Another article in the February Communications of the ACM gives us a study of participation in online communities. The results seem obvious, but I haven't seen people talk about them in this way.
Encouraging participation in virtual communities by Joon Koh (Chonnam National University), Young-Gul Kim (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology), Brian Butler (University of Pittsburgh), and Gee-Woo Bock (Sungkyunkwan University).
Leaders of robust, sustainable virtual communities find ways to strengthen their members' sense of social identity and motivate their participation in the community's activities.
The key thing they discovered in their study is that there are truly two modes of interaction, and these modes are driven by different factors. One is the viewing activity: people are drawn to a community and the information the community creates by their sense of usefulness of the information. The second activity is that of writing: posting activity is higher for those who participate in offline meetings around the community.
The authors suggested that the concept of "offline meetings" has to do with people getting to know one another and developing a sense of identity with the community. While it is easier to make this happen in face-to-face meetings, I have seen it be successful in some strictly online communities. But the leadership role needs to be much stronger, as online relationships tend to be more fragile.
As I read the article, my mind attempted to build a model of how communities grow with these two activities in mind. For readers, participation happens and builds when they find materials in the community to be of use to them. So, there is a reinforcing loop of visits to articles to utility. If the utility is above a threshold, then the loop is reinforced. If it is not, it loses strength. For those who post materials in the community, their posting activity is increased (or encouraged?) by offline meetings.
There has to be another piece of the puzzle that ties the perceived utility to the number and style of offline meetings. Or maybe there is an additional feedback mechanism that wasn't tested in this research: the sense of whether the posters have contributed to the overall utility of the community. Some of that will come back to more offline interaction, I suspect. And is there a point for online communities where much of the participation-utility cycle builds upon itself without the need for outside stimuli?