The Emergence of Online Community Leadership
What makes someone influential in an online community? Are there identifiable behaviors associated with being viewed by other participants as a leader? Are these emergent leaders different than other participants?
These are some of the questions that my colleagues and I address in:
Steven L. Johnson, Hani Safadi, and Samer Faraj (2015). “The Emergence of Online Community Leadership” Information Systems Research, 26(1), 165-187.
Here’s the article abstract:
Compared to traditional organizations, online community leadership processes and how leaders emerge are not well studied. Previous studies of online leadership have often identified leaders as those who administer forums or have high network centrality scores.
Although communication in online communities occurs almost exclusively through written words, little research has addressed how the comparative use of language shapes community dynamics. Using participant surveys to identify leading online community members, this study analyzes a year of communication network history and message content to assess whether language use differentiates leaders from other core community participants.
We contribute a novel use of textual analysis to develop a model of language use to evaluate the utterances of all participants in the community. We find that beyond communication network position–in terms of formal role, centrality, membership in the core, and boundary spanning– those viewed as leaders by other participants, post a large number of positive, concise posts with simple language familiar to other participants.
This research contributes a language model to study online language use and by pointing to the emergent and shared nature of online community leadership.
Our key finding is that emergent leaders — those viewed as most influential by other participants — tend to use language differently than other participants. Specifically, in the communities we studied we found leaders:
- are among most frequent posters,
- use positive language,
- have concise posts (less words per post),
- use simpler language (higher readability scores), and
- use language that is more prototypical of the community (language in their posts looks more like the typical language of all other participants).
This result holds after controlling for formal roles (being a designated administrator or moderator) and after controlling for network position (e.g., posting in more central portions of the communication network). Thus, in providing leadership it is not just about filling a role or being highly visible to others, it’s also about the language you use.
I doubt there is one single pattern of language usage that is universally associated with online leadership. Although many features are language usage are probably similar across many social media collaborations, I suspect the language of leadership differs in different types of collaborations. (Indeed, this is an interesting question for future research.)
If you’d like to read a nearly final draft of full paper, you can find it at this link: “The Emergence of Online Community Leadership” (the published version requires an ISR subscription to access).