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Ballot Box Communication in Online Communities


The participation of individual users in online communities is one of the most noted features in the recent explosive growth of popular online communities ranging from picture and video sharing (Flickr.com and YouTube.com) and collective music recommendation (Last.fm) to news voting (Digg. com) and social bookmarking (del.icio.us). Unlike traditional online communities, these sites feature little message exchange among users. Nevertheless, users' involvement and their contribution through non-message-based interactions have become a major force behind successful online communities. Recognition of this new type of user participation is crucial to understanding the dynamics of online social communities and community monetization.

The new communication features in online communities can be best summarized as Ballot Box Communication (BBC), which is an aggregation mechanism that reflects the common experience and opinions among individuals. By offering a limited number of choices such as voting, rating and tagging, BBC creates a new medium to effectively reveal the interests of mass population (see Table 1). Compared with traditional Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) such as email, Web publishing, and online forums, BBC influences user preferences by simplifying the mass sharing of individual preferences.

These technologies offer new ways for information consumers to be involved in community activities. In traditional online communities, users only have two levels of participation: "watching from the sidelines" or "playing in the game," for example, they are either passive readers or active participants in conversations. However, BBC presents a new choice -- "shouting from the stands" -- in which each user can express his opinion through BBC and their collective preferences can be heard as a dominant voice. For instance, Digg readers can vote on news and promote it to the front page for millions of visitors to see.

In spite of the increasing significance of non-message-based online communication, very little is known about BBC-enabled communities. As entrepreneurs build and manage new online communities, they have no choice but to look for the "right" technologies by trial-and-error. Not surprisingly, the result is hit-or-miss: some of the grandest failures of the dot com bust featured online communities. Only after costly failures, it has been recognized that not all technologies can benefit the growth and sustainability of a community.

Extant theories on online communities and communication networks may offer some guidance on understanding of the emergence of new online communities (such as YouTube). Whitaker et al. identify online communities as "intense interactions, strong emotional ties and shared activities." In addition, Monge and Contractor define communication networks as "the patterns of contact that are created by the flow of messages among communicators through time and space." Both study the social interaction aspect of communities such as user commenting and discussing. However, the nonsocial interaction aspect, which is the focus of BBC and often dominant in contemporary online communities, has not received much attention.

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