Social Dynamics in Online Communities

By: malo

The complex web of relationships, ties, acquaintances, rivalries, deceptions, and connections that form the web of civilization can be an interesting thing to study. Society at large can often appear to be rather comparable to a living organism, though several components can be a little dysfunctional at first. There are certain dynamics that can be observed in a social setting that can capture the interest of observers of other fields, such as politics or advertising. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of human social behavior, however, is that it has a tendency to crop up in some unusual places.

Human beings are capable of using any technological innovation into a means of forming a community. As the world slowly moves towards having a single, global culture, people with similar interests and tastes can find each other despite being continents apart. Geographical distance limits their chances for actually interacting with one another, but technology has provided them with the chance to form communities via the Internet. Message boards, forums, IRC channels, and even blogs have all managed to contribute to the formation of sub-communities on the World Wide Web. Social networking with people literally on the opposite side of the world via the Internet has, arguably, become an entirely new subculture. However, as with all communities, nothing is ever really perfect.

In particularly tight-knit online communities, such as those found on organized forums, there can occasionally be instances when members feel a little social anxiety. The older a website's forums are, the more established the community is, as are the “pillars” of that community. Given the free wheeling nature of the Internet, there may also be in-jokes firmly entrenched into the community. As with any place that has been around for a while, there will be some apprehension among new members to speak out or draw attention to themselves. There is a slight sense of social anxiety in getting into conversation where older members have placed their comments, as if that member's seniority added weight to his or her words. One might also blame social anxiety for the unwillingness to new members to even make use of their membership, for fear that they may violate an unwritten rule of the community.

As in the real world, outsiders and newcomers can sometimes be discriminated against in online arenas. For example, newcomers are often divided into “newbs” and “n00bs,” with both terms derived from the term “newbie” meaning newcomer but having different connotations. In essence, “newbs” are new arrivals that are making an active attempt to blend into the community without causing conflict. They have read and understood the rules and are not out to violate them, written or otherwise. In contrast, “n00bs” are newcomers that blatantly ignore established conventions and rules, typically earning the ire of older members and driven out by a forum's authority figures, the moderators and administrators.

Sometimes, status anxiety can also set in. Even old members of some forums are not fully aware of all the nuances and unwritten protocols set down by even older members. A member of a forum can go on posting for years and not fully grasp all of the various eccentricities of the older members, or understand obscure references to past threads that they were not part of. A member may also feel a bit of status anxiety if their comments are ignored by the general community in favor of similar comments made later by a more established or popular member, or vice versa. In a similar vein, established members may feel a little status anxiety when posting, as their identities on the boards inevitably come with a reputation among their peers.

Believe it or not, performance anxiety can also become a factor in how one deals with online communities, particularly on message boards and forums. There are certain times when discussions turn into arguments, mundane threads turn into competitive battles, and mere comments can be misconstrued as offensive. The performance anxiety sets in when both identities have reputations that must be upheld, especially if both parties cannot agree to a compromise. This usually happens when a topic which is by nature divisive or taboo such as religion or politics somehow make their way into a discussion. Albeit silly, performance anxiety can also creep in when proposition bets are made in an online context, as there is very little that can be done to prove or disprove a claim about one's personal life.

It is interesting to observe just how similar online communities can be to real-life ones in terms of dynamics. The desire to gain higher status, the fear of losing one's current status, and the psychological need to compete are always present as in any human interaction. In the end, what it all boils down to is that we all feel a need to belong, whether online or in real life.

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