University of Maryland

Beyond information: Developing the relationship between the individual and the group in online communities

Kraut, R., Wang, X., Butler, B., Joyce, E., & Burke, M. (2010). Beyond information: Developing the relationship between the individual and the group in online communities. Information Systems Research10.

Online communities are increasingly important for both the businesses and the general public that uses
them. However, current IS research on online communities has a limited view of these groups, treating
them primarily as information repositories, where people participate by seeking or contributing knowledge.
This paper argues that online communities are also social systems with which people form relationships
and repeatedly interact over time. This paper proposes a relational model of online communities that
emphasizes the social, bi-directional, and dynamic nature of the interactions in online communities and
the way that these interactions build and maintain the relationship between individuals and the community.
Hypotheses derived from the relational model are tested by examining the 22-month history of
28,869 newcomers who initially posted to 98 Usenet groups between May 15, 2003, and February 23,
2005. First, taking the newcomers’ point of view, we examine how the community’s response to their
posts influences their subsequent participation in the community. Then, taking the community’s point of
view, we examine how the nature of individual members’ participation in the community influences the
community’s willingness to interact with them. Consistent with the relational model, the results show that
the social nature of interactions, including the social status of the repliers and the use of welcoming, inclusive
language in community responses, facilitates the development of the relationship between newcomers
and the community. Similarly, newcomers’ prior experience in replying to messages and their use
of self-introductions in initial messages, signaling connection to the group, increase the community’s
willingness to maintain a relationship with them. The findings hold implications for online community
researchers and practitioners interested in fostering member engagement. We suggest applying a relational
model to studying not only online communities, but also information systems that are increasingly
social in nature.