An Essay Worth Reading…

Social Networks and Ways In Which They Facilitate Online Communities

By Alex Ho

The social network, and its usage by millions of users, is now intertwined with everyday life as the internet itself is and has been the source of much research. As a general feature, a social network could be considered if it does the following as outlined by Boyd and Ellison (2007): ‘ability to construct profiles…ability to identify a host of other users…ability to view and track individual connections.’ Taking these together, a social network’s (SNS) main goal appears to allow users to interact, in which results in the creation of a wider online community of fellow users. In order for this to happen, SNS provides a variety of tools for this functionality. This essay will attempt to explore the notion of an online community, and how social networks facilitate user activity with reference to Facebook and Steam.

Facebook (FB), although not the first, is arguably the most popular network with over 500 million users as of 2011. Due to its popularity, it seems likely that FB has built upon a formula in which its users can easily interact with each other. In other words, FB was founded within an era of the internet known as Web 2.0. This concept suggests, at its core, that the internet in early 2000s underwent a significant change that allowed it to be less ‘rigid.’ As Kaplan and Heinlein (2010: 60-1) state Web 2.0 described a way ‘which software developers and end-users started to utilise the web; that is, as a platform whereby content and applications…are continuously modified by all users in a participatory and collaborative fashion.’

This concept has set the groundwork for a more expansive and collaborative web; a web in which the opportunities for ordinary users to communicate and participate become significantly easier and frequent. This is not to say they weren’t already, however, pre-Web 2.0 most websites were far more ‘static’ and less collaborative.

Web 2.0 was one of the major reasons whyseveral designers (Mark Zuckerberg included) decided on their systems; a canvas was provided for them to work with. With less static websites, names such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as Amazon and IMDb, have taken off.  In light of this, it is important to consider more precisely why this is. Allowing a web that is more open, ordinary users begin to contribute more of their own content. Even something as innocuous as a status post on an SNS or a comment review on Amazon can be considered such.

This user collaboration and content (which is vast) has led to another significant concept known as user-generated content. Once again, as a result of Web 2.0, there has been an influx of content that has originated from the user community. Social networks are well-known for their ability to ‘produce’ mass amounts of user-generated content. This is significant for two reasons: a) as an indicator of the influence of SNS; b) the formation of an online community. An online community adheres to the values outline by Boyd and Ellison (2007), but Erickson and Nielsen (2008: 152) offers a more refined definition that a community can be defined if it allows ‘membership, relationships, commitment, collective values, shared goods and duration.’

This is no more different from a real-life community (of animals even), yet those within an online culture has changed the way the web looks now. Within FB users are given tools to help design their ‘ideal’ profile page. This emphasis is, of course, on encouraging user interactions. Common features include profile avatar, pictures, videos, status posts and personal description. Another features exists as a news feed, which is nothing more than a videprinter showing a list of their friends’ use activity, with latest shown top. This acts as the de facto home page; users as also able to use the ’like’ functionality, which allows them vote up content they like.

Putting these together and it become clearer how fluid it is for users to communicate with like-minded individuals within FB. The purposes of these tools is to allow people to ‘communicate with a wide circle of friends and relatives (their ‘social network’) cheaply and efficiently, sharing personal information…participating in the wider online community’ (Gibson et al, 2010: 186). In this sense, FB is essentially a virtual environment capable of sustaining a mass community. A virtual environment like FB survives because they have successfully facilitated the ability to interact with the wider online community in which they have ‘capture the notion of the internet as a location for virtual communities’ (Rhinegold, 1993). Whilst Rhinegold is referring to online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft and pre-2000, comparisons can be drawn that are not wholly different.

A further consequence is that if SNS (and the web as a whole) provides an online space, it must also mean that they are also readily accessible and accessed daily. Parallels can be drawn again to online role-playing games, in which those ‘game worlds are continuously accessible online, which allows for the emergence of complex social structures and economies’ (Chad and Vorderer cited in Vorderer and Bryant, 2006: 78). How ‘complex’ these social structures are within SNS needs investigative work, but as we have seen there is evidence that some collaborative relationships do exist, helped with regular access.

The clearest evidence of social structures/virtual community lies with Wikipedia. A online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia is remarkable for the fact that the content provided (on a myriad of subject matters) has been contributed by users. In other words, the content is added and edited by the community of users who take it upon themselves to maintain the site. The purpose of these projects is ‘the joint effort of many actors leads to a better outcome than any actors could achieve individually (Fama, citied Kaplan and Haenlein, 2009: 62). Wikipedia presents itself as an opportunity where many people can upload information for the greater good of the rest.

As content needs updating, this will occur within the specific article. Other sites that function similarly include Delicious, a bookmaking service aimed at storage and sharing of bookmarks. The relevance of these sites are clear as they fast become ‘the main source of information for many consumers’ (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2009: 62). The community take a responsibility to ensure the functionality of its content is open. Neilson et al (2008: 154) states ‘we can see how easily the dedicated fans have created thriving…communities…maintain dedicated homepages, and participate in intense discussions.’

Two minds are not twice better than one. They are many times better than one. From a psychological perspective, the concept of an online community draws upon the works of Pierre Levy’s ‘collective intelligence.’ Not only does Wikipedia exist for the benefit of all, but also that the intelligence of its community is amplified by thousand. As we live in a world that demands news and information every day, ‘consumption has become an increasingly collective process…None of us can know everything; each of us knows something; and we can put the pieces together if we pool our resources and combine our skills’ (Jenkins 2006: 4).

Steam is not seen as a ‘true’ SNS as it provides other services such as content delivery system for digital content (I.e. games). However, parallels can still be drawn; Steam also allows users to post comments, pictures and videos as users of Facebook could do, although they may be of different content. Steam was founded around the same time as Web 2.0 first started taking off. Valve Corporation, Steam’s creators, found a (risky) opportunity back then that a system such a Steam would be successful. The reasoning was that ’one of the things the internet represents is an enormous broadening of distribution channels…opens the door to titles that would have difficulty finding and developing an audience otherwise’ (Newell, 2009).

Ten years later (Steam entered beta stage in 2003) and Steam is one of the largest players of online digital content, at least where online games is concerned. This ‘broadening of the distribution channels’ is an excellent term to describe the way in which the web now provided the sufficient space and environment to get things done. With the refinement of broadband, users now find it easier to gain exposure to their content. This was perfect for Valve, as the target audience of Steam was more specific to online gamers, developers, modders and system enthusiasts, people who had interest in Web 2.0 as a new medium. Because of this, Valve placed emphasis on community growth as the critical factor in the future of Steam.

Steam provides users to more expressive tools to be creative and innovative with the Workshop component. This element allows users to upload and showcase their creations (e.g. rendered content using 3D development kits) off to the rest of the community. This has seen the result of a massive influx of community-made content, ranging even to full indie games. Those works of extreme high-quality get praise, recognition and sometimes even a financial reward to the respective authors. This provides a unique incentive to encourage people to be collaborative (as they get rewarded for their work), as well as giving them a reason to continue using Steam.

Additionally, one way in which distribution channels have been broadened is through Steam itself. With regards to indie games developers, finding a publisher or even gaining exposure can prove to be extremely difficult (much like the music industry). With Steam and its large user base, those developers have a (more specific) space in which to work in. Given enough time, their works can go on to become highly successful. A number of titles who have received critical acclaim have originated as indie games such as Terraria, Audiosurf, Baird and Super Hexagon.

The point of allowing the user base to be this expressive is to create a self-sufficient community. Since the Workshop was launched, there are over 192 million community content contributions. As Newman (2004: 149) explains ’players indicate the ways in which they learn from others, and helped others to learn, by sharing information on strategy and technique through talk and observing the play of others.’ We must refer back to the theme of collective intelligence, where many minds create a singular collective, where information is consumed daily.

To design 3D models and other modifications is not an easy process, therefore users will ask questions to problems. One user’s answer could be another’s answer. Often the answers to people’s questions can be found within Steam, which becomes a rich source of information for these developers. Such responses are appreciated within the community, where ‘contributions are actively sought and graciously accepted and acknowledged’ (Newman, 2008: 148). This collaboration of comments, criticism and opinions  between would-be designers is vital to problem solving.

What we have seen from the examples is the ‘ways in which the internet has become so central to contemporary media is through the way in which its symbiotic relationship with media culture has offered audiences participatory opportunities’ Lister et al (2009: 221). Another way of supporting Newell’s (2009) statements, what Lister et al is referring to is that this leads back to the notion of user-generated content. The instances of users creating and uploading digital content to Steam is a prime example of this, and also demonstrates an active community. This ensures a flourishing community; in Steam’s case having ‘attracted new players, reinvigorated veterans and invited significant contribution in the form of user-generated content‘ (Moore, 2011). As mentioned, something as small as a status post is content from the user; ‘every SNS post, or conversation in a chat room, every home page and downloaded MP3 play list facilitates the individual communicating in a pseudo public mode of address. What is clear is that a great deal of web use facilitates a feeling of participation’ Lister et al (2009: 222).

The modernisation of the internet and the era of Web 2.0 have clearly helped bring about changes to the web. This has made it significantly easier to maintain communities online. This is no truer than in SNS; they maintain users by promoting a sense of ‘belonging’ to the community. Other sites such as Wikipedia and IMDd provide a rich source of information with is readily tapped into and, crucially, maintained by community members themselves (i.e. ‘collective process’). Perhaps the biggest indicator of how social networks facilitate online communities, is the mass of user-generated content that followed. The notion of UGC gives reason to suggest that the lifeblood of a network is much about the user themselves. They are no longer just users, but active and collaborative members of a large community. It seemed more evident with Steam with more technical content creations, but apply this to networks raise the same matter. The fact that user are creating their own content by using the available tools demonstrates that the community will continue to grow.

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