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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).

5 Responses to The Emergence of Online Community Leadership

  • Major thanks to the editors — Natalia Levina (SE) and Jonathon Cummings (AE) — along with three anonymous reviewers at ISR for your valuable feedback and guidance. The final version of the paper is greatly improved thanks to your input. Thank you.

  • Those are interesting findings. Was Empire Avenue one of the online communities used in the study? For the fifth variable that you used, how did you determine what the prototypical language was for the other members in the community? Did you have to request permission from someone in order to use the data from the online communities, or is it considered that anything publicly posted is fair game for use in research?

  • Thanks for your questions Michael. The data was from a randomly selected set of online communities that use vBulletin discussion board software, discuss technology-related topics, and have full message history publically available.

    Yes, prototypical language use is based on how similar someone’s language use is compared to everyone else’s in the same community.

    As a general answer, in a public forum there is no expectation of privacy and observing behaviors is “fair game” for research (although all sorts of caveats still apply). For the participant survey portion there was an IRB-approved process for gaining informed consent as part of survey completion.

  • Did you give the participants any incentive to participate in the survey portion? I’m just curious because it’s difficult to get undergraduates to participate in studies even for course credit, so I’m wondering if any incentive was given for participation in the study.

  • The participants were offered a $10 amazon gift certification for participation–I can’t remember the exact percentage, but my recollection is that about 20-30% of those who responded did so without accepting that offer.

    In terms of students and research studies, I’ve had good participation when students are offered extra credit (generally 1% of final grade).





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