In some sense, everyone is part of a community, but, in an era when millions of people interact with one another online, how do we define “community?” Why do most online communities fail while others flourish? These are some of the questions C&IS professor of journalism and creative media, Dr. Elliot Panek, is asking, and he’s analyzed millions of comments on Reddit to help find the answers.
Reddit is a popular website that hosts large-group discussions on thousands of different topics, ranging from politics to relationship advice. The team examined six years of data within 30 different popular Reddit groups or “sub-reddits,” analyzing the influence of group size and the passage of time on two characteristics of online communities: the dispersion of participation in group discussion and the active member turnover from month to month.
“Some people dabble in online communities just to get a question answered or participate in a forum,” said Panek. “For other people, online communities are central to their lives. What we’re trying to understand is when online community life becomes central to people.”
The results of this study found that, as online discussion groups grow, participation in discussion tends to become concentrated among fewer and fewer contributors. Additionally, as groups age, it becomes harder to retain new contributors.
This data provides answers to fundamental questions about establishing and growing online communities, as well as how to keep existing group contributors active in the online community. These findings are useful for communication professionals who work in areas such as social media account management, application development, marketing, online education and organizational communication with the public online.
“Online communities are easy enough to create, but the question is, ‘Are they going to be here in six months?’ For the vast majority, the answer is no,” said Panek. “Our research suggests that the creators of online communities need to be more proactive in incentivizing and encouraging widespread participation to motivate group members to stick around and be more active in the conversation.”
In addition to Panek, the team is comprised of Connor Hollenbach, Jinjie Yang and Tyler Rhodes all of whom are undergraduate or graduate students at The University of Alabama. To read the full results of their published research titled, “The Effects of Group Size and Time on the Formation of Online Communities: Evidence From Reddit,” click here.
The College of Communication and Information Sciences’ faculty and students at The University of Alabama conduct cutting-edge research that creates knowledge and provides solutions to global issues across the full communication and information spectrum. To learn more about the College’s research initiatives, visit cis.ua.edu/research.