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Tracing Trust and Power in Online Communities

The final session of this first day of AoIR 2008 begins with James Owens, whose focus is on online news and democratic communities. Interactive technology enables the production of new social formations, but can also reproduce existing social formations; this can be related especially also to local community formations. James is interested in three Chicago-based Websites (of the Tribune, a citizen journalism site supported by the Tribune, and the local Indymedia site), and is interested here especially on whether such sites promote or prevent social fragmentation.

Professional news control advocates often draw from rational theory (e.g. Habermas); rational spaces require a non-political or at least impartial controlling authority, in this view. Professional journalists should become managers of online social activity, in this view, bringing together multiple audiences and guiding them in the process of building local community. This is based on the traditional view of journalists as gatekeepers, of course - and an absence of such gatekeepers is seen as leading to the fragmentation of communities through user self-selectivity.

Citizen journalism advocates draw from radical, participatory, and related theory; in this view, journalists need such citizen participation, in this view, in order to legitimise their work. As producers select which elements of the news work is extended to user participation, then, they control the extent to which such processes are possible, and which communities may participate in these processes.

James's study of the three sites, then, compared news coverage across these sites and looked especially for references to local places. Chicago overcovers white and mixed-race as well as upper-income communities in the area, while undercovering non-white and lower-income communities; Chicago Indymedia was similarly biased, but not to as significant a degree. Also, of course, it provided different political perspectives. TribLocal provided increased coverage of suburban communities, but continued to comparatively undercover lower-income communities. So, the TribLocal project bridged geographic divisions, but did not counter social fragmentation as its biases for the most part followed those of the mainstream newspaper site.

Up next is Gordon Carlson, whose interest is in expert communities. There are now some sites which specifically raise barriers to participant entry (such as Experts Exchange), counter to the general Web 2.0 crowdsourcing trend: here, users can pose questions which are then answered for a fee by a group of experts (who have self-nominated as members and have paid a fee for such membership). How does a site like this operate? How is the 'rhetorical vision' constructed that emerges as a group of people collaborate on generating information? On the open Web, this often happens through argument (e.g. on message boards) - what's the story in this more closed site?

In spite of the closed nature, there remains a rhetoric of community here, interestingly (and perhaps a desire to associate oneself with this - expert - community through testimonials). There also are incentive systems: experts' responses are rated and experts' status (marked through military-style insignia) on the site rises and falls in response to such ratings, up to the point where high-ranked experts are given userlevel titles and no longer have to pay their membership. This both incentivises participants and creates a kind of status game for expert participants - indeed, disagreements between experts are often addressed by comparing one's on-site credentials (external credentials are comparatively downplayed).

The output of the community still remains sacrosanct, then, and the title of expert is earned rather than awarded a priori. There also is an underlying belief that expert answers are either right or wrong, and this is rewarded - there is little room for fuzzy, uncertain answers (betraying perhaps an origin of this community in technological expertise). Further, there is a strong focus on simply providing solutions, rather than on providing meta-solutions and helping users learn the skills to find solutions for themselves.

At any rate, of course, this system contradicts the typical open-system view of Web 2.0 - while at the same time not falling into the trap of focussing overly much on established, external criteria (as, say Citizendium does). Further, it also provides one model of successfully commodifying a Web 2.0 model even while promoting the interests of everyone in the group.

Finally we move on to Ke Nan, who presents remotely via Powerpoint voiceover as visa restrictions prevented her from being here. Her work studies Chinese students in the U.S. and their attitudes towards ethnic online communities - communities mainly used by immigrants and temporary residents. One example is MITBBS, originally a community for Chinese students at MIT and now a community of some 200,000 members.

Such communities are especially important from a cultural adaptation perspective, as migrants adapt to the cultural practices of their host countries. Use of the host country's Internet resources (HI) is seen as promoting adaptation, while use of ethnic Internet (EI) resources is seen as retarding adaptation - however, there is also a suggestion that these categories are not comparable, and that HI and EI are used for different purposes. Nan suggests that ethnic Internet use can have a positive effect on cultural adaptation as well, as such communities can help members in the adaptation process as well, through online community interactions.

Nan operates with three hypotheses: that increased ethnic online community use means that users receive more support from these communities, that they therefore build a better perception of these communities, and that this helps their cultural adaptation processes. She conducted a survey of some Chinese 255 students to investigate these hypotheses. On average, these participants spent 1.3 hours per day using such communities, and MITBBS was the most popular community, followed by local mailing-lists or online communities. Topics such as living in the U.S., Chinese news, and immigration and visa were most popular here.

Results supported both that high-level use generates high-level community support and that it generates positive attitudes towards such communities; they also indicated (though less strongly) that this helps their cultural adaptation processes.

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