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community communication successful web

Prior to the advent of the World Wide Web, virtual communities were largely text-based adventures known as multiuser domains (MUDs) and multiuser-domain object oriented (MOO) (Holmevik & Haynes, 2000; Rheingold, 2002). MOOs continue to be used for educational purposes (Haynes & Holmevik, 2001), and the World Wide Web has made it easier for individuals to form virtual communities with interactive Web sites. Lee et al. (2003) report that out of a sample of 200 Web sites with some form of virtual community, 43% were relationship oriented, 38% were interest oriented, 12% were fantasy oriented, and 7% were transaction-based virtual communities.

More recently, businesses and organizations have begun experimenting with how to harness the capabilities of virtual communities to enhance operations and services (Williams & Cothrel, 2000). Health care or medically focused virtual communities continue to be a popular and successful experiment (Gurstein, 2000). Kaiser Permanente, a not-for-profit health maintenance organization (HMO), operates a successful virtual community focused on improving member services and promoting preventive health care. One of Kaiser’s key success factors was the creation of an integrated, online environment such that members were empowered to make their own health-care decisions; a pilot study indicated improved customer satisfaction with the HMO (Williams & Cothrel). Governments have also begun experimenting with virtual communities as a means of providing health care and/or medical information to rural or outlying communities, especially as the multimedia technologies have improved their capabilities (Kodama, 2001).

Virtual communities are also well suited to bringing together individuals who might normally not be able to belong to a group due to diverse backgrounds, geographical distance, or time barriers. For example, independent contractors and consultants often work alone and in narrow specialties. The communication venues available in most virtual communities provide an independent consultant with the social networking that is vital to enhancing his or her own capabilities and services. About.com is a primary example of how a virtual community can be utilized to support such a distributed workforce (Williams & Cothrel, 2000). About.com permits each independent contractor (guide) to manage a Web site under the About.com umbrella on a particular topic (e.g., knitting, structured query language – SQL). About.com provides discussion forums, online training, and a resource area known as the “lounge” as support mechanisms for the independent contractors. Although the guides are not employees of About.com, they are managed as part of its larger workforce that provides information and entertainment services to the public. Two-way, computer-mediated communication has been central to the success of both the virtual community and About.com’s management of freelance talent (Williams & Cothrel).

Virtual communities tend to be created for long-term objectives, while virtual teams often have a shorter life span by design (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000). Virtual teams have been used in both organizational and educational settings as a way of linking “groups of geographically, organizationally, and/or time-dispersed workers” (Powell et al., 2004, p. 7). Where a virtual community might have thousands of members, a virtual team often has less than 20 members. Variable makeup, dependence on computer-mediated communication, and capability to span both organizational boundaries and time restrictions are distinguishing characteristics of these teams (Powell et. al). Virtual teams, especially those formed for ad hoc or short-term reasons, provide an organization with high adaptability and flexibility in a competitive global marketplace (Maznevski & Chudoba, 2001) as specialized needs are recognized and acted upon. For organizations that wish to pilot test the features of virtual communities for operational reasons, the use of virtual teams can be an easy way to experiment with this new form of organizing and communicating.

A final example of successful virtual communities is the proliferation of learning environments. Again, due to the capabilities of IT, learners can be connected within cyberspace when they cannot assemble in a single location that permits face-to-face interaction. Technology features support the learning objectives and provide for ample interaction among the participants. Many universities have begun utilizing such venues as part of their graduate education programs as computer-mediated communication enables the participation of global learners (DeSanctis et al., 2001; Hilsop, 1999; Hiltz & Wellman, 1997).

Current IT makes it simple to provide the space and place for the formation of virtual communities, though the actual sense of community is much harder to develop and sustain (Blanchard & Markus, 2004). This human element to the virtual community makes it possible for individuals to overcome time and location barriers such that lasting relationships can be formed (Walther, 1996). However, as with any human endeavor, not all attempts at virtual communities are successful. Unsuccessful or problematic virtual communities can and do occur: (a) Flaming and flame wars (e.g., generally negative and inflammatory electronic communication that would not normally be said if interacting in a face-to-face situation) can result due to the reduced social context in electronic communication (Alonzo & Aiken, 2004; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986); and (b) deviant, destructive behaviors in virtually constructed worlds may be seen more frequently than in reality (Powers, 2003; Suler & Phillips, 1998). Successful virtual communities have been able to leverage the features of IT to encourage positive human behaviors, while problematic virtual communities have struggled with managing the full range of human behaviors. Thus, there are ample opportunities for future research into the critical issues of human behavior in virtual communities.

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about 7 years ago


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