My primary area of research is in online communities as an example of social media collaboration. I am interested in how and when collaboration through social media generates social capital.


Online Leadership

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

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.

Steven L. Johnson (2010). Should I Stay or Should I Go? Continued Participation Intentions in Online Communities in Leslie A. Toombs (Ed.), Proceedings of the Seventieth Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management (CD), ISSN 1543-8643. Full paper (PDF).

Abstract: Online communities formed by volunteer members are increasingly recognized as sources of innovative ideas, as producers of information goods, and as a critical component for successful product marketing. Understanding motivation for continued participation in online communities is an understudied area of research with practical relevance. We propose that continued participation in online communities is a multi-dimensional construct. To investigate individual-level and online community-level antecedents of two dimensions of continued participation, participation continuance intentions and participation intensity intentions, we analyze 534 survey responses and communication history of 135,477 messages from members of 33 different online communities. Our cross-level analysis furthers the understanding of the relationship between interaction with online community leadership, psychological safety, participation continuance intentions and participation intensity intentions.

This study provides support for the proposition that participation intentions in online communities is a multi-dimensional construct. Further, we find evidence that online community psychological safety is both a contextual factor influenced by online community leadership as well as an influence on individual participation intentions. The findings demonstrate the importance of a multi-level approach to studying online community participation. We illustrate the use of hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) as one technique for expanding multi-level research into the field of online community study. The improved understanding of continued participation in online communities provided by this study extends theories of online communities and expands practitioner knowledge of this important phenomenon.

Steven L. Johnson (2008). Impact of leadership on continued participation in online groups. Unpublished dissertation. U. of Maryland, College Park.

Abstract: Online groups formed by volunteer members are increasingly recognized as sources of innovative ideas, as producers of information goods, and as a critical component for successful product marketing. Compared to formal organizations, online groups appear as anarchic collections of individuals largely devoid of formal authority. Yet online groups develop strong group norms, successfully generate information goods, and satisfy member needs–outcomes that seem impossible without some form of leadership by influential members. Research on open-membership voluntary online groups has consistently found that contribution to online groups is dominated by a small percentage of participants.

The goal of this research is to better understand the role of leadership in online groups and to evaluate the impact of leadership in maintaining online groups by supporting continued participation intentions of existing members. I explored three related questions regarding leadership in online groups. First, does member interaction with group leaders contribute to continued participation intentions over and above a model based on past participation? Second, do shared context and direct communication with leaders impact continued participation intentions? And third, do group characteristics–group psychological safety, group size, and perceived number of leaders–moderate the relationship between group members and group leaders? I collected 535 survey responses from members of thirty-three different online groups (average of sixteen members per group) and also analyzed group communication history (a total of 135,477 messages). This cross-level analysis furthers our understanding of the relationship between interaction with group leadership, psychological safety, participation role intentions, and turnover intentions. I found that leadership in online groups is a determinant of online group outcomes. Online group leaders shape the group context, including psychological safety, which encourages or discourages participation.

This study shows that leadership processes, group context, and differentiation among dimensions of participation intentions are all important considerations for further understanding of online groups.

Network Exchange Patterns

Samer Faraj and Steven L. Johnson (2011). Network Exchange Patterns in Online CommunitiesOrganization Science, November/December 2011 22:1464-1480; published online before print December 29, 2010, DOI:10.1287/orsc.1100.0600. Full paper (PDF).

Abstract: Large-scale online communities rely on computer-mediated communication between participants, enabling them to sustain interactions and exchange on a scale hitherto unknown. Yet, little research has focused on how these online communities sustain themselves and how their interactions are structured. In this paper, we theorize and empirically measure the network exchange patterns of long-duration sustainable online communities. We propose that participation dynamics follow specific forms of social exchange: direct reciprocity, indirect reciprocity, and preferential attachment. We integrate diverse findings about individual participation motivations by identifying how individual behavior manifests in network-level structures of online communities. We studied five online communities over 27 months and analyzed 38,483 interactions using exponential random graph (p*) models and mixed-effects ANCOVA analysis. In a test of competing models, we find that network exchange patterns in online community communication networks are characterized by direct reciprocity and indirect reciprocity patterns and, surprisingly, a tendency away from preferential attachment. Our findings undermine previous explanations that online exchange follows a power law distribution based on people wanting to connect to “popular” others in online communities. Our work contributes to theories of new organizational forms by identifying network exchange patterns that regulate participation and sustain online communities.

Steven L. Johnson, Samer Faraj and Srinivas Kudaravalli (2014). “Emergence of Power Laws in Online Communities: The Role of Social Mechanisms and Preferential Attachment“, MIS Quarterly, 38(3), p. 795-808.

Abstract: Online communities bring together individuals with shared interest in joint action or sustained interaction. Power law distributions of user popularity appear ubiquitous in online communities but their formation mechanisms are not well understood. This study tests for the formation of power law distributions via the mechanisms of preferential attachment, least efforts, direct reciprocity and indirect reciprocity. Preferential attachment, where new entrants favor connections with already popular participants, is the predominant explanation suggested by prior literature. Yet, the attribution of preferential attachment or any other mechanism as a single unitary reason for the emergence of power law distributions runs contrary to the social nature of online communities and does not account for diversity of participants’ motivation. Agent based modeling is used to test if a single social mechanism alone or multiple mechanisms together can generate power law distributions observed in online communities. Data from 28 online communities is used to calibrate, validate, and analyze the simulation. Simulated communication networks are randomly generated according to parameters for each hypothesis. Then the fit of the power law distribution in the model testing subset is compared against the fit for these simulated networks. The major finding is that in contrast to research in more general network settings, neither preferential attachment nor any other single mechanism alone generates a power law distribution. Instead, a blended model of preferential attachment with other social network formation mechanisms was most consistent with power law distributions seen in online communities. This suggests the need to move away from stylized explanations of network emergence that rely on single theories toward more highly socialized and multi-theoretic explanations of community development.

Steven L. Johnson and Samer Faraj (2005), “Preferential Attachment and Mutuality in Electronic Knowledge Networks,” International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS 2005), December 2005, Las Vegas, NV. Full paper (PDF).

Abstract: The rapid adoption of Internet technology has accelerated the establishment of platforms for virtual interaction that overcome the inherent time and space limitations of face to face communication. The objective of this study is to investigate the individual and network level mechanisms that characterize interactions on these electronic knowledge networks (EKNs). Toward that goal, we develop a simulation model of a thread-based asynchronous EKN and provide results based on 330 runs of the model (simulating a total of 3,643,942 messages generated by 38,860 authors). This study contributes to our understanding of electronic knowledge networks by demonstrating the importance of structural characteristics in influencing participant behaviors. We focus specifically on the role of preferential attachment (the tendency to associate with the most popular participants) and mutuality (the tendency to maintain symmetry in relationships with others) in network formation. By using a simulation method and taking into account the nature of interpersonal ties, the study extends previous mathematical models of network formation to the specific setting of online knowledge exchange between individuals.

Online Community Participation

Samer Faraj, Molly McLure Wasko and Steven L. Johnson (2008). The structure and processes of electronic knowledge networks in I. Becerra-Fernandez and D. Leidner (eds.), Advances in Management Information Systems, Knowledge Management: An Evolutionary View of the Field. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc. Full paper (PDF).

Abstract: Advances in information and communication technologies have enabled the creation of “online communities,” where individuals congregate via a shared technology to engage in a variety of social interactions. In addition to purely social communities (such as Facebook or MySpace), some communities develop for the primary purpose of knowledge exchange, creating electronic communities of practice akin to an online help desk. We refer to these communities as electronic knowledge networks (EKNs). Given the success and proliferation of EKNs openly available on the Internet, organizations are investigating the creation and management of EKNs as a crucial knowledge management technology to support intra-organizational knowledge exchange.

This chapter reviews the literature on two key issues that are essential for understanding knowledge exchange in EKNs: why people participate and how these networks are structured to ensure sustainability over time. Findings suggest that individuals participate in EKNs due to self-interest, such as gaining access to information and advice, and enhancing one’s reputation or influence. In addition to self-interest, research also indicates that participation in EKNs is also driven by high levels of social capital, such as feelings of trust and obligation, that stem from the social interactions in the network. In terms of network sustainability, research indicates the EKNs are predominately structured as scale-free networks, where the vast majority of effort is contributed by a small minority of individuals. Participation in these networks also exhibits certain underlying patterns of exchange, such as patterns of reciprocity, generalized exchange, and, finally, preferential attachment. This chapter ends by suggesting the implications of this research for organizations, and areas in need of future research.

Adrian Yeow, Steven L. Johnson and Samer Faraj (2006), “Lurking: Legitimate or Illegitimate Peripheral Participation?,” International Conference of Information Systems, (ICIS 2006), December 2006, Milwaulkee, Wisconsin.  Full paper (PDF).

Abstract: By sponsoring, promoting or simply monitoring virtual communities related to their products, work processes, and other topics of interest, organizations leverage the efforts, insights and abilities of individuals inside and outside their organization. Lurkers are participants who persistently demure from engaging in the core activities that sustain a virtual community. Because virtual communities are perpetuated through voluntary contributions, the persistent peripheral participation of lurkers is sometimes viewed negatively as social loafing or free-riding. Alternatively, an individual may engage in legitimate peripheral participation when their passive monitoring of group activities educates, socializes and otherwise prepares them for more effective contribution.

We reconcile these conflicting views of lurking with individual- and community-level models of peripheral participation that include a parsimonious typology of virtual communities. Through empirical tests based on over 395,000 observations gathered over 5 months from 548 online discussion forums we demonstrate how lurking effects growth in site membership and participation. We conclude that lurking as legitimate or illegitimate peripheral participation is context-dependent and a more complex, nuanced activity than previously theorized and measured.

Software Development

Kudaravalli, Srinivas, Samer Faraj, and Steven L. Johnson (2017), “A configural approach to coordinating expertise in software development teamsMIS Quarterly, 41(1), 43-64.

Abstract: Despite the recognition of how important expertise coordination is to the performance of software development teams, understanding of how expertise is coordinated in practice is limited. We adopt a configural approach to develop a theoretical model of expertise coordination that differentiates between design collaboration and technical collaboration. We propose that neither a strictly centralized, top-down model nor a largely decentralized approach is superior. Our model is tested in a field study of 71 software development teams.

We conclude that because design work addresses ill-structured problems with diverse potential solutions, decentralization of design collaboration can lead to greater coordination success and reduced team conflict. Conversely, technical work benefits from centralized collaboration. We find that task knowledge tacitness strengthens these relationships between collaboration configuration and coordination outcomes and that team conflict mediates the relationships. Our findings underline the need to differentiate between technical and design collaboration and point to the importance of certain configurations in reducing team conflict and increasing coordination success in software development teams. This paper opens up new research avenues to explore the collaborative mechanisms underlying knowledge team performance.