Getting a handle on community

Community builds trust

Cite as “Caron, B (2015) Getting a Handle on Community, retrieved [date] .”

The role of community may be the most important; least understood aspect of developing and sustaining knowledge sharing activities. It would not be an understatement to claim that knowledge sharing rests as much on community as it does on technology. To understand why this is so, it is important to understand that community is two things at the same time: community represents a social container, it describes the cohort, defines the membership for a group. Community also describes a quality of interaction within this group, a shared sense of belonging and trust. The amount of community in a group determines the level at which individuals will voluntarily support the goals of the group.

This second sense of the term “community” is what people are talking about when they propose to “build community”. Building more community into an organization or group gives each member a greater stake in the collective goal.

To makes things clear, let’s agree on terminology for the following section. The term “community” will be used to describe the social container and “community-sense” to describe the quality of shared belonging and trust within the group. A community is a group where the members share community-sense. A “weak” community is a community where the community-sense is low and a “strong” community is one where community-sense is high.

Community Sense

“Community-sense” is also a term used in social psychology (McMillan and Chaves 1986; Chipeur and Pretty 1999). Community-sense is what Wenger calls the “community element” of a community of practice (Wenger et al 2002). On the sociology side, community-sense also implies membership and consequent obligations, practical and moral. Community-sense provides the impetus for the informal community sanctions that help prevent “free-riders” from benefiting from the work of the community (Thompson 1993).

Community-sense is the engine for social capital (Putnam 2000), for shared trust (Fukuyama 1995), shared identity (Marcus 1992), shared intimacy (e.g., friendship) (Giddens 1991), and reputation (Rheingold 2002). On a grander scale, Anderson (1983) uses an “imagined” community to describe national societies, while the Drucker Foundation (Hesselbein, et al, 1998) posits that community-sense is the answer to many current social problems. Caron (2003) also notes that communities may not be universally positive in their social consequences (remember Jonestown and Pleasantville). 

There is also a growing literature on community (Koh, et al 2002, Smith and Kollock 1999), and community-sense (Blanchard and Marcus 2002) for virtual organizations, online networks (Cosley et al 2005, Butler et al 2007), and weblogs (Broß, Sack and Meinel 2007). Most of these apply some aspect of knowledge management (Finholt, Sproull and Keisler 2002) or social science (e.g., motivation research (Cosley 2005), emotions (Tanner 2005)).

References and Further Readings

Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Blanchard, A.L. and M. L. Markus. 2002. Sense of Virtual Community – Maintaining the Experience of Belonging. In Proceedings of the 35th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.

Brown, J. S. and P. Duguid. 1991. Organizational knowledge and communities of practice. Organization Science. Vol. 2, No. 1. February. pp. 40-57.

Broß, Justis, Harold Sack, and Christof Meinel. 2007. Encouraging Participation in Virtual Communities: The “IT-summit-blog” Case. eSociety.

Butler, Brian, Lee Sproull, Sara Kiesler, Robert Kraut. 2007. Community Effort in Online Groups: Who Does the Work and Why? In Leadership at a Distance: Research in Technologically- Supported Work. Suzanne P. Weisband, ed. Psychology Press.

Caron, Bruce. 2003. Community, Democracy and Performance: The Urban Practice of Kyoto’s Higashi-Kujo Madang. Santa Barbara: The New Media Studio.
Available online at

Caron, Bruce. 2005. “Ethnic Cultural Theme Parks in China and Japan: Toward an Anthropology of Intentional Tradition.” in Tourism as a Complex Phenomenon. [総合的現象としての観光] Nobukiyo Eguchi, ed. Kyoto: Koyoshobo

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi. 1991. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Collins.

Chipuer, H. M., & Pretty, G. M. H. 1999. “A review of the Sense of Community Index: Current uses, factor structure, reliability, and further development.” Journal of Community Psychology, 27(6), 643-658.

Cohen, A. P. 1985. The Sybolic Construction of Community. Chichester, Sussex: Ellis Horwood Ltd.

Cosley, Dan. 2005. “Mining Social Theory to Build Member-Maintained Communities.” AAAI.

Cosley Dan, Dan Frankowski, Sara Kiesler, Loren Terveen, John Riedl. 2005. How Oversight Improves Member-Maintained Communities. Proceedings of the CHI.

Galegher, Jolene, Lee Sproull, and Sara Kiesler. 1998. Legitimacy, authority and community in electronic support groups. Written Communication, 15, 493-530.

Hesselbein, Frances, Marshall Goldsmith, Richard Bechard, and Richard F. Schubert. 1998. The Community of the Future. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Hildreth, Paul and Chris Kimble. 2004. Knowledge Networks: Innovation through Communities of Practice. London: Hershey; Idea Group Inc.

Finholt, Thomas A., Lee Sproull, and Sara Keisler. 2002. Outsiders on the Inside: Sharing know- how across time and space. In Distributed Work. Pamala J. Hinds and Sara Keisler. eds. Boston: MIT Press.

Giamatti, A. Bartlett. 1989. Take Time for Paradise: Americans and their Games. New York: Summit Books.




So, I’m writing a batch of user stories today for a software project. This got me thinking. What is my own user story for ello? What am I looking for that I’m not getting from Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.? What is a social network service for?

Part of the allure of ello is starting over. I’ve made mistakes on Facebook, liked too many pages, friended too many people. And there’s way, way too much sponsored content. And every time I refresh MY timeline, it’s completely different, and I can never find what I’m looking for, that I was looking AT just ten seconds ago. Facebook is broken. Twitter is great for immediate, topical interests, and for the buzz around events. I really like how G+ handles photos, and its search-ability. G+ is the closest service to what I envision as a great social network platform. I think ello has learned a lot from it. The problem is that people aren’t there.

What I’m looking for, what my own user story is for ello, begins with my desire to stay connected to creative people I’ve met at conferences or online, or I’ve read their books or blogs. My hope is to have ongoing, constructive conversations with them, to add my thoughts to theirs, to be able to pose a question now and then, like I would when we are having a beer at SXSW, or Dent, or (way back when) Gnomedex, or somewhere else. At it’s best, ello is an ongoing, somewhat casual connection between creative folk who happen to live wherever they do. We can log in and share a bit of insight, gain some collective intelligence, show some empathy, display some artistry, and live closer to the edge of the elsewhere where innovation happens.

I like the simplicity of the interface. I like being able to see who the people I want to follow are themselves following. I like getting informed when someone follows me. I don’t need to know should they decide to not follow me sometime later. I like how it eats up my big JPEGs. I pop these up on Flickr, so I don’t need ello to be my photo library. I really like not seeing ads. I would like to see some open-source code, as this aligns the service with its pledge to become something better than a cash cow for its makers. I would like to see ello blossom as a nextgen service, one that is owned by its users (somehow). I would also like to help celebrate the makers who would enable this kind of service.

Animated GIF by Dave Whyte @beesandbombs

Intentional Culture and Anthropology: ten years later

That's me with the camera
That’s me with the video camera

Ten years ago I published a paper (in Japanese) about doing an ethnography of intentional cultures and traditions. Ten years before that, I was capturing the very intentional effort of a Korean cultural community in Kyoto to build their own public festival. In the past ten years, I have been working toward an understanding of virtual communities in the arena of science research and data.

Here is a link to the English version of my 2004 paper: Ethnic Cultural Theme Parks in China and Japan: Toward an Anthropology of Intentional Tradition


Intentional cultures are not limited to theme parks and cities (such as Las Vegas) that are rebuilt as theme parks, but can be seen as the future of traditional (or post-traditional) culture. The act of producing intentional tradition represents a mode of “detraditionalization” in Giddens’ perspective: “A detraditionalizing social order is one in which the population becomes more active and reflexive, although the meaning of ‘reflexive’ should be properly understood. Where the past has lost its hold, or becomes one ‘reason’ among others for doing what one does, pre-existing habits are only a limited guide to action; while the future, open to numerous ‘scenarios’, becomes of compelling interest (Giddens, 1994, 92-93).” Theme parks compete with each other and with other types of destination for scarce tourist cash flows. The ability of cultural theme parks to innovate traditions—to attempt to manage their future—is crucial to their competitive position. So too, the workers in these theme parks use intentional traditions to innovate their own ethnic markers and construct cultural practices that offer them a future in the tourism industry: the world’s largest industry. And these ethnic markers and cultural practices are highly competitive as valued tokens in the economy and society of ethnic minority locales around China. In Japan, foreign-themed parks reinforce the islanders’ sense of belonging to the wider world. These offer local experiences of far-away traditions, experiences that are added to their visitors’ reflexive construction of their sense of self and national identity.

Giddens, Anthony. 1994. Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Photo by Erich Schienke

Opening up the Virtual Democracy Blog

This blog has been focused on conversations about society on the web. As we spend more and more hours hooked into socially networked media feeds and opportunities to interact with others who are otherwise strangers, we need to look at the quotient of the time our own voices matter in this mix. Having a say in the place where we dwell is as important on the web as it is in our towns and families. This thread of conversation will remain a part of the blog. At the same time there are a number of other questions concerning how information and knowledge are generated and controlled, that we, the cybersocialstructure team want to open up to a wide range of conversations. So, expect good things to come.

Photo Credit: aurelio.asian on Flickr

Robert Darnton: “A digital library better than Google’s” (NYT)

this is the link

Darnton says:

“…we should not abandon Google’s dream of making all the books in the world available to everyone. Instead, we should build a digital public library, which would provide these digital copies free of charge to readers. Yes, many problems — legal, financial, technological, political — stand in the way. All can be solved.”


And he’s right…

Facebook, schmacebook: We’re getting tired of shopping at the company store

I can’t wait to get off Facebook. Everyone I know can’t wait to get off Facebook. We are all waiting for the next good thing to come along and take us off this island of wasted opportunities. The two questions surrounding this situation are these: what’s wrong with Facebook? and what can we know, say, or do to help the next good thing happen?
A large problem with Facebook has to do not with what it does (or fails to do) but what it is. In fact, Facebook nailed the whole “social” side of social networking early on, only to then lose it. Facebook is a piece of software run by someone else with a business model designed to maximize how my content can be used by them to make money, but not for me. I donate my content and my time, and they keep tweaking the service to make my contributions more valuable for them. This situation is hardly a secret, so we are not talking about deception here. Just bad faith. Facebook is a social network service designed to convert my efforts (and those of 500 million others) into their IPO. Fine. For this, what do I get? A place to pop up microblogs (status updates). A space for random photos and videos (and a not very good service in terms of storing and retrieving these).  A constantly changing user interface that sends me suggestions I don’t need. A collection of my stuff that forever and without compensation now belongs to Facebook. There is no exit from Facebook. Users can only flee. But flee to where?
The next good thing in social networking will have to so several things better than Facebook:
  • Be big and small at the same time. Be a network of networks where each network has the means and the incentive to become more coherent and thus more useful and attractive. 500m members don’t help me out. 500 of the right members, with the right tools. That’s what I’m looking for.
  • Build in real reputation services, on top of powerful collaboration and publication tools. I’m looking for a place to publish once and publish everywhere. I need to know who’s reading what I contribute. I want to reward others for their insights.
  • Build in content sharing services so that I can load up my really good content and have this licensed (Creative Commons) and cited.
  • Build in property and privacy rules so that I control my own contributions. Give me an exit that packages all my content for me to take somewhere else and erases all of this on the system. Chances are I will not use this, simply because it is there. If you love my content, let it go. That’s how you get me to stay.
  • Last, and most importantly: build in network governance so that I have a say in how my social network(s) in the system are managed. I might want to donate some time to curate a part of the content. I might want to help build some policies about member services. Governance is the launching pad for network growth. When members own their own networks they care for and about these. Leaders emerge. Members become evangelists. This is the future of social networking. It looks a lot like democracy. Get used to it.
Back when a mining company opened up in a remote village it would force its workers to use the company store by paying them with scrip only that store would honor. The prices in the company store were managed to the company’s benefit. Often it was a pastel kind of slavery. Sound a lot like Facebook? This is where we are today in the tail-end of the first generation of social networking. We are living our online lives in the company store. And we are ready to jump ship.
Photo Credit: CC licensed for reuse by jekemp

Thinking about eScience…


From 2009: the Wilbanks interview is still excellent.

In a couple weeks I will be off to Oxford, England for the All Hands eScience and IEEE eScience joint meeting. I’m looking ahead to blogging and Tweeting about what is happening there. I would guess that most of the ESIPers will be headed west to the AGU meeting in San Francisco. eScience is a big topic, and it covers a lot of ground, from informatics to the governance of virtual organizations. A lot of ESIPs are already supporting eScience through the ESIP WIKIs and the SOAP services they provide for data access an manipulation. So… what’s next in eScience. That’s what I’m looking for. John Wilbanks from the Science Commons had a great quote recently: ‘If we can lower the cost of failure and increase the interconnection and discoverability of the things we actually know, it’s one of the only non-miraculous ways to systematically increase the odds in our favor to discover drugs, understand climate change, and generally make good choices in a complex world,’

I’ll post blogs here and also at  Need to see how searchable the ESIPFed site is.

Photo Credit: NASA1fan/msfc   cc licensed

Privacy in the Virtual Front Region


I recently listened to a talk by Miriam Metzger, Assoc. Prof. of Communication at UCSB on the topic of privacy and Facebook. (Here is a news report of that talk: Here too is a video of the talk:

Prof. Metzger’s starting point was the notion that Facebook users say they want privacy but act in ways that reveal their intimate lives. This “privacy paradox,” she noted, was in part due to our outdated understanding of that privacy is in the digital era. For these users and in this digital environment privacy must have other referents. Here I would submit that the “privacy paradox” on Facebook may actually be explainable without abandoning other notions of privacy.

The core activities on Facebook are “friending” (the user acquires friends whose information becomes visible and who can in return view the user’s information), microblogging one’s status, and photo sharing (Facebook is the largest photo sharing site on the planet with more than 6 billion photos). Facebook is a social network the primary purpose of which is publicity. Users join Facebook to show themselves. This is probably why the service is not called “Hide-Your-Facebook.” There are scores of additional services and third-party applications that add to a growing suite of features. Almost all of these services and applications promote the sharing of information.

Asking users about privacy on Facebook is a bit like asking diners at a banquet about fasting (or members of a nudist colony about fashion, etc.). Presumably, some of them will mention their desire to fast, but the fact that they are eating while they answer questions about fasting is not necessarily a paradox. Similarly, asking Facebook users as a cohort about privacy will reveal a wide range of practices better described as self-publicity, and these practices will be simultaneous with answers that reflect a felt need for privacy.  As we shall see, this is less a paradox and more a balancing act.

Many of the privacy problems associated with Facebook involve the rights that the application owners claim for the users’ information; and the fact that Facebook’s internal roles (and the access rules they enable) are inadequate to match the roles of everyday social life. The marketing of user-contributed information as a part of Facebook’s business plan has created waves of ill-will between the company and its software users. Facebook has finally opened up its core user agreements for user-community input. This still does not solve the inadequacies of Facebook’s software in the area of information hiding. Hiding is the other side of sharing. Facebook’s features are so geared to promote sharing that they fail to support hiding.

Students may regularly hide information from their parents and teachers even when they reveal the same information to their friends. Workers hide information from bosses. Bosses hid information from workers. Parishioners hide information from their priests. In the non-digital world people have multiple ways to hide what they do not want someone to know.
But what happens when a parent or teacher becomes a friend (or a friend of a friend) on Facebook? What happens when your boss wants to be your friend? The founding data model for Facebook cannot handle this type of mundane social complexity. So the real issue in Facebook is not a privacy paradox, but a lack of control over the hiding of information. How do you share intimate, fun, often embarrassing moments with your best friends (who seem more than willing to share theirs with you), while controlling what information casual- and non-friends can see?

Facebook is the Geek God’s gift to sociologists. Not only is almost half of the information on Facebook–the entire profiles of nearly 70 million people–open to anyone who can data-mine this, but users are consciously making choices that can be surveyed. Facebook is a conscious, decision-driven social activity. The work of scientists such as Dr. Metzger will help to guide our understanding of how users negotiate their identities within the digisphere.

Another avenue of possible research here would explore “regionality.” This is a notion developed fifty years ago by sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman’s front regions are spaces where people pay attention to their self presentation, while back regions (bedrooms, bathrooms, locker rooms, back stages, etc.) are places where the constraints on self presentation are relaxed. Up to today, physical regions, places, and behaviors translate poorly into digital social networking services. In some ways, the act of “friending” someone may signal access to one’s personal back region. Certainly, from the photos aggregated at many (most?) profiles, back region behavior is in evidence (think duck tape and bottles of tequila). In non-digital activities, privacy is still managed through control of physical back regions. People still lock their doors.

It is certainly interesting to see how Facebook activities intrude on these private back spaces. The problem of privacy extends to friends with cell-phone cameras in bars and bathrooms. Facebook becomes a destination for publicizing these violations of physical privacy. For many, Facebook has become an archive of their backstage follies managed mostly beyond their control. I’ve been working with a large group of later-career scientists and technicians The great majority of them (perhaps 80%) consider Facebook an unwelcome opportunity. They would rather keep their privacy by the simple act of avoiding Facebook.

The dilemma for Facebook users is that the enjoyment they have to view intimate photos of their friends is measured against the chagrin of their being tagged in embarrassing situations. The act of removing a tag from a friend’s picture signals a remoteness, a lack to trust. Friends pay attention. The answer to the “privacy paradox” on Facebook is likely to arrive when the Facebook  owners or their successors turn the lens around and do their own sociology. Someone is going to figure out a data model that is flexible enough to allow people to have better control over just who they will allow into their digital back-regions and the ability (and social backing) to eliminate evidence collected without permission from physical back regions.

Photo Credit: The Doctr on Flickr used with CC license

They call you a Peer, but treat you like a Peon


ANOTHER FAMILIAR SCENARIO: It’s one thing not to get paid, that’s part of the deal when you volunteer. You’re getting paid anyhow to work on the IT projects for which you’ve been contracted. If you work in a government lab, or a university, a non-profit, or a commercial lab, your own deliverables come first. In the world of IT, however, there’s always some reason to look outside your current project to the next project or the next technology that might leverage (or squash) your current work. So, you join the listserves and the professional societies and you pay close attention to the larger picture. That’s why you went to the workshop for this new project that is pushing the envelope on some piece of IT technology or standards close to your interests.

At the workshop you were invited to join the “distributed, community-based” research effort. Now there’s an email from someone you don’t remember asking if you can do this or that (can you evaluate the wording on this standard? can you join a teleconference next Thursday?) and you have to decide if the email gets trashed or answered.

When you volunteer to serve on a committee of a virtual organization (VO), your time is still valuable to you and your organization. The last thing you want to do is somebody else’s work for free.  What reasons did the VO give for asking you to participate? If you can’t remember, the email will go in the trash. Who made the decision to create this standard? If you can’t find out, the email will go in the trash. You don’t mind volunteering, but you need to know how your contribution will be considered and acknowledged. If your child’s school asked you to come over on the weekend to help paint the new computer lab, you’d expect the same.

If the virtual organization is going to call you a peer, they should mean this. If you are working among equals, you should have equal access to information about the decision making process and equal input into it’s practices. If they do the telling and you do the work, your volunteer enthusiasm won’t last long.

Adding another listserve, WIKI, or content management system to the mix just ups the overhead without answering the question: what does it mean to be a peer in this peer-based VO?

If the answer to this is not provided up front and then maintained with rigor, then your VO is under-governed and bound to shed volunteers like a tabby in May.

The Answer:

Before they invited you to come to the workshop, the VO should have set up a governance structure that gives you stature in the organization and information on demand. This doesn’t mean you can demand access to resources. You can’t just cut yourself in for a piece of the grant. But you should be able to follow how the advice you give, or the work you do is used by the core team, and you deserve attribution for your efforts.

All of this can be done through the software services the VO sets up for communication, and the democratic governance practices it adheres to when working with volunteers. Note: the VO might have other practices it uses to demand work from its paid core. Governance and project management practices work together but are not identical.

Picture source: