Web 2.0: User-Generated Content in Online Communities

A Theoretical and Empirical Investigation of its Determinants

Bachelor Thesis, 2007

102 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

Index of Tables and Figures


1 Online Communities
1.1 Introduction
1.2 What Is an Online Community?
1.3 A Typology of Online Communities
1.4 Features of Online Communities
1.4.1 Discussion Forums and Sub-Groups
1.4.2 User Profiles
1.5 Conclusion

2 User-Generated Content
2.1 Introduction
2.2 What Is User-Generated Content?
2.3 Why Is User-Generated Content Important?
2.4 Determinants of User-Generated Content Production
2.4.1 Group Size Critical Mass Theory Information Overload Theory Social Loafing Common Ground
2.4.2 Topic and Purpose
2.4.3 Usability
2.4.4 Member Characteristics
2.4.5 Trust And Security
2.4.6 Membership Life Cycle and the Factor Time
2.4.7 Incentives
2.5 Participation Inequalities and Lurkers
2.6 Conclusion

3 The Study
3.1 Introduction
3.2 Defining and Measuring Activity
3.3 Methodology
3.3.1 Data Collection
3.3.2 Period of Observation
3.3.3 Objects of Investigation
3.4 Results of the Empirical Study
3.5 Discussion of the Results
3.5.1 Hypothesis 1
3.5.2 Hypothesis 2
3.5.3 Hypothesis 3
3.5.4 Hypothesis 4
3.5.5 Other aspects
3.6 Limitations

4 Conclusion
4.1 Findings of this Thesis
4.2 Suggestions for Further Research




Index of Tables and Figures

Table I: Community Types, Hagel & Armstrong 1997, p. 118ff

Table II: Community Types, Brunold et al. 2000, p.30ff

Figure I: Community Types, Markus 2002

Figure II: Discussion Forum at studivz.net, last cited 02/12/2007

Figure III: Community Management Group at xing.com

Figure IV: User Profile at studivz.net

Figure V: Nonlinear Feedback Loop, Jones et al. 2002, p. 2

Table III: Reasons why lurkers lurk, Preece & Nonnecke 2004, p. 41

Figure VI: Determinants of User-Generated Content Production

Table IV: Framework for measuring activity

Table V: Model for measuring user-generated content production

Table VI: Observed communities and sub-groups

Table VII: Results of the observation

Figure VII: Critical Mass I

Figure VIII: Critical Mass II

Figure IX: 3 largest Groups

Figure X: Membership Size and Content Production

Figure XI: Different Topics I

Figure XII: Different Topics II

Figure XIII: Communities and Sub-Groups


Background – the Importance of the Topic

The number of Internet users is steadily growing. Currently, 55% of all Germans go online on a regular basis compared to 28% in 2001 – and there is no end in sight to this upward trend (BMWT 2006). Today’s young people are growing up with the Internet and the Internet is growing up with them. It is evolving: the term for what is happening now in cyberspace is "Web 2.0", an expression coined at a conference in 2004 by the web-business mogul Tim O'Reilly, to describe a new evolutionary phase of the Internet. The phrase is shorthand for the second Internet boom, which now follows the one that ended in late 2001 with the biggest destruction of investors' capital in history.

The bursting of the so-called dotcom bubble 6 years ago marked a turning point for the web. At that time, many people concluded that the Internet was over-hyped (O’Reilly 2005). Bubbles and the subsequent shakeouts, however, appear to be a common feature of all technological revolutions. They have always marked the point at which real success stories developed their full scope and showed their strength (e.g. Perez 2002).

The defining feature of the current evolutionary phase of the web is that established companies are giving huge amounts of money to start-ups which have three things in common: they have grown from nowhere with astonishing speed; they often have no revenue stream to speak of; and most of their content is produced by their users (Hüsing 2006). Google paid $ 1.65bn for the acquisition of Youtube, Rupert Murdochs’s News Corp. bought Myspace for $ 580m, and Holzbrinck fully took over Studivz.net for about € 85m, to give just a few examples of recent “Web 2.0 deals”.

Consequently, many people are asking a legitimate question: What makes these so-called online communities so valuable? The answer to this question may be surprising to many people: The deployed technologies are more or less the same as 6 years ago, but what all these new sites share is a new approach to creating things: "user-generated content", in the jargon. The Internet is no longer about corporations telling users what to do, think or buy; it is about the content people create themselves. Participation, not publishing, is the keyword (O’Reilly 2005). In online communities people’s private lives and experiences dominate conversations: sex, destinies, misfortune and luck, holidays, pets, sports, music, and lots of everyday life.

More people use the Internet to participate in online communities than to make purchase transactions. 84% of Internet users have contacted or participated in a community, and the growth in membership size and usage is expected to continue (Porter 2004, p. 2).

This development is particularly interesting for corporations which have noticed the importance and potential of the “do-it-yourself Web” as both a strategic marketing tool and a source of valuable information about consumer preferences and opinions. Tomorrow’s consumers will no longer be interested in what companies say about their products and services, they will rely on opinions of other “normal” people. Chris Anderson, chief editor of Wired Magazine, states: “Your brand is what Google says about it. Not what you say about it”.

One could ask if such a development leads to a loss of control and efficiency of marketing and market research. But according to Ralf Heller, CEO of the Virtual Identity AG, Web 2.0 only uncovers the long-prevailing reality of product communication and research. Managers should make use of those new possibilities instead of being afraid of them (Zunke 2006).

Corporations which have spent huge amounts of money on questionable market research projects in the past can get even better information for free in the future, as consumers and interested users exchange experiences and opinions about brands and products in online discussion forums anyway. As a result, marketing activities and product offers can be perfectly customized by gathering, processing and analyzing information about consumer preferences – it remains to be seen which companies will exploit these new opportunities and which will not.

Problem Statement and Disposition of this Paper

Although the importance and the possible benefits of user-generated content have recently become clear to many companies and community operators, very little is known about the factors that influence the content production. Often online communities fail because participation drops to zero – and nobody knows why.

In order to maximize the participation level of users and, thereby, the benefits that can be drawn from their contributions, it is important to examine what drives people to produce content. Therefore, this thesis aims to identify the most important factors that influence the level of user-generated content production in online communities. More specifically, a comprehensive conceptual framework of the relevant determinants will be proposed and tested. The results are supposed to serve as a guideline for researchers and community operators in the future. The author will restrict himself to examining the quantity of content that is produced by users in online community discussion forums[1].

In part one of this thesis a definition, a typology and the most important features of online communities will be presented in order to create a common background for further explanations.

The second part is concerned with the concept of user-generated content. After defining the term, the factors that might have an influence on the level of user-generated content production will be identified. On this basis, the author will propose an initial conceptual framework of the relevant determinants. Moreover, various research hypotheses, which shall be tested in the empirical part of this thesis, will be developed.

Part three is dedicated to a large empirical study – a one-week observation of 385 discussion forums of 50 online communities and sub-groups. It starts with a description of the procedure, followed by the presentation of the results, their analysis against the background of the research hypotheses, and the limitations of the study.

In part four some final conclusions, which summarize the main findings of this thesis, will be presented. Moreover, the author will give suggestions for further research.

1 Online Communities

1.1 Introduction

In this part of the paper, a definition, a typology, and the most important features of online communities will be presented. It is important to have an idea of how online communities are build-up and how they work in order to create a common background for my further explanations on user-generated content.

1.2 What Is an Online Community?

The term “online community”, which is synonymously used in literature with the terms “virtual community”, “cybersociety” or “community”, means different things to different people and there is no widely accepted definition (Preece 2000, p.8). Due to the strong multidisciplinary interest that this topic inspires, most existing definitions reflect a disciplinary perspective. Sociologists focus on networks of social relations and characteristics such as group size (e.g. Wellman 1997). Technology-oriented definitions distinguish between different developing- and supporting software of online communities (e.g. Mercer 2006; Seufert et al. 2002), and commercial-oriented definitions are mainly concerned with the business- or revenue model (e.g. Hagel & Armstrong 1997; McWilliams 2000). Therefore, finding a suitable definition of online communities that everyone can agree with is a difficult task.

In his 1994 book, the Internet guru Howard Rheingold coined a definition of online communities, which fully captures the essence of this phenomenon, and is as applicable now as in 1994. Due to its multidisciplinary character, it seems appropriate to impart an initial understanding of the term.

In online communities, we chat and argue, engage in intellectual discourse, perform acts of commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games and metagames, flirtWe do everything people do when people get together, but we do it with words on computer screens, leaving our bodies behindour identities commingle and interact electronically, independent of local time or location (Rheingold 1994, p.58).

In this definition, Rheingold describes the activities in which members engage, their reasons for this engagement, and the way they communicate. It provides a good basis for an initial understanding of online communities but due its philosophical and unstructured nature, it may be inappropriate for scientific purposes.

In 2000, Jennifer Preece developed a working definition of online communities, which is widely accepted today. It is broad enough to apply to a range of different communities and embraces key components of definitions put forth in existing literature. According to Preece, four elements are common to all successful online communities (Preece 2000, p.10). In the following, those elements will be listed and discussed in detail:

- People, who interact socially as they strive to satisfy their own needs or perform special roles, such as leading or moderating.
- A shared purpose, such as interest, need, information exchange, or service that provides a reason for the community.
- Policies, in the form of tacit assumptions, rituals, protocols, rules, and laws that guide people’s interactions
- Computer systems, to support and mediate social interactions and facilitate a sense of togetherness

People or members, who develop new ideas and continually changing content, build the heart of any online community and make it unique (e.g. Preece 2000, p.82; Döring 1999, p. 395; Hagel & Armstrong 1997, p. 9). The interaction between members increases their commitment to the group and is therefore a crucial prerequisite for the long-term success of an online community (Brunold et al. 2000, p. 24). According to Thiedke (2000, p. 37), the “we”-feeling, the feeling that you belong together as a group, is one of the most important attributes of a community, online as well as offline.

In computer-mediated communication people can interact anonymously without physical contact or revealing their real names, which is a key difference to face-to-face communication.

A common and clearly defined purpose is another crucial factor for an online community in order to retain existing members and attract new ones (e.g. Preece 2000, p.80; Abras et al. 2003). “A successful community serves a clear purpose in the lives of its members (...), articulating your purpose up front will help you focus your thinking and create a coherent, compelling, and successful Web community.” (Kim 2000, p. 1). The purpose attribute is analogous to the concept of discourse focus, the topic that forms the basis of interaction in an online community (Jones and Rafaeli 2000, p. 218)

An online community needs certain rules or policies that direct and improve the community life and the interactions between members (e.g. Freyermuth 2002; Kim 2000). According to Preece, policies are needed to determine the requirements for joining a community, the style of communication among participants, the accepted conduct, and repercussions for non-conformance (Preece 2000, p. 94).

As we talk about computer-meditated communication, the underlying software or user-interface of an online community is a prerequisite for the other aspects and should support all facets of community life (e.g. Dumas & Redish 1999; Preece et al. 2001).

1.3 A Typology of Online Communities

As with the definition of online communities, there is no single, widely accepted typology of online communities, due to the high diversity of dimensions used to categorize them. Researchers often typify online communities based on one or a few variables that are of importance to their scientific discipline. Furthermore, a differentiation and classification becomes more and more difficult as the number and complexity of online communities is steadily increasing (Porter 2004, p. 3f).

In their 1997 book, Hagel and Armstrong differentiate between three types of consumer-focused communities and four types of business-to-business or business-focused communities (Hagel & Armstrong 1997, p. 118ff). The latter will not be subject to further examination in this paper, because B-to-B communities have essentially different prerequisites, characteristics, and objectives.

Hagel and Armstrong’s consumer-focused communities are categorized as geographic-, demographic-, and topical communities. The following table gives a short definition of each of the three types, including examples of well-fitting, German-speaking online communities:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table I: Community Types, Hagel & Armstrong 1997, p. 118ff

Amy Jo Kim added a fourth community type: activity-based communities, which are characterized by “shared activities, like shopping, investigating, playing games, or making music” (Kim 2000, p. 5). This further categorization is not essential, as Hagel and Armstrong included such activities into the topical community type.

Brunold, Merz and Wagner distinguish between three different motives to join an online community and use those motives to characterize the online community type: information exchange, common activities, and buying and selling. Furthermore, they introduced 7 special forms of online communities such as Instant Messaging Systems (e.g. ICQ, MSN etc.), which will not be taken into account in this study (for a review: Brunold et al. 2000, p. 30ff). The following table shows the three motives with some characteristics of online communities that fit those motives and gives typical examples of German-speaking online communities:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table II: Community Types, Brunold et al. 2000, p.30ff

In practice, there are many hybrids of the community types and motives that were presented above. Communities for information exchange or common activities often have a geographical-, demographic-, or topical background (hybrids of both schemes) or an online community can integrate exchange of information with buying and selling (hybrid within on scheme).

Markus suggests another approach for classifying online communities. His scheme has recently gained in importance and many modern researchers make use of it (e.g. Porter 2004). At the top level of the structure, a distinction is made between social-, professional-, and commercial communities. These types can be broken down further:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure I: Community Types, Markus 2002

Markus states that social communities “(...) are the original community type from which all other community types have evolved”. Most online communities that exist today, belong to the social category (Markus 2002).

The classification scheme of Markus is more concise, comprehensive, and contemporary than the typologies of Hagel and Armstrong or Brunold, Merz and Wagner. Nevertheless, no existing approach is all-embracing, as new online communities that cannot be categorized unambiguously and do not clearly fit into a scheme are born every day.

1.4 Features of Online Communities

Online communities can be very different in their composition and often integrate various elements, leading to a high level of complexity. Which features or functions make up an online community is very much dependant on its supporting software, type, target group, and purpose (Kim 2000, p. 28ff). Another crucial point, besides the composition and variety of features, is the quality of the features – they should be based on software with good usability attributes. According to Dumas and Redish, “usability means that people who use the product can do so quickly and easily to accomplish their own tasks” (Dumas & Redish 1999, p. 4). Therefore, the supporting software of online communities has to fulfill criterions such as consistency, controllability, and predictability (for a review: Lazar & Preece 2002, p. 8f). Usability will be discussed in part 2.2.3 of this thesis, in more detail.

Brunold, Merz and Wagner identified four elements that are common to most online communites:

- eCommerce, e.g. shops,
- eContent, e.g. newsticker,
- eService, e.g. search engines, and
- eCommunity – computer-mediated communication systems, e.g. discussion forums or chats.

One or more of those elements can be integrated into an online community, whereas the eCommunity functions are most important (Brunold et al. 2000, p. 88ff): Features that enable and facilitate the communication between members are essential, because user-generated content “(...) is perhaps the single most empowering element of an online community” (Hagel and Armstrong 1997, p. 9).

Many communication tools with different characteristics are used in online communities. Two defining attributes are whether the software is synchronous or asynchronous (e.g. Ellis et al. 1991; Döring 1999). Synchronous technologies require all participants to be online at the same time and support real time communication, e.g. in chat rooms. In contrast, asynchronous technologies, such as discussion forums or private-message systems, do not require participants to be available simultaneously. Thus, communication via asynchronous technologies tends to take longer and participants may respond hours, days or even months later. It gives users time to reflect before answering, enables fault correction as well as sending messages any time of day or nights.

It is increasingly common today to find synchronous as well as asynchronous technologies together on community sites (Preece 2000, p. 135ff).

1.4.1 Discussion Forums and Sub-Groups

The most important communication tools in modern online communities are chat rooms, discussion forums, private-message systems, and mailing lists, whereas discussion forums and private messages are most frequently used in large web communities (e.g. Kim 2000, p. 29ff). Since online discussion forums will be an integral part of the empirical study in part three of this thesis, an example and a short description will be presented now:

Discussion forums allow participants to read what others have posted or to post a message themselves. The newest message usually appears on the top of the first page of the forum. The nickname of the poster, the posting date and time, and, if available, a photo of the poster is shown together with each message.

The following figure shows an example of a discussion forum at studivz.net:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure II: Discussion Forum at studivz.net , last cited 02/12/2007

Discussion forums support conversations that may happen over a short or a long period of time and therefore give a "(...) sense of context and history to a community" (Kim 2000, p. 34). A discussion forum can be embedded in a sub-group within a community, often referred to as "channels" — one online community may consist of hundreds or thousands of sub-groups, which are created around a certain topic, with one or many discussion forums each, e.g. xing.com . Some communities, however, do not offer sub-groups and provide only one discussion forum for all members, e.g. schwarzekarte.de .

Kim states that the development of sub-groups that attract members, who share common interests or a common purpose within one online community, is a natural and desirable process that fosters trust, builds strong relationships and loyalty among members. A large variety of sub-groups is an integral part of most successful online communities (Kim 2000, p. 309).

Those groups can be either created by the community management (e.g. Yahoo!GeoCities) or by the members themselves (e.g. studivz.net). In some cases, members have to make a request that has to be granted by the operator before a group can be set up (e.g. xing.com).

The following figure shows a group that deals with one specific topic within xing.com. It consists of 189 members and 4 discussion forums:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure III: Community Management Group at xing.com, last cited 02/12/2007

1.4.2 User Profiles

Besides the four main elements of online communities that were presented above, Brunold, Merz and Wagner identified further elements that are used on many community sites. The most important functions include:

- user profiles,
- rating- and ranking systems,
- search engines, and
- reward systems.

In the following, only user profiles are explained in more detail, as the other elements will not be subject to closer examination in this paper.

A user profile includes personal data that the member wants to share with others – such as name, age, email address, interests or photos – and sometimes, what they do in the community – such as sub-groups that they belong to, friends within the community, or their activity level (Kim 2000, p. 76ff). In most online communities a user profile consists of compulsory information that the member has to provide in order to sign-up, such as email address, name and age, and optional information that the member can provide, such as interests, hobbies or favorite movies.

If a user posts a question, answer, or comment in a forum of the community, his name or his personal photo works as hyperlink, leading other users to the contributor’s profile (Leitmeister et al. 2005).

The following example shows a user-profile of a member of studivz.net:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure IV: User Profile at studivz.net (http://www.studivz.net/press_download.php)

1.5 Conclusion

In the above part a variety of approaches for defining and categorizing online communities were presented and discussed. For the purpose of this paper, however, it is not necessary to explicitly remember all aspects that were mentioned. Therefore, it can be concluded that most online communities consist of (1) people that interact, (2) a shared purpose, (3) common policies, and (4) computer systems that should facilitate interactions.

There are many ways of categorizing online communities but no existing approach is all-embracing – many communities do not fit into a scheme.

Online communities can provide a wide range of complex features or functions. As this paper focuses on the production of user-generated content, it is especially important to have an idea of the different communication tools, such as discussion forums.

2 User-Generated Content

2.1 Introduction

This second part of the paper is concerned with the concept of user-generated content. After giving a definition of the term, its importance for online communities and its economic potentials will be discussed. The determinants of user-generated content production, which represent the main focus of this thesis, will be examined in detail subsequently.

2.2 What Is User-Generated Content?

User-generated content refers to information and material that is created by Internet users themselves. The term came into mainstream in 2005 as a result of the irresistible boom of the “do-it-yourself Web”. It describes all types of data produced and posted by users, such as messages, photos, movies or audio files (e.g. Lenchaster 2006). As social exchange and the possibility to present oneself build the cornerstones of the current evolutionary phase of the Internet, user-generated content has become the life and soul of the discussions around Web 2.0.

In the course of this paper it will be focused on interactions between online community members, i.e. on messages that users post in online discussion forums. In part 3.2 of this thesis the author presents a rationale for the restriction on the content production in discussion forums and a model for measuring the activity in those forums will be proposed and discussed in detail.

2.3 Why Is User-Generated Content Important?

No one wants to be part of a conversation where no one says anything. Such online communities cannot survive because there is so much happening on the Internet that people do not return to silent communities. In such a situation community developers need to take action to encourage participation (Preece & Nonnecke 2004, p. 5).

Under-contribution is a problem in many online communities. Despite the current Web 2.0 trend, a lot of online groups fail because participation drops to zero – and nobody knows why.

People benefit from the contributions of others in online communities, from the information and support that is provided, and the conversations they participate in. To survive and thrive, online communities have to promote the benefits that members seek – social exchange and the possibility to present oneself are the basic mechanisms by which participants derive benefit (Arguello et al. 2006, p. 1; Brunold et al. 2000, p. 24). Therefore, people or members, who develop new ideas and continually changing content, build the heart of any online community – they make it unique and valuable (e.g. Preece 2000, p.82; Döring 1999, p. 395; Hagel & Armstrong 1997, p. 9). Moreover, sustainable interactions between members are a “springboard” to develop deep relationships and become emotionally attached and committed to the online community and its users. A community of committed members that produce new content every day is of very great strategic value to operators that want to attract new users and retain existing ones (Guapta & Kim 2007, pp. 28-44).

As already denoted in the introduction, user-generated content holds many potential economic benefits, especially for marketing research, that are not always self-evident and, therefore, require further explanations. Traditional marketing research faces two main problems: many consumers are either not able or not willing to express their wishes and preferences which often results in low quality information at high prices (e.g. Malhotra 2004). In online communities, however, people reveal personal information and preferences along the way, without being asked. Those data can be gathered, processed, and analyzed resulting in superior knowledge about consumers. Therefore, marketing activities and product offers can be perfectly customized for your target group. To give an example, the online community “dooyoo” analyzes the opinions of members concerning products and brands, on behalf of the respective manufacturers. Moreover, the users of “dooyoo” are integrated into the product improvement process via voting functions (Skibicki & Mühlenbeck 2007, pp. 71-76).

In addition to the possible uses of user-generated content for marketing research, there are considerably more sources of income for community operators that promote the production of sufficient content. At this point, however, this will not be explained in more detail (for a review: Skibicki & Mühlenbeck 2007, pp. 60-89).

2.4 Determinants of User-Generated Content Production

Although many studies claim the importance of user-generated content production in online communities, none of them developed a comprehensive conceptual framework of its determinants and verified it on an empirical basis, so far. The majority of existing papers only present models that help to explain why people join online communities but often they neglect the complexity and significance of user contributions (e.g. Dholakia et al. 2003).


[1] a rationale for this restriction will be presented in part 3.2 of this paper

Excerpt out of 102 pages


Web 2.0: User-Generated Content in Online Communities
A Theoretical and Empirical Investigation of its Determinants
University of Hertfordshire  (School of Management)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
1969 KB
online community, online communities, social network, social networking, web 2.0, user generated content, user-generated content, virtual community, facebook, xing, studivz, myspace
Quote paper
Timo Beck (Author), 2007, Web 2.0: User-Generated Content in Online Communities, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/140974


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Web 2.0: User-Generated Content in Online Communities

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free