Leading Collaboration in Online Communities

Do you have what it takes to become a leader in an online community or are you just another lurker in the sea? Unfortunately, the odds are against you, as you need to contribute to become a leader. The 90-9-1 rule suggests that 90% of the population are lurkers and nearly never contribute content. The following 9% of the people are estimated to contribute 10% of overall contents, while the remaining 1% contributes 90% of the content (Nielsen 2006).

In order to explore what constitutes a leader Faraj et al. (2015) have created a framework that outlines several factors, which can lead to being identified as a leader by the community. The researchers build upon traditional behavior leadership theories, as well as structural network theories to create their framework.

The research

What did Faraj et al. examine (and why)?

Based on an evaluation of previous research on behavior in online communities Faraj et al. suggested that higher levels of knowledge contributions (KC), as well as more sociable behavior, could influence the likelihood of leadership. Furthermore, they build upon literature from social network theory and propose that higher levels of structural social capital (SSC) can again increase the likeliness of being identified as a leader. The idea of structural social capital is that people who are better connected are better of, as they have the potential of accessing more resources. Additionally, the researchers combine the two views and propose that structural social capital can act as a moderator between knowledge contribution/sociability and the likelihood of being identified as a leader. Faraj et al. suggest the influence of a) Knowledge contribution is higher and b) Sociability is higher when SSC is high compared to when SSC is low.

Additionally, the researchers expect that the tenure length, participation level amount of questions asked can influence the likelihood of being identified as a leader. The previously mentioned propositions and expectations have led to the following conceptual model:

Bildschirmfoto 2018-03-11 um 20.03.12

How did they examine it?

In order to measure the relationships displayed in the conceptual model Faraj et al. gathered data from Usenet newsgroups. Usenet Newsgroups is one of the oldest online communities (1979), in which participants can gather information and discuss topics related to their common interests. The researchers examined messages posted on three un-moderated groups focusing on programming issues, as these have a high emphasis on knowledge collaboration.

In order to measure the KC levels, the researchers conducted a content analysis looking for elements containing code, procedural and declarative information. Furthermore, they examined the level of sociability through elements such as the presence of sign-offs, story-telling or thanking others. The measure of SSC was conducted through a social network analysis called betweenness centrality. It indicates how much a person is in the “middle” of a group. Lastly, leadership likeliness was measured by means of a survey by asking participants to identify three group leaders.

Main Findings:

  1. KC levels are associated with leadership likelihood
  2. Sociability alone does not lead to leadership identification
  3. High SSC increases leadership likelihood
  4. The previous statement is even more significant in presence of high levels of KC or sociability

Furthermore, the researchers found that the tenure length and participation levels are both highly related to the likelihood of being identified as a leader. Interestingly they also found out that asking questions has a negative effect on leadership identification likelihood.

Paper Discussion:

Faraj et al. have a strong approach of examining the phenomenon by incorporating behavioral as well as structural approaches. It allows for a more thorough understanding of the factors influencing leader establishments. Previous research has often examined influences individually, however, not simultaneously. Furthermore, from a managerial perspective, the paper provides first insights, which can help firms predict, which participants are likely to be seen as leaders. Establishing leaders amongst product communities can be of high importance, as these like to act as brand ambassadors and can moderate discussions amongst the community.

However, unfortunately, the paper is limited to knowledge collaboration in the area of programming, which compromises the generalizability of the research. Programmers tend to think in a different way and are said to have higher analytical skills (Elliott 2016). It is thus questionable if knowledge contributions would be seen as important and sociability as unimportant in other contexts. The results of the paper might thus be difficult to reproduce in other settings, such as product communities or different knowledge collaboration communities. In order to improve the generalizability of this paper, Faraj et al. could have examined further knowledge collaboration communities on Usenet. The opportunities to do so were plenty, as by 2005 there were already approximately 189.000 groups on the platform (Wang et al. 2013). However, all-in-all the paper yields a good first insight into the topic and serves as a good reference point for future research in this area.



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Elliott, E. (2016). Are Programmer Brains Different? – JavaScript Scene – Medium. Retrieved March 8, 2018, from https://medium.com/javascript-scene/are-programmer-brains-different-2068a52648a7

Faraj, S., Kudaravalli, S., & Wasko, M. (2015). Leading Collaboration in Online Communities. Mis Quarterly39(2).

Joshi, P. (2011). Advertisers Seek to Harness the Power of the Mom Blogger – The New York Times. Retrieved March 08, 2018, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/business/media/15adco.html

Nielsen, J. (2006). Participation Inequality: The 90-9-1 Rule for Social Features. Retrieved March 8, 2018, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/participation-inequality/

Wang, X., Butler, B. S., & Ren, Y. (2013). The impact of membership overlap on growth: An ecological competition view of online groups. Organization Science24(2), 414-431.

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