Not too long ago, Om Malik blogged
“the social Web mimics the way we are in the real world … in this new kind of social web, the defining characteristic is us.”
A great observation, but how true is it?
What do the following have in common?
- People in an on-line multiuser game with millions of players from around the world.
- Townspeople trying to help out teenagers who have been ripped off by a local barber.
- Teens that participate in an online community whose users have, in the words of the Washington Post,
“managed to pull off some of the highest-profile collective actions in the history of the Internet.”
Not-too-surprisingly the answer is “we don’t know” – yet…
Why we need to know
A lot rides on the answer.
- Web giants like Google and Facebook are betting their existence on being able to guess what motivates people to join one network or another.
- Startups are vying with one another to figure out how social processes can be used to get people to team up and buy more stuff.
- Governments like those in the U.S. and UK are trying to figure out how to motivate online communities to help create innovative “crowd-sourced” solutions to empower citizens.
- Governments in other parts of the world are still trying to figure out what hit them.
Online communities are like those in the real world
A number of researchers from around the world have been studying the networks of who-knows-who in social networks. A lot of that work has studied network mathematics with an eye towards better algorithms for friend recommenders, social recommendation sites, etc. But some of the best of this work has looked at what we know about people in the physical world and whether online networks look the same.
One of my favorite pieces of work along those lines was the work by Noshir Contractor at Northwestern University who studied the teams of players in the Everquest II online game. Analyzing the results, he basically showed that people were more likely to team with people who lived near them in the real world and who were more like themselves.
In essence, Noshir demonstrated that in this unreal fantasy world, where people form teams of adventurers and go on quests fighting monsters, their communities seemed a lot like the ones that they form in the real world.
Online communities are not like those in the real world
Contrast this with some of my work, where I joined with colleague Fei-Yue Wang and a team of Chinese researchers in exploring what has come to be known as the
“Human Flesh Search Engine.” This is phenomenon, observed mainly in China and other Asian countries, where people online team up to help people solve problems that occur in the offline world.
The “outrageously priced haircut” is a good example. The community of Zhengzhou City in Henan Province was outraged when they read on the Web about two teens being charged more than 200 times the typical price for a haircut. The barber was getting away with it due to political connections. Within a few days, over 1,100 people joined in the action, working both on and offline to identify the culprits and to expose their government connections.
In studying this and hundreds of other examples of HFSE communities we found very different patterns than those found in games. In these networks we see that people are working together with people they wouldn’t know in the real world.
So where communities in the fantasy world of games resembled those offline, in this case of people solving real-world problems, the communities differ far more.
More similar than you would think
The third group is the primarily U.S.-based 4chan community. This is an online community that the Guardian calls
“lunatic, juvenile… brilliant, ridiculous and alarming.” This online community prides itself on
- Anonymity for users,
- Expertise in annoying the powers that be, and
- Using online team energy, without explicit organization, for offline effect
Surprisingly, these are also features that can describe the Human Flesh Search participants in China.
In the real world, it’s hard to imagine two groups more dissimilar than the mischievous US cyber-savvy 4chan’ers and the Chinese HFSers. Yet new evidence is starting to show that their online communities have many similar features. It seems properties like those above have a lot to do with how online communities look.
As we explore these communities online, it becomes increasingly clear that the mathematics of the networks doesn’t really explain a lot of the interesting stuff. To understand the Web, we need to understand who the people are that form these communities and what motivates how they spend their time online.
So was Om right when he said the online world mimics our own?
The best research to date says “maybe,” and we have to do better than that.
James Hendler is Tetherless World Constellation Chair & Asst Dean of IT and Web Science at the Computer and Cognitive Science Depts at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Tory, NY.