Online communities of consumption (OCCs) are appealing for all sorts of reasons. Consumers can meet like-minded people, gather information on any topic, and find an audience for what they have to offer. Until now, research has focused primarily on the advantages of OCCs, but Kristine De Valck and her team were interested in the problems that arise in virtual communities and how those problems can be dealt with effectively. Their study shows that governance systems and moderation practices are essential to OCC success and viability.
OCC governance: clan, hierarchy, or market structures
Three main types of social control structures help OCCs to run smoothly. Those that have no single leader operate according to clan governance, whereby all members hold equal status, and traditions act as the glue that holds the community together. For example, “In a parenting community, members use photos of their kids as avatars that they regularly update to reflect seasonal events (Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day),” says Kristine De Valck. “If a member neglects this tradition, he or she will be reprimanded by others and thus reminded of community norms. If peer pressure is ineffective, clan members can ignore or even unfriend the deviant member.”
In contrast, in OCCs characterized by hierarchy governance, real power and control methods are available to ensure alignment with imposed norms. This is the case in communities created by brands like Coca Cola or L’Oreal. The OCCs are created for customers or partners, but parent companies do not turn governance over to members. They can define norms, and official administrators can intervene technologically to ban members who behave inappropriately. “The challenge is to manage the tension between consumers — who are told that the brand is offering them their own space to interact — and the parent company, which is monitoring participants’ exchanges to protect its brand.” Still, in this type of OCC, members generally recognize legitimate authority over community interaction.
Finally, transaction-oriented OCCs like Ebay or other swapping sites, feature market governance and abide by the logics of fair exchange. Buyers and sellers agree on prices or mutually acceptable trades. Once a transaction has been completed, community involvement may naturally end. Notions of value and what De Valck refers to as “direct reciprocity” ensure order and appropriate behavior in this type of OCC, where legal action can be taken if one party does not hold up his or her end of a deal.
Governance systems and moderation practices are essential to online communities of consumption viability.
Hybrid systems: gift and reputation governance
In addition to pinpointing the three core governing forces in OCCs, De Valck and her co-researchers identified two new types of regulating mechanisms. “Community-level governance concepts are actually too abstract. There is usually a combination of systems at work, even when one type of governance seems to dominate.” For example, clan governance may dominate in a parenting community, but members also exchange clothing and toys, which adds a market dimension to community dealings. This hybrid structure constitutes gift governance and is characterized by a blend of generosity and obligation. Community members give “gifts” (such as sharing parenting tips), but they expect to get something in return (for example, helpful advice from other parents). De Valck comments, “In my opinion, this notion of gifting, or freely sharing knowledge, expertise, and opinions, is the true essence of the social internet.” However, free-riding can be a problem. Some people collect a lot of tips without contributing anything in return, and non-participation or a lack of sufficient input can considerably shorten an OCC’s lifespan.
The second hybrid system the researchers have uncovered is reputation governance, a blend of hierarchy and clan mechanisms. De Valck explains, “In OCCs like the parenting community I’ve mentioned, all members begin as equal, but some people offer better advice or contribute more expertise than others.” As a result, their individual status in the community increases and they acquire quasi-hierarchical power. “Their authority enables them to enforce community rules, especially for newcomers.” Community participants with strong reputations and voices are the kind of people OCC managers need to recruit as volunteer moderators. They can even give them technical power to ban community members who display inappropriate behavior.
Sustaining the community: the biggest moderation challenge
“A lot has been written about moderation practices that implement social control in OCCs,” says De Valck. “Socialization initiatives can foster early engagement, for example, and coercive action can bring deviant behavior back in line.” Still, effective moderation requires taking two specific factors into account: the type of governance structure that dominates in the OCC (clan, hierarchy, or market), and the stage of community interaction (initiation, maintenance, or termination). The biggest challenges arise at the maintenance level: how can you ensure people keep interacting with the community? “Over time, some people remain focused on the ‘official’ OCC topic, but others introduce unrelated subjects.” This happened at Threadless, which offers an OCC where designers can propose t-shirt designs and get feedback from followers. The company uses a voting system to determine which t-shirts are most likely to succeed on the market and thus make enlightened manufacturing decisions. But De Valck explains that community members started using the OCC to talk about unrelated subjects, like their cats.
This actually jeopardized the OCC, frustrating designers and tempting them to go elsewhere. To prevent such a turn of events, a company like Threadless could create separate spaces, like a design forum and a general discussion forum. Another option is to create parallel control systems within a community. Doctissimo, a health and medical information OCC, created two distinct community spaces, one with hierarchical control, and one without. The first contains editorial content verified by doctors and is subject to manager control, whereas the second provides uncensored forums for free sharing and exchange of information and experiences. “Communities only stay alive through the participation and contributions of community members,” De Valck comments. “It is therefore critical to figure out the right balance between freedom and control.”
The study also highlights areas for further research into social control in OCCs. “We have created an integrative vocabulary that makes it possible to systematically classify and explore the issues in a way that was not previously possible. We also discovered two new governance concepts (gift and reputation). We now have the means to proceed and effectively explore one of our original interests, which is the positive and negative effects of conflict in OCCs."