Community Development Online: A Review of Best Practices for Engaged Collaboration

As options for virtual communication continue to grow and evolve, organizations and groups struggle to find the best means for interaction and collaboration among themselves and their external audiences. Agencies seeking to work with the public or increase civic engagement may not always be able to arrange face-to-face (FTF) meetings, particularly when they’re trying to cover a large territory or dispersed population. Web-based communication, videoconferencing, and audioconferencing are cheaper and more convenient compared with travel to meet FTF, but the quality of virtual collaborative engagement and outcomes may suffer. Online communities provide an asynchronous option for group participation, but they survive or fail depending on the levels of participation and commitment by their membership. While it may seem a simple task to build an online community, most such efforts by businesses fail to achieve a critical mass of membership despite high levels of investment. Books and websites are available that describe how to build an online community that will attract and retain members, but these sources often fail to support their suggestions with a theoretical rationale or evidence-based reasoning. Community development goals also tend to vary between emphasizing the creation and maintenance of social relationships or building a group identity around collaboration/collective action.

Theory from the social science literature and empirical research has only recently been applied to understanding collective identity, attachment, engagement, and other social behaviors that can improve the chances for online collaboration and community success. While there have been some studies of civic engagement supported by Internet connectivity, these have often been extensions of research into participatory or community social capital, and community social networks.  

Is there a better way to develop engaged online communities for collaboration? Are there differences in efficacy between the development of community and collaborative capacity online versus FTF engagement? If FTF is considered to be the “gold standard” for group interactions, factors related to social presence, trust development, and communications medium also play a role in designing an effective online community environment. This research reviews theory from the sociological, computer-mediated communication, information systems, civic engagement, small group behavior, social psychology, resource management, and organizational behavior literature as it relates to online community development and suggests how it can be applied to the design of online communities seeking collaboration or civic engagement for collective action.

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Author Bruce Balfour
Secondary Author Theodore R. Alter
Year 2016
Place published Canberra
Publisher Invasive Animals CRC
Institution The Pennsylvania State University
Pages 27
ISBN/ISSN 978-0-6480088-1-1

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