Analysis of an Online Community

CS 4472/6470: The Design of Online Communities
Professor Amy Bruckman

Due:Tuesday, April 6th
Format:Double spaced, numbered pages, 12 pt. font; paper copy and electronic sent to instructor and TA
Approximate Length:20-30 pages; one paper per team
Percentage of Grade:35%
Team size: 3 people (unless otherwise OK'd by the instructor or TA)

Each team will have to get explicit IRB permission. This involves adding you on as an investigator in the study after your proof of human subjects certification has been accepted, and also getting approval for the specific site you wish to study. You may not begin studying the site until you receive explicit notice from the instructor or TA that you have been approved. You also must attend the ethics lectures. Make sure to follow the ethics summary.


Participate in an online community for a substantial amount of time (at least 10 hours for each team member; everyone must do this). Your primary research method will be participant observation. Take careful notes on your experiences each time you connect.

In addition to participant observation, you should each interview three people affiliated with the community. They may be community designers, leaders, or regular members. You don't need to stick to Seidman's three interview structure--one interview per participant is sufficient. You must get informed consent before doing an interview; we'll discuss this in class.

You may interview people by either video or audio. Synchronous text-chat is also possible though not as good. Asyncronous text communication (i.e. email) works poorly and is not allowed. At least one of your three interviews must be by audio or video. A team of three people should interview nine people total.

You will hand in your interview transcripts as homework assignments. Please highlight sections of the transcript that seem interesting to you and add comments on what about this part of the interview was interesting and why.

You must hand in complete transcripts of your interviews. These are not private conversations--they are research data collected under an approved protocol. If something weird happens during an interview, contact Professor Bruckman or your TA to discuss it.

You may not offer subjects any compensation for doing interviews. That is not allowed under our IRB protocol.

Please try to get your interviews done by the due dates on the syllabus. However, if a subject says "how about talking on Wednesday?" you can't push them to talk earlier because your transcript is due Tuesday--please accommodate their schedule. There will be no late penalty for late transcripts. If you can't hand in a transcript at a due date, please instead hand in one page description of your efforts to get interviews.

Remember that each member of a site should see a request for an interview at most once. Don't post a public request for interviews. Keep a shared list of who you have asked for an interview, and make sure your team mate hasn't asked someone before you ask them.

Read and make sure to abide by our guidelines on site choice. Your site must be approved by the intructor or TA.

If you wish to study a phenomenon that spans multiple sites, this may be possible with permission of the instructor. For example, one team in 2013 studied bronies and found that you could not understand their online activities without looking at several related sites. Studying multiple sites is harder, so think carefully before choosing this option.

Analyze the community in terms of Amy Jo Kim's "Nine Principles for Community Design." How does the community address each of these issues? (Kim's book "Community Building on the Web" is out of print, but you buy a pdf online.)

In what ways is the community successful? Is it meeting the needs of its members? Compare and contrast the community to other similar ones. In what ways could the community be better designed? How would you change it?

In your paper, make sure to cite the course readings and include a detailed bibliography.

Include in your paper a "methods" section in which you describe how you did your research: how much time did you spend participating? In what ways did you participate? Who did you interview? (Present these portraits anonymized, as we discussed in the ethics lecture.) Use participants real names if they requested it. Talk to the TA or instructor if you have questions. Include a short paragraph describing each interview subject.

Include in your paper a related work section which describes other work done related to your site. Course readings and related works should be cited throughout the paper as appropriate.

Exact length doesn't matter--use the amount of space you need to tell your story well, whether that be longer or shorter. But please don't go over twice the suggested length. We stop reading at that length.

Your bibliography should be in APA format.

Some useful researcher tools are Google Scholar and the GT Library web databases.

You will be graded on:

Choosing a Site & Recruiting Participants

It's a good idea to choose a site that is successful. You'll learn more by thinking in detail about something that works than by tearing apart something that doesn't work. And it's much easier to do a thoughtful analysis of a successful site. Your choice of site must be approved by the instructor or TA before you may begin work.

Students sometimes find it quite hard to get people to agree to talk with them. You may wish to choose a site that friends or classmates use. It's not a great idea to interview friends or classmates, but it is a reasonable backup strategy if other methods of recruitment fail. You must do these interviews, and you can't be obnoxious in how you request interviews. "No one would talk to me" is unfortunately not an excuse.

Pick a site that you enjoy and can imagine yourself spending a lot of time on. You will be there a lot for your participant observation. Furthermore, if you do not participate in the site sincerely yourself, you will have more trouble getting interviews. For example, the students who decided to study needed to start singing. Until they did, no one would talk to them.

If you encounter significant difficulties recruiting participants, please make an appointment to meet with the professor and/or TA. You may need to switch sites.

A sample successful paper is posted on Canvas as a resource, with permission, and we'll discuss it in class.


Important: On the day you submit your paper, please send a separate email from each team member to the instructor and TA. In your email, describe what each team member did to contribute to the project. Describe which users each person interviewed, which part of the site each person focused on in their participant observation, etc.


You may volunteer to give a short talk about your research. The talk will be a maximum of seven minutes (strictly timed). All group members must participate in giving the talk. This counts as extra credit towards your paper grade. To volunteer, email the head TA and professor by 4/2.