According to Wasko and Faraj, peer-to-peer networks are ‘self-organizing, open activity systems focused on shared practice that exists primarily through computer mediated communication’ (1). Some of the most popular and successful networks are those focused on finding solutions, exchanging best practices, building expertise, and those that also manage to generate meaningful social relationships (2).
One of the two networks we examine in our research is the Apple Support Community (3). It was created to provide support to Apple users, where they can ask questions about technical issues, but also share tips for a more in-depth experience of Apple products. The other network we selected is Reddit, which is a community run by its users (4). It has about 100 million monthly unique visitors, and over 2.8 million members (5). A user uploads content, and other users upvote and downvote it to decide whether it is worthy to read and be on the front page or not.
According to Muniz and O’Guinn (2001), there are three ‘markers’ which should be evident in every community (6). The first one is Consciousness of Kind, which is the connection members feel to one another, while there is a sense of difference from those not in communities. The second one is Rituals and Traditions (7) that are conventions to establish a visible public definition of community, such as symbols, languages etc. The last indicator is moral responsibility, which is the sense of duty towards the community and individuals that produces collective action. Can we identify these markers of communities in Reddit and the Apple Support Community?
Consciousness of Kind
Reddit proves to be extremely self-referential. This is evident due to the fact that Reddit users have coined a term for themselves, ‘Redditors’, which shows that they feel like they are different from the non-redditors, as a unique characteristic of their community. Moreover there are a lot of posts that do not make sense to ‘outsiders’, as they are referring to an aspect of Reddit culture, or something popular from the site. They also arrange meet-ups, where users attend and share experiences and get to know each other.
In the Apple Support Community, advanced users seem to have a sense of belonging to the community. They can be invited to conference calls and meet-ups, as part of the exclusive privileges they have earned from their contribution to the community. However, the culture of fanatic Apple users is not reflected in the community, which could be because of the forum etiquette, which states: “Post only technical support questions and answers” and “Avoid speculation and rumours”.
Rituals and Traditions
Muniz & O’Guinn (2001) suggest that, communities are characterized by rituals and traditions that emphasize a unique culture, and often include specific language that is only meaningful to informed members (6). Reddit users have created the ‘Arbitrary Day’. It takes place every 25th of June, and is a holiday involving gift exchange among users and redditors are encouraged to donate to a charity. Moreover, Redditors have their own lingo, which consists mainly of abbreviations that are not understood by outsiders.
In the Apple Support Community we can refer to their rewarding point system as a special ritual of their community. It appears that users are very passionate about the levels they gain as rewards for their increased contribution. Moreover, based on users’ claims, privileges such as lounge access appear to have user traditions.
Reddit’s content and the organization of the site are based on voluntarism. There is also a set of rules for every subreddit. This includes disallowed submissions as well as disallowed comments.
In the case of the Apple Support Community the sense of moral responsibility is reflected in the community etiquette,“be polite, constructive and stay on topic,” and “reward helpful community members by marking answers to your questions as helpful and correct.” Reciprocity clearly exists within the community with evidence of users giving and receiving help in return.
The evidence so far suggests that the Reddit and Apple networks possess the qualities of communities, but as a community do they generate social capital? Social capital is an intangible force binding societies together, benefitting both individuals and community. It is generated through a culture of voluntarism, reciprocity, and social trust. According to Mathwick, Wiertz and De Ruyter: “As the norms of reciprocity, voluntarism, and social trust strengthen, the level of social capital will increase” (8). Stolle , defined Social Trust as the trust generated from repeated interactions and cooperation within a community(9). A good example of this is Reddit’s 2012 Secret Santa, where 44,805 Redditors from 130 different countries put their faith in one another and sent gifts around the world.
Individual Benefits from Social Capital
According to Coleman social capital can serve individuals at a time of need (9). We can find many examples of benefits accruing to individuals in the Reddit and the Apple support community. In Reddit’s case we can identify the feeling of recognition and praise that loyal users have as members of the community. It appears that there is a very special feeling for those who truly feel that they belong to the community. Moreover individuals learn information about topics that they are interested in.
In Apple’s case the individual benefits are perhaps more tangible. Apple support communities users can find troubleshooting for technical issues, as well as information, advice and support. Moreover the privileges that high-leveled users have can also be considered as benefits.
Community Benefits from Social Capital
Coleman also discussed the fact that community benefits may rise from the social capital of a community. Social capital can address communal needs through collective action(9). These benefits for Reddit can be the development of a strong and engaged community. Reddit played an important role in the action against SOPA, when it initiated a massive blackout with Google, Mozilla and Flickr in order to protest against the voting in the US Congress of the laws that contained measures that could cause great harm to online freedom of speech, websites, and Internet communities. Moreover Reddit can work as a great reporting and distribution engine of real team information replacing the need for newspapers or other media to be informed about whatever the user may be interested in.
On the other hand, the community benefits that Apple Support Community offers are only limited. There is an information database, which is accessible by the community, and there is also the possibility for experienced members to provide their feedback in order for the forum to be improved. These limited benefits are perhaps consequences of Apple’s etiquette that states, “do not post polls or petitions”.
To sum up, here is a short table of strengths and weaknesses of the communities we discussed.
|Apple||Community etiquette is respected.Individual benefits||Weak sense of belongingNot many rituals and traditionsLimited collective action|
|Strong ties among its core membersStrong sense of belonging to a community||Not easily accessible to outsidersMarginal and controversial sub communities|
After this short analysis of the aforementioned communities, we conclude that both Apple Support Communities and Reddit are indeed communities that generate Social Capital.
(1) Wasko, Molly and Samer Faraj (2005), “Why Should I Share? Examining Social Capital and Knowledge Contribution in Electronic Networks of Practice,” MIS Quarterly, 29 (1), 35–58.
(2) Rainie, Lee and John Horrigan (2005), “How the Internet Has Woven Itself into American Life,” Pew Internet and American Life Project, http://www.pewinternet.org/reports.
5) http://www.reddit.com/about/ (Accessed on February 1st 2014)
(6) Muniz, Albert M. and Thomas C. O’Guinn (2001), “Brand Com- munity,” Journal of Consumer Research, 27 (March),412–32.
(7) Douglas. Mary and Baron Isherwood (1979), The World of Goods, New York: Basic.
(8)Mathwick, C., Wiertz, C., & De Ruyter, K. (2008). Social capital production in a virtual P3 community. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(6), 832-849.
(9) Stolle, Dietlind (2001), “Clubs and Congregations: The benefits of Joining an Association,” in Trust in Society, ed, Karen S. Cook, New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 202-44
(10) Coleman, James (1988), “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,” American Journal of Sociology, 94 (Suppl.), 95–120