Bar or Barn Raising? A New Study Finds People Understand Community Norms, Even Online

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No matter how spiffy your social network's designed, people are gonna act like people.

barn615.jpg

Wikimedia Commons

Depending on what kind of community they're in, people act differently offline -- they speak about different topics, talk friendly or business-like, relax or tighten up. Sociologists have known this for a while. But a new study, published this month in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, finds that those rules hold offline too. Regardless of how profiles are designed, people know what kind of community they're a part of, and they shape their online presentation accordingly.

Sociologists file communities into two broad categories: common-bond and common-identity. In common-bond communities, members have, well, bonded: They hang out and swap stories, they digress for digression and friendship's sake. It's based in the interpersonal. On the web, Facebook is its quintessential type.

Common-identity communities form for different reasons. Their members share a trait or an interest, or they've come together to accomplish a common task. Choirs, barn-raisings, and support groups are all common-identity communities. Online, Wikipedia and the IMDB forums are the archetypes here.

So here's the biggest difference between them: In common-bond communities, people speak at length and off-topic; in common-identity communities, people speak efficiently and with focus. 

In the study this month, researchers Eva Schämmlein and Katrin Wodzicki tested how those differences applied to social networks. They set up two of them -- e-Cooking and Cooking Friends -- and randomly assigned participants to them. Text and design elements hinted what the ethos of each was: whether it was common-bond (Cooking Friends) or common-identity (e-Cooking). But though the sites hinted at values, the profile set-up pages didn't: People could fill out their profiles however they wanted. They could be short and to the point, or personable and digressive.

ecook615.jpg

e-Cooking and Cooking Friends, here translated from the study's German. Cooking Friends depicts people cooking together; e-Cooking only features images of food. (Schwämmlein and Wodzicki)

And people acted right in line with community type. In e-Cooking, people gave information relevant to food preparation and omitted the rest. They just wanted to talk turkey. But in Cooking Friends, the text of which advocated meeting people to cook with, they cast lines of interest and shared more off-topic information. So even though profiles didn't tilt one way or another, people filled in information which aligned with community-type.

But one factor did trump how they acted: whether people entered the community with their own goals. Goal-oriented users -- coming into the site with intentions about efficiency or friend-making -- pretty much pursued that goal, regardless of the community's type. Even if a network had stated goals, goal-minded users ignored them.

Now, this study wasn't large: it held three trials, none with more than 100 people. But it demonstrates that you can't have it all when you design a community, at least at first. Profile page design kneels to group dynamics. Your jack russell terrier wiki will only find success when you accept that it can never also be the next 4chan. 

But hopefully a designer would never try to harm a "Wishbone" wiki like that. Back in May, the tech journalist and entrepreneur Peter Rojas asserted that innovation can't happen without empathy:

Probably every company would say they try to understand their customer -- and that they've done the market research to prove it! -- but what I'm talking about in this context is a bit more subtle, it's a combination of respect and emotional intelligence (i.e. the ability to recognize and relate to the feelings of another person) that enables you to create truly amazing user experiences.

Offline, community leaders and organizers do work analogous to social network designers. They set tone, hold meetings, preference some values over others. But the most successful leaders, especially of small, face-to-face communities, deeply understand and serve the type and purpose of their community. They act with humility, and they make their plans -- their designs -- accordingly.

Reality bites. We're in the social web's middle ages, and what we've come to realize -- again and again -- is that social life online works pretty much the same as social life offline. While design may convey values or ethics, it can't replace people's ultimate purposes for joining up with something. People, in meat or bits, just wanna know: What's the purpose of this place? What are my goals here? And when I'm here, how am I supposed to be?

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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