Andrea Baker and Bob Watson
This article is an attempt to discuss some of the qualities that
define virtual communities. It is a work in process, an exploration.
The twelve variables we've selected are most likely not all that
exist, just the ones we find most important in our thinking right
now. These variables struck us as important ways in which communities
are differentiated despite the type of software chosen to carry
a given community. Each author has several years of experience participating
in online communities and also facilitating and managing them.
Researchers may take a community or a number of communities and
apply these variables in order to analyze them. Each qualitative
variable represents a continuum and can be seen to have a "high"
and a "low" end. We acknowledge that others could develop
a numerical scale for each variable, noting the community's place
along the continuum of each of the twelve dimensions. Such a quantitative
measurement could possibly be used to reduce subjectivity in comparing
Since online communities only exist through the software that is
chosen, it is useful to begin with a few brief comments on what
is generally available. Various types of software have their partisans,
but a choice has to be made that will influence how well a community
functions for its particular use. The variables apply to all, we
think, but the software chosen to launch a community has a strong
influence on what will ultimately develop. The following thoughts
seem generally true in our experience.
Threaded boards work well for smallish communities or for those
with specifiable, generally technical, interests. The reason is
that natural drift spreads a general topic, rather like an organization
chart with 20 people reporting upwards, with 20 additional reporting
to each of the twenty
the depth is only three posts, but
the resulting width is 400. This can make it difficult for users
to find and follow specific conversations. They take considerable
management to stay on topic. On the other hand, such boards are
great for finding specific information when each thread is well
Linear boards, where posts follow one another in chronological order
and where individual posts allow only one following response in
any given topic, work well for large communities and those without
specific technical interests. There is better conversational flow
and topics self-organize under the named thread branches. Finding
older information, however, can be difficult without a strong search
E-mail is generally cumbersome except for smallish groups or ones
where only a small number of folks are active posters. It is hard
to segment interests, thus making life hard for all but the most
dedicated list-owner -- unless he/she really likes editing
and sorting. It is good for some work groups and is, of course,
E-mail is sometimes used in combination with boards, usually to
help folks who are interested in only a couple of topics keep current
with new postings. If the interest is in many topics, e-mail makes
no sense due to the sheer number of e-mails being received. On the
other hand, some people like it because they are very used to it.
Variables of Online Community
1. Personal Need for Community.
Does the person really desire to be in a particular community?
For a High personal need, consider the case of the parent of a
very sick child. He or she is likely to grasp whatever hope or counsel
a group might have to offer, especially if it is the only support
group available (perhaps to a person in a small town or if the disease
is rare). Another high personal need, and a common one, is shown
in the person looking for narrowly focused technical information
that is only available at one location. Necessity is a great motivator.
There is also that curious individual who gets psychological satisfaction
out of trashing conversations: the drive-by flamer or the obnoxious
troll. Unfortunately, a wide range of online communities do fit
their needs. One might note that some communities try to isolate
(or eject) such individuals through strong hosting or by holding
"flame attracting" conversations in specific topic areas.
Low personal need is shown when a person stumbles into a community
that is completely alien to his/her interests, wonders why he/she
is arrived there, and wanders away. The person wanting to discuss
Star Wars who wanders into a Jane Austen discussion by mistake is
unlikely to remain.
2. Availability of Information.
Can a person learn something?
Information is everywhere in an online community. Sometimes it
is obvious and in the posts
one could come by and harvest
it, were there time and software enough. Other times, it resides
in the people who comprise the community. But it is a variable.
Some communities are more "information dense" than others.
Also, some go out of their way to help novices while others do not.
High information communities, such as technical boards or science
oriented discussions, do not appeal to everyone. They can be intimidating
and not everyone is willing to either admit to ignorance or learn
what is necessary in order to participate. It should be noted that
discussions on such things as pets and soap operas can also be quite
high in information and very interesting to the participants.
Low knowledge communities, perhaps just places to hang out, likewise
do not appeal to everyone. Of course, with absolutely no participation
and no information exchanged there is no community. Nevertheless,
simply having a place to go and "say hi" to familiar residents
is attractive to some.
3. Community as Social Destination.
Is the community a fun place to hang out?
People are social beings. If the community is an interesting place
(in the mind of the user anyway), then a person is more likely to
return. If not, he or she will not. A High social destination community
is also one likely to encourage face-to-face meetings, back-channel
personal e-mail, instant messaging, and the like.
How one makes it interesting presents problems and opportunities.
Content is important, but even more important perhaps are the relationships
that can only develop over time.
A Low social destination community may be one where information
is exchanged for its own sake, an example being a discussion board
owned by a software company to facilitate trouble shooting.
Some communities allow for "socializing" in specially
dedicated locations, sometimes entire conferences. If this works
well, a "purely informational" community can have a highly
4. Rigor of Discussion.
Can a person participate through mere opinion or does everything
require a citation?
A Highly rigorous discussion may not require a citation, but benefits
from at least a strong adherence to verifiable facts. The web, of
course, makes linking to news sources relatively easy, so High rigor
can mean bringing various proofs directly to the discussion. A community
involved in publishable scientific pursuits might use High rigor
as a matter of course in many of its discussions - especially as
such discussion increasingly becomes a substitute for "first
Low rigor would be offering off any personal opinion as though
it were objective truth. Baseball fans often have long and loud
discussions, with the deepest passions often coming from those who
know the least about what's really happening in the clubhouse.
5. Tolerance for Argument.
Is the community one where argument is allowed, perhaps even valued,
or one where argument is discouraged?
High tolerance allows for any type of argument, fair or otherwise.
This is often a norm for those who are used to Usenet discussion.
Unfortunately, many people - of both sexes -- are distressed by
this sort of thing and will not participate.
Low tolerance, at the other extreme, allows for little real argument
at all. This style suits some folks quite well -- especially those
without their own points-of-view - but also results in an apparent
lack of passion or even conviction.
There are, of course, many types of "middle ground."
A list of rules, perhaps a prohibition on personal attack, can certainly
help create a sense of tolerance.
Is the community open to those with diverse points-of-view?
High acceptance means welcoming everyone. This may be good from
a theoretical humanistic point-of-view but can make discussion difficult.
The highly divergent point-of-view post can be a non sequitur
and it does make for good theater. It also means accepting
the stalker, the ignorant, the vapid, and the loud - which may mean
accepting everyone excepting those who know how to communicate their
ideas (because they'll soon be gone after such pressure).
Low acceptance means allowing very few participants having real
differences. Yet, in such situations, what can there possibly be
worth talking about? Communities which do not accept that members
may deviate from a particular point-of-view soon find that they
have only one member.
Does the community exist for more than a moment?
A high duration community might well go on for decades. Certain
e-mail lists already have and The WELL has existed, now, for many
vibrant years. Many, perhaps most, of course intend to last but
do not have the various resources (personnel, content or funding,
for example) for doing so.
A low duration community might well be a one-day or one-week seminar.
This is, of course, good and appropriate for certain purposes.
Is the community facilitated (moderated) in some fashion?
We are avoiding the common term "moderated" here since
it can be confusing - the passions of a moderated community certainly
need not be moderate!
A high-facilitation community might be one which has every communication
vetted by a higher authority - perhaps an owner of some type. A
community designed to serve the information needs of an auto company
might be seen as being at this extreme, especially if negative comments
are never posted.
A low-facilitation community would be one where there is no one
about to assert influence or control. There are certainly lots of
places like this on the net! Most of them, now, are empty ghost
Note that successful communities are generally "midway"
in this particular continuum.
8. Entry Barriers.
Is it hard to get into the community?
To be sure, there are many types of barriers. A high entry barrier
community makes the member go through a few hoops before being invited
Some barriers are merely technical, others are social or psychological
or both. Language is such a barrier. There is little point of joining
a French language community if your only language is English. A
technical barrier might be bandwidth -- if you're on slow dial-up
there is little to be gained from a high-graphics community best
seen via cable or DSL.
A purely social barrier might be having to pass a certain test,
say one of IQ or creativity or vetted reference, before being invited
A low-barrier community makes no demands. But, like the old Groucho
joke, do you want to belong to the type of club that would take
you? Having no barriers makes easy access for everyone, including
those who would abuse others or try to seize the community for their
own purposes. Or, perhaps worse, the terminally boring might take
Do people know who you really are?
A high-anonymity community doesn't reveal who people are and perhaps
prefers that people do not inadvertently reveal who they are. Such
a community allows people to post without bad repercussions coming
their way. This is good if a person has controversial things to
say and needs cover, but bad if a person intends to do nothing more
than disrupt the community.
A low-anonymity community requires people to reveal who they really
are, perhaps with real names and real e-mail (or even snail mail!)
addresses. This has the positive value of keeping folks from flaming,
but it may be too intimidating to those worried about such things
as identity theft. Moreover, a low-anonymity community necessarily
encourages people to stand behind their own words - this may improve
Does this community serve a physical, geographical, place?
A high-locality community might be one that serves a real town,
perhaps even just a neighborhood. The referents and discussion are
real to many, if not most, of the participants. You could get an
answer to "What do you think of that new burger place on the
A low-locality community might be spread thinly across the globe.
Members are necessarily a bit distant from one another and that
burger place had better have a web site if there is to be any discussion
about it! On the other hand, low-locality communities are more likely
to have conversations on those many topics which, in a "physical
community" cannot take place due to a very small number of
Does this community focus on a particular topic?
A high-focus community might be one that deals with the minutiae
of a particular rock band and its music. Straying too far from the
intended topic -- discussing, say, deconstruction of 19th century
painters -- would be discouraged.
High focus might be due to the original, continuing, needs of the
community (perhaps derived from a single founder).
A low-focus community would allow a person to talk about anything.
Of course, the problem there is that it takes at least two to have
a discussion! The Internet is awash with still-born communities
that did not gel due to a lack of focused intent, and hence a lack
of participants attracted by a particular interest.
Watson's interest in online community began with his introduction
to Electric Minds in 1996 -- he runs a public library when he's
not otherwise attending to his addiction on the web.
Baker (andee) is writing a book about online relationships
for Hampton Press, Double-Click: Romance and Commitment Among
Online Couples, and currently hosts at two online communities.