Group Theory and the Online Community

Every online community is a group of people. What can the group theory coming from social psychology teach us about managing online communities?

Social Facilitation. This theory assumes that when we are in company of other people we tend to perform better at simpler or well learned tasks and worse when it comes to complex, difficult or new tasks, as compared to performing the same job without other people present. This tendency in behavior may be linked to an increased level of arousal, as we try harder being observed by other people.

In online communities we are in company of others, but at the same time we are also anonymous and able to hide behind our screen. This suggests that we should be able to perform well on new and complex tasks, even when collaborating with others. Open source software development projects can serve as some evidence for this theory, they require collaboration from many people on new and complex tasks, and they have proved to deliver great results. I would also risk statement that in future most innovations will come from collaborative online communities, as people may be more creative and risk-taking in such quasi-anonymous environments.

Group Think and Group Polarization. These two concepts describe the phenomenon of highly capable individuals taking not optimal decisions when being part of a group. Group Think refers to the fact that a cohesive group may focus on and implement an initial idea, neglecting all its negative aspects. This happens as people in such groups prefer to discard their critique so that integrity of the group is not challenged. Similarly, Group Polarization happens when a group talks itself into extreme positions in a self-fuelling, chain reaction manner.

The bonds between group members in online communities are normally much weaker than in traditional groups. This means that virtual teams are less prone to group think and group polarization, which means they may take optimal decisions. This may be especially the case when supported by a well designed decision-making process.

Social Loafing. This theory claims that as a group gets larger, the individual contribution tends to decrease. In other words, the level of ownership for tasks, decisions or deliverables drops as there are new members joining the group.

As online communities are normally open and we tend to consider large size of a community as an asset, the leader needs to be aware of the social loafing effect. Sometimes it may be effective to limit the size of the group to obtain best results.

Bystander Effect. This phenomenon is best described by the example of crime witness. If a single person witnesses a crime, they tend to react. If a group witnesses a crime, they tend not to react. However, if a single person does react, others normally follow.

In online communities, the bystander effect should translate into a tendency for group not to react to problems they witness. However, the community should react when someone does it as example. Therefore, the role of a community manager, or community leader should be to role model the desired behaviors. A great example in the community of bloggers is Blog Action Day – several bloggers reacting to real world problems, such as environment and poverty, triggered a huge number of other bloggers to follow in the same way.

If you have any examples of the above or other phenomena in the social media, please share them in the comments!

Here you can read more about social psychology. You can also see my other posts about social psychology and the online community.


29 Responses to “Group Theory and the Online Community”

  1. 1 authorfriendly September 16, 2008 at 12:16 am

    As a psychologist who shares your interest in group phenomena and Web 2.0 phenomena, I enjoyed reading your post, and plan to quote it in an article I am writing at my blog. Just a few thoughts you did not go into in depth. For one thing, groupthink tends to actually mean that creative and outside-the-box thoughts are sacrificed for group cohesion (going along to get along). Also bystanders tend to not help because of diffusion of reponsibility. The more people who could react the lesslikely you are to because you think somebody else will. Thanks again for your post.
    David John Berndt, PhD

  2. 2 Darek September 16, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    David, thanks a lot for your comments and quote! I always appreciate expert comments, as they allow me to learn more about the given subject! Regards, Darek

  3. 3 Ryan March 21, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    Hi Darek,

    I think what you’ve written is really interesting. I am currently studying online communities in my Advertising and Marketing degree and believe there is so much scope for applying social theory. If you want to read up more on how theory has been applied to online communities, the students at Bournemouth University have written a lot of insightful things –


  4. 4 Ryan March 22, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    Sorry, I posted the wrong link. Here’s the correct one…

    It’s on social conformity. Enjoy!

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