This summer (June/July, 2015), I am leaving Temple U. and joining U. of Virginia.

As part of that move, I’m also moving over my intermittent blogging here.

The Emergence of Online Community Leadership

What makes someone influential in an online community? Are there identifiable behaviors associated with being viewed by other participants as a leader? Are these emergent leaders different than other participants?

These are some of the questions that my colleagues and I address in:

Steven L. Johnson, Hani Safadi, and Samer Faraj (2015). “The Emergence of Online Community Leadership” Information Systems Research, 26(1), 165-187.

Here’s the article abstract:

Compared to traditional organizations, online community leadership processes and how leaders emerge are not well studied. Previous studies of online leadership have often identified leaders as those who administer forums or have high network centrality scores.

Although communication in online communities occurs almost exclusively through written words, little research has addressed how the comparative use of language shapes community dynamics. Using participant surveys to identify leading online community members, this study analyzes a year of communication network history and message content to assess whether language use differentiates leaders from other core community participants.

We contribute a novel use of textual analysis to develop a model of language use to evaluate the utterances of all participants in the community. We find that beyond communication network position–in terms of formal role, centrality, membership in the core, and boundary spanning– those viewed as leaders by other participants, post a large number of positive, concise posts with simple language familiar to other participants.

This research contributes a language model to study online language use and by pointing to the emergent and shared nature of online community leadership.

Our key finding is that emergent leaders — those viewed as most influential by other participants — tend to use language differently than other participants.  Specifically, in the communities we studied we found leaders:

  • are among most frequent posters,
  • use positive language,
  • have concise posts (less words per post),
  • use simpler language (higher readability scores), and
  • use language that is more prototypical of the community (language in their posts looks more like the typical language of all other participants).

This result holds after controlling for formal roles (being a designated administrator or moderator) and after controlling for network position (e.g., posting in more central portions of the communication network). Thus, in providing leadership it is not just about filling a role or being highly visible to others, it’s also about the language you use.

I doubt there is one single pattern of language usage that is universally associated with online leadership. Although many features are language usage are probably similar across many social media collaborations, I suspect the language of leadership differs in different types of collaborations. (Indeed, this is an interesting question for future research.)

If you’d like to read a nearly final draft of full paper, you can find it at this link: “The Emergence of Online Community Leadership” (the published version requires an ISR subscription to access).

3 Keys To Starting an Online Community

Are You My Tribe?

I received an email last week asking me for advice about starting a new online community (thank you, ML).

I am thinking about starting my own social network. I have many questions. I was wondering do you think you could do a blog post about starting a social network? What do you think about the Ning platform? Which platform do you think would be best?

Even though I’ve formally studied online communities for nearly a decade, I found the question surprisingly difficult to answer. Nonetheless, here’s my summation of the 3 most important considerations for stating an online community.

1. Tribe or Guild?

At the most basic level, people are looking for one of two things in an online community:

  • Social: a place to hang out with friends, or
  • Information: a place to get answers to questions.

The best social networks provide both, but one or the other is the primary reason a group exists. (Tribes have guilds and guild members also form tribes.)

What can you provide? Do you have a particular talent for “throwing a good party”? In that case, you just might  pull off the exceeding difficult task of forging a tribe. People with common sensibilities are out there wandering the web, they are just really hard to find. (Hint: It helps if you can jump-start the process by co-opting an existing tribe.)

Or, are you more interested in hanging out with people who can share tips and tricks about a common interest? That’s the more typical route for an online community… guild members who swap stories, resources, and insights about an area of interest.

Pick one: tribe or guild. That’s your starting point for a clear vision.

2. Platforms Don’t Matter (Much), Only People Do

I can distinctly remember the first social network I was active in back in the late-1980’s … a bulletin-board like system for students, faculty, and staff of William & Mary (platform was Participate by Unison running on Primos). Green screens with 80 character columns.

Nothing fancy. No color. Not even bold or italics. Just text.

Yet, there was a strong sense of community. Countless hours to be wasted. It was great fun.

Now, the right platform can make it easier for people to find your community. It can make it easier to organize content, share responsibilities, and shape behaviors. But, the platform does not matter unless people want to be there.

Choosing the platform is one of the least important decisions. Identify a clear vision, create compelling value to members, and cultivate a bottomless reserve of patience and determination. That’s what will see your new community through.

3. The Big Secret

My most important advice for starting an online community is: don’t do it.

There are millions of online communities and social networks. If your interest is so obscure that no one is yet talking about it online, how will you ever attract enough interest to sustain a community?

Instead of forming a brand new online community, look hard and long for your existing tribe or your existing guild. Odds are good they will welcome your energy and enthusiasm. It’s not just the first follower, but also the second, third, fourth, and thousandth that make a community. You provide an invaluable service by channeling your energy and enthusiasm into an existing venture.

Your Turn

What do you think? Is there room on the world wide web for yet another social network? If you were starting an online community today, what platform would you recommend?

Image credit: Smithsonian Institution (no known copyright)

What is a Like Bomb? Is it Good or Bad?

Some people like bombs, others just Like Bomb.

Among active Facebook users, the term “Like Bomb” describes someone rapidly liking a whole bunch of content on your wall. The question is when, if ever, is this a good thing to do?

Like so much else in life, one person’s trash is another’s treasures. Some people love broccoli, other’s can’t abide it. Some people love seeing a long, raid list of notifications show up. Others, especially those who get Facebook notifications on their cell phone or email Inbox, may find it highly annoying.

And, thus, there’s a simple answer:

  • If you don’t know someone well enough to predict their reaction, it’s probably a bad idea to Like Bomb their Facebook wall.
  • If someone hits your wall hard, it’s fair game to return the favor.
  • If you’re looking to engage with someone on Facebook, hit like a maximum of 3-5 items and craft a heart-felt comment.

Another word of warning: too many likes in a rapid span and you’ll end up in Facebook jail. That’s a temporary (but highly annoying) condition whereby Facebook disables the like (and/or commenting) features for your account.

What do you think? Are you happy or annoyed when someone blows up your Facebook notification stream with a dozen or more likes?

Image Source: The Library of Congress, no known copyright

Will Google Glass be successful? Lessons from Segway and iPhone

Google Glass (from Wikipedia)

A story aired on NPR this morning about the backlash Google Glass is already facing, even before it is generally available:

Right now, Google Glass might be the world’s worst spy camera; if you go out in public with a pair on, you are guaranteed to attract attention. Still, the idea of techies mounting a tiny screen and a little camera to their faces makes millions of people uncomfortable.

According to Sarah Rotman Epps, a tech analyst at Forrester Research, that is why Google is rolling out Glass to the world slowly in stages.

“Google has been incredibly transparent … with their Glass rollout,” Epps says. “They realize that Google Glass will require shifting social norms to be accepted.”

The excitement about Google Glass reminds me of the buzz back in Fall, 2001 about Segway:

[Inventor Kamen] believes the Segway “will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.” He imagines them everywhere: in parks and at Disneyland, on battlefields and factory floors, but especially on downtown sidewalks from Seattle to Shanghai. “Cars are great for going long distances,” Kamen says, “but it makes no sense at all for people in cities to use a 4,000-lb. piece of metal to haul their 150-lb. asses around town.” In the future he envisions, cars will be banished from urban centers to make room for millions of “empowered pedestrians”–empowered, naturally, by Kamen’s brainchild.

Segway does not release sales figures, but best estimates are that no more than 100,000 units have shipped in a decade of sales.

Six years after the release of the Segway, another eagerly anticipated product hit the marketplace (from Jan., 2007):

After more than two years in the making, Apple CEO Steve Jobs Tuesday announced the company’s intention to enter the mobile handset market, unveiling the new Apple iPhone. The iPhone brings together several features of the iPod, digital camera, smart phones and even portable computing to one device, with a widescreen display and an innovative input method.

“Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything,” Jobs said.

Through six generations of releases Apple has now sold 300-350 million iPhones.

Image credit: Dylan Love in Business Insider

Google Glass: Segway or iPhone?

What is a better model for predicting the trajectory of Google Glass?

Will Google Glass suffer the same disappointing fate as Segway? Will it wilt under the weight of high expectations and resistance to change? Or, is it a revolutionary product that defines a new mode of communication and computing?

In its favor, Google Glass is less expensive, is a natural evolution of existing products and has a supportive ecosystem of developers. Yet, as Ms. Epps said, “Google Glass will require shifting social norms to be accepted.” Demonstrating the risks, cafes, casinos, and other locations with privacy concerns have already moved to ban the use of Google Glass.

Google is pioneering an entirely new model of computing usage. Early users reviews are positive, but without a consumer price tag it is difficult to predict consumer viability. There’s a big difference in the level of consumer demand for a $200 product than a $500 one. Also, Google still has time to address privacy concerns. (For example, it could add a visible indicator showing when a device is recording.)

Also, if the long rumored segment of smart-watches emerges, Google Glass will face competition. There is no doubt a huge market for even more portable Internet-enabled smart devices, but it is too early to tell what form factor will gain social acceptance.

What do you think? Will Google Glass be the next iPhone or the next Segway?


What Makes a Great Blog?

Credit: The U.S. National Archives
If only there was a gauge like this to measure blog health

Today’s “ask an expert” question from Klout.com is:

What are some characteristics shared by the best blogs?

My answer:

The best blogs:
1. Convey informed passion about a topic,
2. Share a mix of opinion and facts in a consistent voice… regular readers know what to expect,
3. Are updated consistently so there’s a reason to return,
4. Have a mix of words, pictures and/or video.
5. Cultivate community in comments.

What do you think makes a great blog?

Image Credit: The U.S. National Archives

Classic Books on Management

Today’s question from Klout.com is about Management:

What are the best books for someone who is looking to broaden their management skills and why?

My response:

Here’s a set of classics with timeless advice for personal and organizational success: How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie; The One Minute Manager, Blanchard & Johnson; Built to Last, Collins & Porras; Good to Great, Collins; High Output Management, Grove; Crossing the Chasm, Moore.

And, here they are in a convenient list:

What would you add to this list? Why?

Have Twitter and Facebook Killed Blogging Yet?

From UW Digital Collections
“I am so totally going to blog about this party.”

Today’s question from Klout:

Are social media websites like Twitter and Facebook killing the blog? Why or why not?

My answer:

I think overall that Twitter and Facebook are helping, rather than hurting, blogs because they make it easier to find good blog content. There’s still an interest in reading (and writing) content that fits better on a blog. Also, many people like the flexibility and control of having their own site.

Additional thoughts…

With so many people on social networking sites, do you think that helps or hurts blogs?

What’s the easiest way to live-blog an event?

Credit: State Library of New South Wales collection
Live-Blogging Old Style

Today’s question from Klout is:

What’s the easiest way to live blog an event and why?

My response (links added here):

What works for me is to live-tweet and then post a collection of tweets as a blog post (a service like Storify makes that easy to do). I like this approach because I can easily monitor or amplify (RT) what others say and also post pictures. Twitter also helps me keep updates short and snappy.

Some additional advice:

  • Have a story arch: introduce the event, post (or paint) a picture of the setting, do your updates during the event, and also provide an acknowledgement of when the event ends. 
  • Provide a summary and highlights, not a transcript!
  • Be generous with credit: live-blogging is a great way to build connections by highlighting interesting things that other people are saying and doing.
  • Engage in dialogue with those following along.
  • Don’t forget to update your live-blog post with relevant links to the event’s official website and other information that will provide useful context for someone who reads the post later.

What do you think makes a good live-blog? Any advice to others who want to live-blog an event

In-Class Activity on Ethics in Social Media

For this week’s meeting of my social media innovation class I created an in-class activity related to ethics and social media.

Activity Structure

The structure of the activity is:

1. Present brief scenarios.

2. Assign student teams to advocate for the “agree” and “disagree” sides of the argument.

3. Give students time to develop those arguments.

4. For each of the three scenarios:

  • Take a vote on student positions.
  • Have the “agree” and “disagree” teams present their arguments.
  • Have any other students also offer justification for their stance.
  • Take another vote to see if positions have changed.

This is the first time I’ve done this activity and I think that structure worked well.

Which path do you choose?

Social Media Scenarios

Here are the three scenarios I created.

Scenario #A: One of your co-workers has signed up for the free version of a direct competitors product. One day they get an email blast about a major customer issue and the email was accidently sent with all of the recipients in the cc field instead of the bcc field. Your co-worker suggests adding all of those email addresses to your company’s marketing email list. Do you agree?

Scenario #B: One of your co-workers is assigned to investigate strengths and weakness of a competitor’s product. They create a website on your company’s intranet (e.g., only viewable by employees) that quotes from every negative consumer review they can find on social media or product review websites. One of your co-workers thinks that info should be posted as an anonymous public website. Do you agree?

Scenario #C: You work for a company with a small but loyal customer base. The company has cash flow problems and is concerned about making the next payroll. It may not be able to pay employees like you! A direct marketing firm offers a substantial amount of money if you will sell them the email list of your customers. Your TOS (terms of service) say you will never sell customers’ personal information but it also says the terms can be unilaterally changed at any time. Do you sell the email list to keep the company afloat?

When I use this activity again, I’ll likely tweak the scenarios a little bit. I’d also love to find videos or real-world examples that could be used instead. (If you know of any, please share!)


In initial voting, the students were divided on Scenarios #A and #C (roughly 25% to 75%). When students changed their mind it was a small movement towards the majority opinion. There was almost no-one voting for the “Agree” side of Scenario #B.

If you’re interested in seeing more details on how I administered this, here’s a copy of the hand-out I created: Prof. Johnson Social Media Ethics Activity.

Thank You

A major thank you to everyone who responded to my Twitter and Facebook requests for input on social media ethical issues. It was very helpful.

What do you think? Are these realistic scenarios? What are other scenarios you think students about to enter the workforce should be well-informed about?

Image credit: Go Away! by Steven L. Johnson