The world wide web has revolutionized the ways in which people communicate. People can have simultaneous online chats with colleagues across the world. Yet, people often communicate with a single individual so the communication is in many ways like interpersonal communication – except not face to face. Chatrooms have been created for many reasons, ranging from social interaction with liked others to sharing information about highly specific topics. Likewise, web communities have sprung up within and around many different games. Massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) – most notably World of Warcraft – have online communities within the games, such as the guilds that exist in World of Warcraft, and online communities that exist outside of the game to discuss the game. Even console-based video games such as the Halo franchise have online communities. Again, there are communities that exist to discuss Halo and there are communities that are created while playing the game online as people communicate with each other. Research on computer–user interaction has focused on how changes in the audience – mediated versus face-to-face – influence how people communicate with each other and the consequences of these differences.
Early speculations concerning communication in online communities were rather stereotypic. The expectation was that chatrooms devoted to medical topics would almost exclusively focus on providing information to the users, with the consequent focus on information accessibility on the part of the interface designers (Pena & Hancock 2006). Likewise, the expectation was that communication in guilds in World of Warcraft or between team members in Halo would be primarily focused on taskoriented issues because people were communicating to achieve some goal within the game, and the communication would be more hostile or negative because these are violent games.
The extant research challenges the stereotypes about communication in online communities. In a study of communication in an online community dealing with medical issues, people often went to the online community seeking empathy and support – not just factual information. In hindsight, people who are dealing with medical issues should seek information and empathy. As Preece (1999) notes, designers need to be sensitive to the needs of the people participating in the online community and let the people determine what type of content is going to be sought and what is not. Likewise, a study of communication in an online gaming community found that the assumption that the communication would primarily be task-oriented was not supported. Pena and Hancock (2006) found that substantially more socio-emotional statements were produced than task-oriented statements. While the participants in this community are there to play a game, they are probably participating in an online community because they are seeking more than the gaming experience. They are seeking interaction with other humans. Indeed, one of the important reasons for participating in online games is to spend time with friends or to make new friends. Both of these examples illustrate that the communication in online communities reflects the function that the communication is serving for its participants.
While there is a clear lack of research on communication in online communities, the existing literature suggests several interesting insights into online communication. First, research on perspective-taking theory found that people tend to do a poorer job of taking the perspective of the other people they are communicating with online (Jarvela & Hakkinen 2003). This makes sense because there are fewer contextual cues to help people adequately interpret and understand what other people are trying to communicate. However, these perspective-taking skills are a critical part of goal-directed and task-oriented communication because perspective taking is critical to adapting to other people. On the other hand, research also suggests that the longer a person spends on the web communicating with other people, the more sophisticated they become at online communication (Pena & Hancock 2006). For example, more experienced online communicators are more fluent in their use of emoticons. So the limitations in perspective taking demonstrated in some studies may disappear with greater experience of communicating on the web.
Research on communication in online communities is in its infancy. There are many things that need to be done to advance our understanding of how communication operates in these domains. What is the impact of a lack of nonverbal communication such as vocalics (how words are stressed) or paralanguage (“ums” and “ahs”) on how people interpret emotion? Do emoticons, e.g., the “smiley,” adequately address these limitations? Communication in online communities provides unique opportunities for studying basic interpersonal communication processes. Likewise, it is an exciting time for studying the impact of web design on how people communicate in online communities. Does the option of one-to-one communication that is found in many online websites as an alternative to one-to-many communication increase empathic communication in these communities? If the community involves a moderator, how does that moderator impact empathy in that community? More research is necessary to address how the design of these communities impacts how people communicate within them.
- Chan, E., & Vorderer, P. (2006). Massively multiplayer online games. In P. Vorderer & J. Bryant (eds.), Playing video games: Motives, responses, and consequences. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 77– 88.
- Eucheneaut, N., Yee, N., Nickell, E., & Moore, R. J. (2006). Building a MMO with mass appeal: A look at gameplay in World of Warcraft. Games and Culture, 1, 281–317.
- Jarvela, S., & Hakkinen, P. (2003). The levels of web-based discussions: Using perspective taking theory as an analytical tool. In H. van Oostendorp (ed.), Cognition in a digital world. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 77– 95.
- Pena, J., & Hancock, J. T. (2006). An analysis of socioemotional and task communication in online multiplayer video games. Communication Research, 33, 92 –109.
- Preece, J. (1999). Empathic communities: Balancing emotional and factual communication. Interacting with Computers, 12, 63 –77.
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