Institute for Sociology,
University of Berne, Switzerland
Most Internet online communities like Chats or Newsgroups are <weakly structured>, especially for their lack of formal membership and of written rules. The easy entry and exit options are leading to a great amount of fluctuations and social turnovers. Further, the possiblities for sanctioning positive or negative behavior are restricted. Therefore, a lot of Chats or Newsgroups are unstable, facing serious problems of establishing and maintaining a social order. How do online communities organize their social structure? To what point should Chats or Newsgroups be considered as <communities> or as groups>?
A study of different online communication services in Switzerland shows the importance of both, micro and macro level of <community building>. The empirical part of the research is based on two methodological approaches: (a) a quantiative survey with personal face-to-face interviews revealing the ego-centered networks of 101 frequent users of chats and newsgroups, and (b) a qualitative disourse analysis studying the online behavior of the participants of a chat and a newsgroup.
Results of the research show how different (micro-)actors are linked to each other by network ties, thus forming clusters and subgroups, whereas the (macro-)structure of online communities is maintained by technical and social norms. These norms include language, institutions, and technological settings. Both networks and norms are thus essential parts for the construction of online communites: On a micro level, social relations are maintained by personal interaction, whereas on a macro level, they are based on common norms.
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