Welcome to I-berspace: Media Gratifications in Successful Virtual Communities

Submitted by Robert N. Yale on October 15, 2007 to the On-line Interaction and Facilitation Seminar, Fall 2007, Purdue University, Dr. Sorin A. Matei via the I Think Blog (http://www.matei.org/ithink).

Abstract

This essay posits that virtual communities are successful to the degree that participants fulfill multiple gratifications within the medium. The greater the number of participants fulfilling multiple gratifications within the group space, the more community-like the group becomes. This sliding-scale conception of virtual community allows groups to be ranked in terms of their community-likeness, and may explain why some groups fail to be become vibrant virtual communities. This essay examines the historical example of the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) as an exemplar virtual community that provided multiple gratifications for many of its users and continues with an analysis of the blogosphere and Wikipedia as modern virtual communities of differing degrees of success.

Introduction

Ask any parent of a toddler, and they will most likely tell you that selfishness is not a virtue. Incessant cries of “that’s mine!” and “I want…” are often among the first utterances of children, signaling a nearly innate human selfishness. As time goes by, most children are socially conditioned to consider not only their individual needs, but also the needs of others around them. In the arena of online interaction, I believe that virtual communities thrive when a critical mass of members begin to use the community space to meet their own individual needs. This is not to say that interaction in these virtual communities is devoid of the consideration of others, but that even altruistic actions have underlying selfish motives. Rheingold provides a glimpse into this dichotomy in one explanation of why he found the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) so compelling: “I find that the help I receive far outweighs the energy I expend helping others: a marriage of altruism and self-interest” (2000, p. 47). It is a reconceptualization of cyberspace, a virtual “place” created by the connection of many networks to the Internet, as I-berspace, a virtual place where individuals seek and obtain individual gratifications, which provides the necessary framework for judging the relative success of virtual communities. When a critical mass of users routinely seek and obtain gratifications within the group space, virtual community is born.

Uses and Gratifications Theory (Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1974) provides a framework for understanding why people choose specific media. It postulates that people actively seek out specific media and specific content in order to generate specific gratifications. In this way, media competes for the attention of individuals. Within the framework of this theory, it follows that a virtual community (medium) that is actively sought to fulfill multiple gratifications will be more successful (community-like) than a virtual community where fewer gratifications are sought and obtained.

This essay posits that virtual communities are successful to the degree that participants obtain multiple gratifications within the medium. The greater the number of participants fulfilling multiple gratifications within the group space, the more community-like the group becomes. In order to make this contention clear, a few definitions are in order. Within this essay, virtual community is defined as any group of individuals who interact with one another on a regular basis via computer mediated communication. This definition is bound to be unsatisfying to many, but within the framework of this essay, it is particularly appropriate because it allows the concept of virtual community to exist as a scale where the level of community-likeness can be measured, rather than as a binary, where different interpretations of community deem specific virtual groups as “true” or “false” virtual communities. The concept of gratifications in this essay comes from McQuail’s (1983) typology of gratifications sought and obtained from the media. This typology is more understandable than the original gratification categories specified by Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch (1974), and is more suited for this analysis. Table 1 presents gratification categories and relevant examples identified by McQuail. The gratification categories identified in this table will be referred to numerous times in the essay as relevant examples from virtual communities are identified.

Table 1.
Typology of Gratifications Sought and Obtained from the Media*

Gratification Category Examples
Information § Finding out about relevant events and conditions in immediate surroundings, society, and the world§ Seeking advice on practical matters, or opinion and decision choices

§ Satisfying curiosity and general interest

§ Learning, self-education

§ Gaining a sense of security through knowledge

Personal Identity § Finding reinforcement for personal values§ Finding models of behavior

§ Identifying with valued others (in the media)

§ Gaining insight into one’s self

Integration and Social Interaction § Gaining insight into circumstances of others: social empathy§ Identifying with others and gaining a new sense of belonging

§ Finding a basis for conversation and social interaction

§ Having a substitute for real-life companionship

§ Helping to carry out social roles

§ Enabling one to connect with family, friends, and society

Entertainment § Escaping, or being diverted from, problems§ Relaxing

§ Getting intrinsic cultural or aesthetic enjoyment

§ Filling time

§ Emotional Release

§ Sexual Arousal

*McQuail, 1983, pp. 82-83

Group space is a particularly important term in this analysis because it differentiates communication between individual group members and communication between an individual and the group. The group space is identified by its accessibility to all group members – thus, communication posted to a common area such as an open forum occurs in the group space while communication sent via private message (e.g., e-mail) to another individual or sub-group is not.

In order to advance the argument that virtual communities are successful to the degree that participants fulfill multiple gratifications within the group space, I will examine relevant literature surrounding the communities of the WELL, the blogosphere, and Wikipedia.

Gratifications on the WELL

Any examination of virtual community would be incomplete without mention of the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL), one of the best known early examples of virtual community. The WELL began in 1985 as an experiment launched by Larry Brilliant and Stewart Brand, designed to “take a group of interesting people, give them the means to stay in continuous communication with one another, stand back, and see what happens” (Hafner, 1997, para. 16). Brand, the publisher of the Whole Earth Review, used the print magazine to advertise the nascent online forum, and word of mouth slowly caused the user base of the WELL to grow. During the summer of 1985, one of the WELL’s most famous members and ardent supporters logged on for the first time and joined the discussion. Howard Rheingold, or “hlr,” as he was identified on the WELL forums, provides a cheery glimpse of life on the WELL in his 1993 book, “The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier.” In contrast, John Seabrook, a columnist for the New Yorker, has written a less enthusiastic report about WELL interaction in his 1997 book, “Deeper: My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace.” These texts provide interesting insight into the varying perceptions of the WELL as a virtual community. One author (Rheingold) wholeheartedly jumps into the medium and almost immediately begins fulfilling each of the gratifications identified by McQuail, while the other (Seabrook) is more tentative in his adoption of the medium for gratification, and seems to find noticeably less “community” within the same environment.

Rheingold is not shy about his immediate fascination with and attachment to the WELL. The opening paragraph of the book relates his amazement that he was able to find out how to remove a tick from his daughter’s head via a post on the WELL faster than his wife was able to contact a pediatrician. He recalls being amazed at “the speed with which we obtained precisely the information we needed to know, right when we needed to know it,” and related feeling an “immense inner sense of security that comes with discovering that real people […] are available, around the clock, if you need them” (Rheingold, 2000, p. 1). Seabrook similarly experienced awe at the ability of the community to provide information about seemingly limitless topics, and used the term “groupmind” to refer to the vast collective knowledge and experience held by the WELL community. He notes “the groupmind’s breadth of knowledge consistently amazed me. On several occasions, having posted in the Books Conference a request for obscure information about an author, or in the Grateful Dead conference about a version of a song, I received a correct, informed answer back within two hours” (Seabrook, 1997, p. 199). These anecdotes clearly demonstrate the use of the virtual community to gratify a need for information, with Rheingold “seeking advice on practical matters” and “gaining a sense of security through knowledge,” and Seabrook “satisfying curiosity and general interest” while engaging in “learning [and] self-education” as identified by McQuail (1983, p. 82).

Rheingold found the WELL to be a compelling environment to gratify the need for personal identity. He notes that in a traditional community, one is limited to those who are geographically close to find “people who share our values,” while in a virtual community, there are no geographic restrictions, and one can “go directly to the place where our favorite subjects are being discussed, then get acquainted with people who share our passions or use words in a way we find attractive” (Rheingold, 2000, p. 11). He tells the story of Blair Newman, a larger-than-life persona on the WELL, a former cocaine addict who seemed to transfer his addiction to the WELL, but who found the expression on the WELL to be cathartic and self-revealing. “Blair called it Compconf Psychserv. It was cheaper than drugs, cheaper than shrinks, and it kept him off the street” (Rheingold, 2000, p. 19).

By Rheingold’s account, perhaps the gratification that the WELL was most successful at fulfilling was in the category of integration and social interaction. One of the conferences he speaks most fondly about in his book is the Parenting conference, full of devoted parents trading tips and insights to help them carry out their social roles as parents. Rheingold relates the emotional story of WELL user Philcat’s son, Gabe, who was diagnosed with leukemia. After posting this information in the Parenting conference, floods of well-wishers indicated their emotional support and empathy for the family. During the following weeks, members of the conference learned about blood disorders, the blood donation system, and how to advocate for children in hospitals. In the parenting conference, users “began to realize […] that we had the power not only to use words to share feelings and exchange helpful information, but to accomplish things in the real world” (Rheingold, 2000, p. 12).

Rheingold’s use of the WELL “for an average of two hours a day, seven days a week,” and his excitement at discovering “writing as a performing art” indicate the use of the WELL to gratify the need for entertainment. Rheingold, far from seeing his responsibilities as a host on the WELL as tedious, found intrinsic enjoyment in the online activity. Seabrook, on the other hand, didn’t ever really connect with other individuals via the WELL. Instead, he existed primarily as a “lurker,” a user who spent time on the system reading posts and keeping up with events in the conferences, but who rarely submitted in his own posts. A particularly interesting incident occurred when Seabrook wrote a story about the WELL in the New Yorker which was not received kindly by the other users. The [media] The New Yorker conference was buzzing with talk of the article when users discovered that Seabrook himself had been watching the conversation. One user engaged Seabrook with a direct question about the content of his article, and he was forced to join the conversation himself, an altogether unpleasant experience (Seabrook, 1997). Seabrook seemed to prefer to use the WELL to gratify the need for information and entertainment, while eschewing the forum to seek personal identity or integration and social interaction.

Overall, Seabrook’s picture of the WELL as a virtual community is darker and less optimistic than Rheingold’s. Far from Rheingold’s utopian “third place” where “people can rebuild the aspects of community that were lost when the malt shop became a mall” (Rheingold, 2000, p. 10), Seabrook found it “useless […] to think of the WELL as any kind of utopia. It was like anywhere else, a place where there was authority to be grabbed, and where I would naturally figure out a way to grab it if I wanted to, just like I had in boarding school” (Seabrook, 1997, p. 213). There are an infinite number of possible explanations about why Seabrook and Rheingold came to such differing views of the same online group. I contend that Seabrook’s melancholy outlook is a direct result of his reticence to seek the gratifications of personal identity and social integration. Thus, for Seabrook, the WELL fell short of being a compelling virtual community, not because of any intrinsic lack, but because as a journalist with a goal of objectivity, he failed to wholly experience it.

Gratifications in the Blogosphere

Blogging, as a means of communicating information, has gone from the eccentric activity of a few to the latest wave in corporate marketing. Film studios, soft drink makers, auto manufacturers, and software developers are among the companies now using blogs as a way to connect with customers (Anderson, 2004). The meteoric rise in popularity of blogs over the past five years has caused some to examine the phenomena as a possible environment for virtual communities, each blog or blog-ring potentially hosting its own mini virtual community. In keeping with the previously defined concept of virtual community, only blogs with a “group space” may be considered candidate for community. Within the architecture of most blogs, this group space takes the form of comment pages, where blog readers can respond to the blog author(s) and to each other’s comments. Some blogs allow interested users to sign up and become contributors, or to host their own blog within the framework of the larger system, posting their own topics and receiving feedback from readers and fellow bloggers. Daily Kos and Free Republic are two notable examples of political blogs that allow an unlimited number of contributors, and whose contributors interact with one another via the framework of the blogging host. In is in this space that virtual community may blossom.

Information is clearly a gratification that many blogs directly attempt to provide for their readers. Salam Pax, a 29 year old blogger in Baghdad, Iraq, found his blog “postings on the mood of the city as it awaited the U.S. invasion riveted readers around the world.” Glenn Reynolds, host of the political news and opinion blog Instapundit, highlights the idea that blogs provide a resource for those seeking the opinions of others. He states: “Blogs are reproducing something people thought for a long time we had lost, the discussion in the public sphere by the ordinary people. (Kornblum, 2003). Dan Gillmor, in the preface to his book “We the Media,” tells the story of blogging during a speech by then Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio. After receiving a tip from a blog reader informing him of some opportunistic financial moves made by Nacchio as his company began to falter, Gillmor immediately posted a link to the incriminating information on his blog, and noticed an almost immediate “chill” in the audience toward the speaker – no doubt influenced by the new information exposed on the live blog (Gillmor, 2004).

Many blogs also provide an opportunity for gratification in the category of personal identity, although this is probably much more the case for the blogger than the commenting members of the virtual community. The “diary-style personal blogs [which] make up the heart and soul of the blogosphere” are unquestionably used by many authors as reflexive spaces to write about personal events, feelings, and relationships. Blogs dedicated to celebrity photos, sightings, and gossip provide readers and writers alike with the ability to “identify with valued others (in the media)” suggested by McQuail, and the topic centricity of many blogs provide an environment ripe for “finding reinforcement of personal values” (McQuail, 1983, p. 83).
Integration and social interaction is a gratification category in which most blogs either excel or ignore. Idea-centric blogs, such as the technology blog Engadget, and cultural curiosities blog Boing Boing, don’t really try to engage their readers in integration and social interaction. This type of blog use is much more common on the more personal people-centric blogs found on hosting sites like Xanga. Here, bloggers are much more likely to use their forum to talk about friends, relationships, and to link to the blogs of other people they know, providing “a basis for conversation and social interaction” and “identifying with others” (McQuail, 1983).

In the category of entertainment, blogs again provide users with the potential for gratification. Bloggers themselves might use the written word and the invisible audience as a kind of electronic escapism, or may find the writing to be therapeutic and relaxing, helping to relieve stress and provide an emotional outlet for expression. Similarly, blog readers may spend time reading blogs as a way of relaxing, filling time, or obtaining cultural or aesthetic enjoyment. With the censor-free nature of the internet, many blogs are devoted to topics of an adult nature, allowing some readers to use blogs for the purpose of sexual arousal.

Overall, the blogging platform and the overwhelming number of idea-centric and people-centric blogs clearly provide the ability for users to engage in media gratifications in each of the categories suggested by McQuail, and any blog with a group space meets the technical requirements to host a virtual community. However, the reason so many blogs exist and so few (if any) are perceived to play host to vibrant communities may be found in the inability of a single blog to provide all four categories of media gratification for users. For example, Engadget, currently the most popular blog on the web according to blog search engine Technorati, does an excellent job providing readers with information and entertainment, but hardly any accommodation is made to connect users, allow them to build a sense of personal identity, and engage in social interaction. On the other hand, any random blog hosted by Xanga is likely to be filled with content intended to gratify the need for personal identity and social interaction, but is likely to be lacking in the information and entertainment categories. The general inability of most blogs to provide a space for users to obtain gratification in all four categories signals a future in which blogs as they currently exist will never achieve widespread recognition as sites for vibrant virtual communities.

Gratifications in the Wikiverse

It’s doubtful that any site has received more criticism from academia or as many top 10 Google rankings as Wikipedia. “The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” was an offshoot of the Nupedia project conceived by Jimmy Wales. The Nupedia project relied on academics and experts in their respective fields who were “to propose and write articles on subjects about which they had some knowledge.” Eighteen months into the development of the Nupedia project, only 20 articles had been completed, due to a clunky “seven-stage process of editing, fact-checking, and peer review” (Sanger, 2005). Editor in chief Larry Sanger suggested to Wales that an emerging collaborative platform, called wiki, should be used to build a wiki-based encyclopedia. The new platform allows anyone with basic text tagging skills to create and edit pages on the website. Now, nearly seven years after the initial launch of the wiki-fied encyclopedia, Wikipedia has over 2 million English language articles, and more than 3 million non-English language articles.

Along with the vast amount of codified information contained within the Wikipedia domain, a vast hierarchical network of anonymous contributors, registered users, administrators, bureaucrats, stewards, and developers works to ensure the smooth operation of the encyclopedia. Wales, at the top of the hierarchy, has ultimate control over the content on the site (Pink, 2005). With such an extensive network of users collaborating via computer mediated communication to generate and format content, protect pages from electronic vandalism, and ensure the quality of the information on the site, the Wikipedia framework deserves consideration as a site for virtual community.

The ability of Wikipedia to provide information gratification for its users is undeniable. Indeed, many of the members of the Wikipedia community visited the site to find information, and stayed on as contributors. Danny Wool was engaged in an argument about Kryptonite, and in an effort to settle the debate, found himself on the Wikipedia entry. As he stumbled around the site, he noticed that each page “contained a mysterious hyperlink that said Edit” (Pink, 2005). Intrigued, Wool continued to visit the site, and a few days later made his first edit to an entry on Jewish holidays. As of March, 2005, Wool had made more Wikipedia edits than all but three contributors, over 40,000 total revisions (Pink, 2005).

In a sardonic examination of Wikipedia, Lore Sjöberg provides the following counsel for those who might wish to contribute to Wikipedia: “It will help to familiarize yourself with some of the common terms used on Wikipedia: meat puppet: A person who disagrees with you. non-notable: A subject you’re not interested in. vandalism: An edit you didn’t make. Neutral point of view: your point of view” (Sjöberg, 2006). Although humorous, this excerpt provides insight into the ways that many contributors (or Wikipedians, as they are often referred) find personal identity gratification within the framework of the wiki. One author even went so far as to implicate egotism as a driving force for the average Wikipedia contributor, attributing motivation to “a dash of altruism, a dose of obsessive compulsiveness, and a good chunk of egotism” (Goetz, 2003). In arguments about entries, the contributors take sides, find those who reinforce their personal values and beliefs, and find models of behavior – all behaviors characteristic of the personal identity gratification category (McQuail, 1983).

Wikipedia’s role as a site for integration and social interaction is also undeniable. According to Jimmy Wales, the users are “compulsively social, conversing with each other not only on the talk pages attached to each entry but on Wikipedia-dedicated I.R.C. channels and on user pages” (Schiff, 2006). As of July, 2006, there were over 200,000 registered users on the English-language Wikipedia site, with about 3,300 responsible for 70% of the work (Schiff, 2006). These workers, in order to accomplish such a massive amount of work, necessarily engage in social interaction while they work, build friendships, and gain a sense of belonging in the Wikiverse.

It is also clear that many Wikipedians find their experiences on the site gratify a need for entertainment, using their time on the site for relaxation, filling time, and finding intrinsic enjoyment in the activity of creating and editing articles. Robert McHenry, former editor of Encyclopædia Britannica, even conceded that “this exercise in encyclopedia making is enjoyed and even believed in fervently by many thousands of participants” (McHenry, 2004).

Clearly, Wikipedia provides many in its community with gratifications in all four of McQuail’s categories, and as such, may be considered a successful online community. Without judgment or evaluation about the work in which the community engages, the 4000 or so volunteers who compose the core of the Wikipedia universe truly do exist in a vibrant community.

Conclusions

This essay has attempted to provide support for the contention that virtual communities are successful to the degree that participants fulfill multiple gratifications within the medium. The WELL demonstrated a virtual community where members who wholeheartedly embraced the medium and sought all four gratifications, like Howard Rheingold, found the community to be vibrant and successful. Others, like John Seabrook, failed to seek gratifications in each category, and found the WELL’s promise of community to be lacking. In the blogosphere, the general inability of a single blog or blog-ring to provide users with the four gratification categories limits the medium’s potential as a site for virtual community. Finally, in a modern example of vibrant community, the universe of Wikipedia provides faithful contributors with a platform through which they may seek gratification in all four categories. Future investigations of community might benefit from considering the gratifications sought and obtained by community members as a possible yard-stick by which community success may be measured.

References

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Hafner, K. (1997, May). The Epic Saga of the Well. Wired, 5.05. Retrieved October 4, 2007, from http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.05/ff_well_pr.html

Katz, E., Blumler, J. G., & Gurevitch, M. (1974). Utilization of mass communication by the individual. In J. G. Blumler & E. Katz (Eds.), The Uses of Mass Communications: Current Perspectives on Gratifications Research. London: Sage.

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McHenry, R. (2004, November 15). The Faith-Based Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 15, 2007, from http://www.tcsdaily.com/printArticle.aspx?ID=111504A

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Rheingold, H. L. (2000). Virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sanger, L. (2005, April 18). The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir. Retrieved October 15, 2007, from http://features.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/04/18/164213

Seabrook, J. (1997). Deeper: Adventures on the net. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Schiff, S. (2006, July 31). Know it All. The New Yorker. Retrieved October 15, 2007, from http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/07/31/060731fa_fact

Sjöberg, L. (2006, April 19). The Wikipedia FAQK. Retrieved October 4, 2007, from http://www.wired.com/software/webservices/commentary/alttext/2006/04/70670

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