I’ve been reflecting recently on some research I did in preparing my thesis (pgs. 10 – 14 cover this area) and wanted to recap some thoughts on the roles users/audience members/etc. play in an online community. There are four generally accepted roles users play in online communities:
Each of these roles has a function within the community; and I’d argue that every community (or website in general) has each of these roles.
Moderators: The moderator(s) is usually the founder of the site and the overall administrator of what’s happening online. The moderator is in charge of enforcing policies and ensuring the community stays true to its purpose. One of the main day-to-day responsibilities of a moderator is managing the spam and conflicts that occur within their community. Unwanted spam and inappropriate language can quickly spin an online community out of control; making the moderators job even more critical.
Professionals: Professionals are users within the community who take on a larger role, serving as an expert or qualified member. Professionals may be invited into the community or may evolve over time into the role (evolve from a participant).
Participants: Participants are the day-to-day community members who drive an online community forward. Some participants will be positive forces within the community while some will play a destructive role. Moderators benefit from positive participants in that they will help self-regulate the community. Participants may evolve into the professional role and are also involved in inviting new members to join the community.
Lurkers: Lurkers are “members” of the community who are non-active participants. Research suggests that over half the populations of online communities are comprised of lurkers. Lurkers in some communities feel like active participants, by reading and knowing the community trends. Some researchers suggest lurkers have a negative influence on communities; with lurkers present, participants might not be interested in sharing information to a population who, themselves, is not interested in sharing information.
When curating a community, it’s important to think of the participation and activity each of these roles play online. One must consider the type of community desired to be portrayed against the type of community online members are interested in. Communities moderate these roles with techniques like: requiring users to apply for membership, requiring a login before viewing/participating, and even by being an invite-only community.
Here are some recommended resources for more information about online communities: (Preece’s book is a must-read for those interested in the science behind online communities and the people behind them. Her theory of “purpose, people, and policies” is a great base for considering how to build a successful online community.)
Preece, J. (2000). Online communities. designing usability, supporting sociability. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons, LTD.
Nonnecke, B., Preece, J., Andrews, D. & Voutour, R. (2004). Online lurkers tell why. New York, New York. August 2004