Language influences the emergence of online community leadership

What you say and how you say it may be just as important in online interactions as it is in face-to-face conversations. Especially, if you want to be thought of as a leader. Assistant Professor of MIS, Steven L. Johnson and colleagues recently analyzed the language used by members of threaded discussion boards to determine who was a leader, and who was perceived to be a leader.

The key finding? “Emergent leaders — those viewed as most influential by other participants — tend to use language differently than other participants.” Johnson says.

The research was conducted by asking members of the boards who they thought were influential. A method Johnson describes as similar to a nomination process.

After “controlling for the obvious: formal role, boundary spanning and centrality” the team came up with about 3,000 potential leaders. They then looked at the written texts posted by the 59 nominees and compared them to the 3,000.

What you say onlineThey found that people who are thought of as leaders:

  • are among most frequent posters,
  • use positive language,
  • have concise posts (fewer words per post),
  • use simpler language (higher readability scores)
  • use language that is more prototypical of the community (language in their posts looks more like the typical language of all other participants).

These findings superseded whether or not the emergent leader had a formal title or position, although having one (such as administrator or moderator) did sometimes help a person get nominated.

The research was conducted by looking at all the posts in a one-year period of three online communities—all of which had a computer technology focus.

Johnson says that he was surprised, when they began the work, that there weren’t more studies done “that looked at how we wrote.”

The new findings provide, he says, empirical evidence that supports what most people in leadership theory believe. “To be a leader, you have to have good communication skills.”

S. L. Johnson, Hani Safadi, and Samer Faraj (forthcoming). “The Emergence of Online Community Leadership,” Information Systems Research.

Skip to toolbar