University of Southern California

Feeling The Tension In Online Communities
March 18, 2011

If you're going to understand the process of knowledge collaboration in online communities (OCs), you have to do more than look at their structure - you need to examine how and why members contribute, and the conflicts they have with each other. So says Marshall Professor Ann Majchrzak, an expert in collaborative communities and information systems. Research by Ann and her colleagues has identified five areas of tension in which flare-ups can occur:

Passion. "Passion drives participation by enticing individuals to join and focus their efforts in developing the community's knowledge base." Pro: Members pursue new information and new perspectives in a collaborative way. Con: Conflicts lead to win-lose—rather than win-win—resolutions in which "losing" members feel disenfranchised. They also marginalize contributors who are less passionate about a particular issue.

Time. "Knowledge collaboration requires that individuals spend time contributing to the OC's virtual workspace." Pro: Ideas evolve through discussion. Con: Those who devote a disproportionate amount of time to the OC often dominate the marketplace of ideas, and longtime members sometime bully newer members.

Socially Ambiguous Identities. "Social anonymity leaves an OC actor's identity unknown to others in terms of who contributed what to a software artifact, encyclopedia entry, or a music remix." Pro: Ideas are more likely to be offered without fear of reprisal, and judged on their merit rather than a contributor's status. Con: Minimal levels of personal accountability reduce the sense of responsibility that exists in face-to-face interaction.

Social Disembodiment of ideas. "OCs allow combination and recombination of ideas unconstrained by conventions of social interaction, shared context, or even a shared set of ontological assumptions." Pro: Ideas can develop out of sequence, and don't require the presence of their original contributor. Con: Without a common ground for integration, ideas can be misused or misapplied.

Temporary Convergence. "Convergence around a single goal, direction, criterion, process, or solution helps counterbalance the forces of divergence, allowing diverse ideas to be framed, analyzed, and coalesced into a single solution." Pro: As the discussion attracts various participants at various times, ideas are modified, integrated and recombined. Con: Members who don't receive feedback might feel ignored and stop contributing.

The Bottom Line: When studying knowledge collaboration in online communities, Majchrzak and her colleagues conclude, we must "focus on understanding how [they] respond to the tensions that will inevitably arise."

Ann Majchrzak studies how information systems can support worker agility and ingenuity in collaborative settings. She has investigated information systems support for distributed teams, knowledge sharing and creation, and corporate wiki use. Learn more about Professor Majchrzak and her research here.