Thursday, September 13, 2012

Virtual Communities Research at UNC Charlotte

I walked into Associate Professor of Psychology Anita Blanchard’s office at the Unviersity of North Carolina at Charlotte and immediately felt like I was talking to an old friend. She was warm, welcoming, and eager to talk with me about her research on virtual communities.

Blanchard's research includes the interaction and community functions of professional and virtual communities. In other words, Blanchard studies how members of these online "communities" interact, develop groups, socialize in these groups, and the technological features that contribute to the success and feelings among the group and group members. Blanchard also seeks to understand the role of identity in these groups and organizations for group functionality.

After analyzing and researching Blanchard's research I realized I'm pretty social online. I knew I was active but I never stopped to consider if I myself am an active community member in my online groups of interaction. So I began to analyze my own personal online activity.

Monday nights after the Bachelor (my guilty pleasure) I am online reading about what other viewers of the show think; Tuesdays are my Parenthood nights where I am actively engaging in discussion about my life as a parent and homemaker;  Wednesday I’m usually on Pinterest looking for new recipes to try during the week to please my husband’s picky appetite; Thursdays I’m usually scoping out the Carolina Parent magazine blogs for weekend adventures with the kids; Fridays I’m scoping out where my kids can eat free, and then religiously throughout the week I’m checking my Twitter feed and Facebook page. This doesn’t take into consideration my comments on, my Moodle account here at school, or my church’s website.

So what do my online habits say about me besides the fact that I spend WAY too much time online socializing? Well, according to Blanchard’s research, I fit right into a couple virtual communities. Included in these are my Facebook community of high school friends where I post regularly about our upcoming class reunion and engage often about our small town of Salisbury, North Carolina; my Linked In account, where I interact on a professional level about social media, technology, and the aspects of being a professional communicator; my meet up account that I joined when I moved to the Huntersville area to interact with other moms who also have two small children; my Twitter community, where we share blogs we've recently read and intellectual conversation;  and my Google+ community group of colleagues and friends from UNC, my alma mater. When I left her office I was quite comforted knowing that I have a whole forum of people who are interested in similar things.

The term "virtual community" refers to several different types of computer-mediated communication groups on platforms such as Etsy, Facebook, newsgroups, and Google plus. Essentially, any online group we interact with on a regular basis has the potential to become a “community." It is important to note that while virtual groups can be communities not all virtual groups are virtual communities. For instance my husband and I started a meet up account in Chapel Hill when we lived there. We had 30 people in our virtual group however we never interacted online or formed the social aspects of a community. While our accounts existed on this platform the participation and interaction in our group didn't form the structure of a community.

According to Blanchard’s research people need to identify where virtual communities exist on a virtual platform. Facebook itself is the platform; my individual page can become my community. But, in order to identify as a community Blanchard refers to the argument of another researcher in the field named Quentin Jones regarding "virtual communities" and "virtual settlements" and states: “We can understand virtual communities by understanding the artifacts of its virtual settlement: its postings, structure and content.”

Blanchard cites Jones (1997) proposal that a virtual settlement exists when there are:
A.) a minimal level of interactivity
B.) public interactions in public space
C.) a variety of communicators
D.) there is a minimal level of sustained membership over a period of time

A "virtual settlement'?

Additionally, Jones adds that even though virtual communities and virtual settlements are conceptually different and separate (a virtual settlement is the place in cyberspace where the interaction happens; the virtual community is the people interacting), if someone finds a virtual settlement, then they have found a virtual community. The feelings and social relationships that are developed within a virtual settlement help to distinguish a "virtual community" from a "virtual group." For instance Salisbury, North Carolina was my town (settlement) and my neighborhood of Summerfield, with my friends and neighbors, was my community within that settlement.

Blanchard defines the psychological state virtual communities produce as "a sense of community" and delves deeper than Jones did, stating that a “sense of community is a key element in establishing a virtual community." Therefore, Blanchard poses that while virtual settlements are necessary for virtual communities they may not be sufficient for continuing to foster a virtual community.

Blanchard focuses her research on answering a specific question: Should blogs be considered virtual communities too and how can we analyze these blogs? Blanchard identifies these characteristics by posing why virtual communities are important, what exactly the characteristics of a virtual community entail, and how blogs fit into these definitions.

According to Blanchard, virtual communities are important for social reasons. Blanchard has looked at blogs ranging from those aimed at multisport athletes, cat lover groups, parenting groups, medical health groups, and several blogs in between. She used her personal experience in her research -- Blanchard found groups she identified with at and started there.

When social media first took off, many social activists argued that this platform of communication would replace face-to-face relationships because people would isolate themselves from their neighbors. In opposition to those claims, Blanchard found those who would argue virtual communities have the added potential to connect people with similar interests from around the world. Blanchard has also found that virtual communities can increase involvement in person-to-person activism as well. Blanchard’s research highlights several positive social effects of virtual communities and the participation they evoke.

Deeper than the study of social relationships, Blanchard also explores the emotional connection virtual communities foster. One of my favorite blogs 65 red roses really captures this notion that an emotional connection to a blog can be very rewarding.

I don’t have cystic fibrosis and I didn’t know anyone with the disease but I felt an emotional connection to the girl in this blog because she was my age at the time; she showed us how real the disease was, and what it felt like to lose a battle. I often referred back to blog posts on this blog when I lost my grandfather to cancer because I was able to connect to others who knew the pain of the loss from a disease. Blanchard explores the notion of a virtual emotional connection by studying how participants experience feelings within the community and their emotional attachment to that community.

“When participants experience feelings of community, they are more likely to increase or maintain their participation in the virtual communities,” Blanchard writes.

“Additionally, the lack of this feeling among participants may be the key to explaining the frequent demise of many content management community groups,” Blanchard adds. “A virtual community, therefore, is more likely to be self-sustaining than a regular virtual group, and sustainability is a goal important to both for the sponsors and the participants of any particular virtual group." Blanchard continues by stating the importance of virtual communities is both practical and social.

The most exciting thing about Blanchard's research is the growing prevalence of the internet and how we receive our information. I think my newest addiction is Pinterest because it introduces me to so many wonderful ideas, recipes, and crafts I would have never thought to explore. What connects you to an online community? What online communities are you actively involved in? What keeps you actively involved in these communities?

(Moderator's Note: Dr. Blanchard will be contributing her own post to this blog about her research activity in the near future. -- JH)

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