Abstract - The Information Society 19(3)

Special Issue: Virtual communities in the service of learning

Characterizing Collective Behavior Online: The Social Organization of Hangouts, Clubs, Associations, Teams and Communities

Rob Kling & Christina Courtright


The term community is widely and often uncritically used to characterize groupings of people who meet in electronic forums (e-forums). The research reported here shows how the casual use of the term community to characterize these groups can actually undermine their transformation into forms of social organization that are justifiably characterized as communities. This article examines how transforming a group into a community is a major accomplishment that requires special processes and practices. Primary data come from a particular project, the Inquiry Learning Forum (ILF), that aimed to develop "communities of practice" (CoPs) among high school science and mathematics teachers through an elaborate dedicated web site. We examine participants' behaviors in some of the differently structured forums within the ILF web site. While the project's developers expected CoPs to develop autonomously, there was no evidence of CoP formation in open public online forums. The article contrasts two approaches to building online communities that differ sharply: "IT-led community development" and "IT-supported community development." The experience of the ILF project shows that IT-led strategies community development strategies are much more difficult to make workable than are the "IT-supported" strategies.

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