2.2 Everything2 as a community

While we cannot attempt to put a community "score" on Everything2, there are several features of the system, and site, that we feel fosters a sense of community in its members. A synthesis of the definitions above show some common characteristics that need to be in place to create the strong and weak social ties characteristic of a community.

2.2.1 Ease of entry/exit

In theory, anyone with a connection to the Internet can become a member of Everything2. On average, 70 users a day request accounts on the system. However, a majority of users only log in briefly, and never add content to the site. Therefore, a fairly large group of people go through the trouble of being emailed an user account password, but choose not to remain an active member of the site. It is unfortunately difficult to study why people decide not to participate in this collaborative effort, but some evidence from our examination of naïve users might suggest reasons for further review.

We tested users unfamiliar with the system mainly to examine overall usability issues. One unanticipated result was related to the task of creating a new writeup in the database. After the respondent finished the experiment, the researcher went into the system to erase the writings in preparation for the next respondent. In the few minutes it took to accomplish the task, the writeup of the new user had been voted down 12 times, and there were 8 private messages outlining criticisms of the writeup. New users faced with that kind of feedback might find social barriers to entry where architectural ones are not easy to put into place.

While the data indicate that most people who leave do so without having added anything significant to the system, there are also users who have left after putting a considerable amount of effort into the system, and one user has been banned. In particular, the case of the banned user was documented throughout the Everything2 site, and caused several other users to leave on their own. In addition, some users have left after disagreements with the power structure of Everything2 related to deletion rights. In any case, the leaving or banishment is typically the cause of controversy and high emotion.

Tied to the discussion of entry and exit costs is what Bender characterizes as a "limited number of people in a somewhat restricted social space or network."

2.2.2 Affective, emotional

The evidence that affective ties exist between the users of Everything2 is largely anecdotal. Of the 21 editor and god email questionnaire responses, ten specifically mentioned using the site for emotional support. In both the editors email interviews and the general web survey, people seemed to indicate that the two main benefits gained from participating in Everything2 were improved writing skills and having made friends. Several people in the web survey specifically mention receiving emotional support from the other users.

There are not well-developed, objective measures of affective involvement that can be applied to an online network like Everything2. Even if the self-report of users is that they have made friends on the site, one would need to know whether that perceived friendship accrues the same benefits as offline relationships do. Can the users of Everything2 turn to each other for emotional support? Do they trust the other users perceived as friends to have their best interests at heart? We claim some anecdotal evidence that these claims could be made for the Everything2 group. Users have reported many cases of late night conversations, some of which move to the phone, that dealt with weighty issues, including rape, suicide and terminal illness. Also, users often list on their "homenodes," places where their personal information is available, a list of fellow users that they consider to be friends. A user describing their feelings about others users they have met said,

"I have met 22 noders IRL (sic In Real Life) so far, and the caliber of e2's users far exceeds what I would normally expect from online addicts. Aside from online personalities, most noders are very congenial, understanding, sensitive, not taking themselves too seriously, having multiple talents, interests and stimuli, and to me represent a healthy cross section of society that while having embraced and accepted the computer age has not relented in losing its soul to the machine of modern conveniences."

On the reverse side of emotional support that could be expected from a community comes emotional harm that one would also expect from a community. Robert Putnam points out in the introduction of Bowling Alone that often community can be hurtful, that those people best able to support one emotionally are also able to harm one emotionally. Several users reported leaving the site for a period of time during the course of their involvement with Everything2 because another user had "hurt their feelings." The user who was banished was not kicked out for breaking copyright or writing conventions, but because he made personal, emotional attacks against other users in his writing.

Users of Everything2 generally fall into two categories, those who submit only factual information, and those likely to also include personal experiences, some of which can be intensely emotional. Examples include several nodes dealing with the early loss of one's parents, sexual experiences, drug abuse and others. Users claim that they are able to get to know each other better through these "life experience nodes" than they would be if they met in some physical location. As one user put it,

"Interaction on Everything2 is strangely openly voyeuristic: one meets people in the chatterbox as they would each other during a cocktail party. Then they all go and read each other's nodes, and it's like reading each other's diaries."

A plausible argument against the effectiveness of self disclosure in these circumstances is that the user's ability to remain anonymous removes any consequence of that self disclosure. This argument is only true if the online interaction itself is considered an insignificant life factor for the user. Fifty-three percent of the editors, who seem consistent with most higher level users, report spending more than 20 hours per week on Everything2. As a reminder, these people are not paid for that time. From the web survey, 16.8% of respondents indicated they spent more than 15 hours per week on the site, and 22.6% of respondents indicated they spent between 8 and 15 hours per week on the site.

This amount of time would seem to indicate that people do spend a significant amount of their time on the site, which could then be perceived as significant to their lives. Obviously, this is not going to be true for all users. When asked to describe how they interact with other users, 13.5% or respondents said that they did not interact with other users, or did so very rarely.

"I mostly keep to myself. Of course I have strong opinions, but I've never yet been in a big debate where anybody's minds were changed. I've got real-life friends if I want confrontations. Of course I feel that I contribute consistently high-quality writing, but without the wacky sense of humor or razor wit that characterizes a popular 'E2 personality' people pretty much ignore me."

However, this effect would not be considered unusual in an offline community, where some percentage of people would avoid aspects of closeness typically described as community-based.

2.2.3 Mutual obligation

The sense of mutual obligation in a website relates in some ways to the concept of sacrifice. A user of the website must be willing to participate even when it goes against the specific self interest of that user to do so. In some ways, this relates to the concept of generalized reciprocity, as outlined by Putnam . Generalized reciprocity deals with the willingness of some community member to help another not because they expect an immediate gain, but out of recognition that it helps smooth the process of society to do so. One helps a stranded motorist not because you expect that particular stranded motorist to do you a favor in return, but because it is what you would hope someone would do for you.

How does this sense of obligation transfer to an online community like Everything2? Some evidence indicates that the messaging system behaves in such a way. Thirty-six percent of regular users, and all editors and gods, reported using the private message function to alert another user about misspellings in their content, suggestions for improving the writing or other types of advice and help. In Perlmonks, a system of experience points and voting exists for providing this sort of help, but not in Everything2. The messages and help go unrewarded by the normal feedback mechanisms of the site.

Criticisms of the mutual obligation found in online networks are that most of these groups are formed out of common interests. For instance, most listserves, chat rooms and MUD's all have a common identifying theme. Where such a group of common interest exists, there cannot also exist the conditions to engage in self-sacrifice, since by definition the needs of the individual is served by participating in the group.

However, Everything2 does not have a clear identifying theme. One of the most common questions asked when describing the site is "Well, what is it about?" There is some sense that online communities need to be organized around some common interest for it to work, although it could be argued that Everything2 is an exception to the rule. One could claim that the common theme of Everything2 is creative writing, or popular culture, but this would only be pulling two threads that have emerged from the system rather than describing the system itself. This lack of common interest means that the users who help each other might be doing out of a sense of mutual obligation, rather than out of self interest.

An interesting counterpoint is the Perlmonks site, which is centered around a mutual self interest, that being coding Perl. Still, there are multiple levels of user abilities on the site, and the benefits of the expert programmers to help their novice fellows cannot be explained away by the simple fact that they all have a common interest in Perl. The reputation system might help a newer user get involved with the site, but there is still some indication that the experienced programmers are sacrificing their own time to answer programming questions without a direct, clear, offsetting benefit.

2.2.4 Limited number of people

This condition is typically the hardest for online communities to resolve, since much of the incentive of the online network is bringing together large groups of people, rather than restricting the number of participants. However, how can one develop the sense of other users necessary to foster community when people are constantly coming and going, or when there are so many people one cannot hope to get a sense of the whole. When one has season tickets to the university football games, are they part of a community when in the stadium?

Since success on the Web is often measured by the number of people one attracts to a site, "community" websites have often ignored the benefits of a restricted social space. The developers of Everything are no different, and would like to see overall usage grow. However, it is interesting to note from server patterns, that while the site had a growth spurt following the introduction of such features as the Chatterbox and voting, the number of registered users on the site at any one time has remained remarkably constant, (around 55) for several months and shows no sign of changing.

In some way that has remained invisible, the site has maintained this equilibrium without the intervention of the developers of the actual design of the system. It could be that server limitations have some effect, but instead it appears to be a social limitation rather than a technological one. If the site doubled in popularity, one could imagine a definite effect in the way the social systems of the site currently operate.

2.2.5 Sense of common identity

As a whole, the Everything2 community is quite introspective. Many nodes exist on Everything2 culture, arguing whether it is or is not a community, ferreting out examples of interactions between users and otherwise examining their own culture. Users of the site refers to themselves both as "noders", and "Everythingians". There have been several real life gatherings of noders to help develop common identities. These "Everything Gatherings" are typically based on rough geographic areas, like "the E2 Midwest Bathtub Jam" which was attended by some users from Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. These have all been organized by individual users rather than the development company.

The real question of common identity is not whether all users can point to a common referent with which they are familiar. While all the people who watch "X-Files" may share common characteristics, one could not say they have a shared identity. A persistent identification would need to effect other areas of life outside of the identifying common interest. In other words, users of Everything2 would need to consider themselves a noder across different continuums for "noder" to be a viable identity. There is no sense from the evidence that this is true, beyond the effort that individual users make to come together physically after having become familiar virtually. Besides the organized group meetings, there are many cases where someone has flown to meet another user who was distant geographically.

One can compare this strict measure of identity against real life groups. How many examples of collocated groups manage to create an identity in such a way? It could be that this measure of identity is unreasonable in a society where the transaction costs for distance communication is so low, and the presence of unifying broadcast technologies is so pervasive.

The alternate to this strict definition of identity is instead a sense of shared understanding, where people identify with a shared task that is less about internal attributes and more about circumstantial practices. For instance, a family is not the center of a community because of any attribute of relationship, but because the act of raising children and living together creates a shared understanding based on the work being accomplished. Since there is so much work involved in coordinating family life, it is mistaken for, or misattributed to, internal characteristics.

This relates to online communities in that while sharing a common interest in fly fishing may not be enough to create a shared understanding, the work of creating a vast, online database might be. Even though members of Everything2 have different ideas about what the database should be, as mentioned by one respondent, this may not relate to whether or not this network behaves like a community.

"I don't think we really have community values, because people's goals for E2 are so wildly different. Some people really are in it for the XP, some for the personal writings, some people for the community, and some as an information source."

However, this may be another example of misinterpreting community. In a collocated community, one may expect the participants to have different goals, but that the action of working together in a shared context to separately meet those goals is what creates community.

  • 2.1 Definitions of community

  • 2.2 Everything2 as a community

  • 2.3 Features of Everything that foster community

  • 2.4 Everything sites as community

  • 2.5 How community relates to "work"

  • 2.6 Everything and the Grudin Problems

    Return to School of Information Analysis of Everything

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