Analysis of an Online Community

CS 6470: The Design of Online Communities
Professor Amy Bruckman

Due:Thursday, March 15th 2012
Format:Double spaced, numbered pages, 12 pt. font
Approximate Length:20-30 pages; one paper per team
Percentage of Grade:30% + 5% for presentation
Team size: 3 people (unless otherwise OK'd by the instructor or TA)

Each team will have to get explicit IRB permission. This involves adding you on as an investigator in the study after your proof of human subjects certification has been accepted, and also getting approval for the specific site you wish to study. You may not begin studying the site until you receive explicit notice from the instructor or TA that you have been approved. You also must attend the ethics lectures. Make sure to follow the ethics summary.


Participate in an online community for a substantial amount of time (at least 10 hours for each team member; everyone must do this). Your primary research method will be participant observation. Take careful notes on your experiences each time you connect.

In addition to participant observation, you should each interview three people affiliated with the community. They may be community designers, leaders, or regular members. You don't need to stick to Seidman's three interview structure--one interview per participant will usually be sufficient. You must get informed consent before doing an interview; we'll discuss this in class. The interviews are better if they're in person, but telephone works too. Voice-over-IP services like Skype are a good choice. If you are using a regular telephone, make sure you have a way to record the call. You can buy a gizmo at Radio Shack to let you record conversations off of the phone. You must get permission to record the conversation. You may do online interviews of community members in addition to but not instead of doing interviews of at least three people face to face or on the phone. (However, note that online interviews are fairly useless compared to phone or in person interviews.) A team of three people should interview nine people total.

You will hand in your interview transcripts as homework assignments. Please highlight sections of the transcript that seem interesting to you and add comments on what about this part of the interview was interesting and why.

Read and make sure to abide by our guidelines on site choice. Your site must be approved by the intructor or TA.

Analyze the community in terms of Amy Jo Kim's "Nine Principles for Community Design." How does the community address each of these issues? (Kim's book "Community Building on the Web" is out of print, but you buy a pdf online.)

In what ways is the community successful? Is it meeting the needs of its members? Compare and contrast the community to other similar ones. In what ways could the community be better designed? How would you change it?

In your paper, make sure to cite the course readings and include a detailed bibliography.

Include in your paper a "methods" section in which you describe how you did your research: how much time did you spend participating? In what ways did you participate? Who did you interview? (Present these portraits anonymized, as we discussed in the ethics lecture.)

Exact length doesn't matter--use the amount of space you need to tell your story well, whether that be longer or shorter. But please don't go over twice the suggested length. We stop reading at that length.

Please hand in a paper copy of your paper at the start of class on the day it's due.

You will be graded on (in order from least important to most):

Choosing a Site & Recruiting Participants

It's a good idea to choose a site that is successful. You'll learn more by thinking in detail about something that works than by tearing apart something that doesn't work. And it's much easier to do a thoughtful analysis of a successful site. Your choice of site must be approved by the instructor or TA before you may begin work.

Students sometimes find it quite hard to get people to agree to talk with them. You may wish to choose a site that friends or classmates use. It's not a great idea to interview friends or classmates, but it is a reasonable backup strategy if other methods of recruitment fail. You must do these interviews, and you can't be obnoxious in how you request interviews. "No one would talk to me" is unfortunately not an excuse.

Pick a site that you enjoy and can imagine yourself spending a lot of time on. You will be there a lot for your participant observation. Furthermore, if you do not participate in the site sincerely yourself, you will have more trouble getting interviews. For example, the students who decided to study needed to start singing. Until they did, no one would talk to them.

If you encounter significant difficulties recruiting participants, please make an appointment to meet with the professor and/or TA. You may need to switch sites.

A sample successful paper from Spring 2007 is posted here, with permission of the authors. Note that this paper was written when Second Life was "the new hot thing."

On the day you submit your paper, please send a separate email from each team member to the instructor and TA. In your email, describe what each team member did to contribute to the project. Describe which users each person interviewed, which part of the site each person focused on in their participant observation, etc.


Prepare a short talk (15 minutes maximum) about your findings. All team members should participate in giving the talk.

The quality of your presentation and overheads counts towards your talk grade. A short talk on how to give a talk will be given in class approximately one week before talks are due.