have similar interests. Community members also may be motivated by the opportunity to gain recognition and attention within the community. This visibility within this community may be a powerful incentive to participate. Altruism also may be source of participation by members who see the value and importance of the activities of the group.
Butler and his colleagues surveyed listserv members in 1997 order to understand more about the activity and motivations of online community members. Importantly, they had list owners, active and silent contributors in their survey. There were a number of interesting findings. For example, owners of the list did not differ from either active or silent members in terms of the reported amounts of time spent in community-building work. Although owners spent more time on infrastructure maintenance and social control, they did not differ in terms of the amount of time spent reading messages and encouraging other members. However, owners spend more time doing active community-building activities such as contributing content and composing messages and less time in more passive tasks such as reading messages. Owners report more altruistic motives for their work than other group members.
Another interesting finding was that social benefits were a strong motivator. The measures of social benefit included meeting people and making friends, having fun, having others appreciate one's participation, gain a sense of accomplishment, become known to list members, and build relationships with list members. Additionally, the more list members that were known in the real world was associated with higher levels of infrastructure maintenance, social encouragement and content provision. This is a reminder that real world ties are likely to be stronger than online ties. Butler et al. conclude, "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" (p. 191).Some other results suggest that those who valued altruistic benefits were more likely to encourage others and people who valued personal visibility were more likely to promote the group externally.
The complete paper is here:
Butler, B., Sproll, L., Kiesler, S., Kraut, R. (2008). Community Effort in Online Groups: Who Does the Work and Why. (pp. 171- 193). online address: http://opensource.mit.edu/papers/butler.pdf