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Design Claim:
‘Giving severe punishments like banning from community forums, leading to ban from the site for posting inappropriate posts increases the quality of the posts in forums for identity based communities which have high user population and frequent participation ’
To ensure that the quality of posts in the forums is good, the Last.fm community adopts two main strategies. Firstly, they give a set of guidelines about the requirements which need to be satisfied for every post. Secondly, if the guidelines are not followed the moderators give punishments whichare one of the following:
a) Ban the member from the community forum which also bans them on the website.
b) Add some really embarrassing music to the user profile and email all their friends.
My claim is that by giving such severe punishments the community increases the quality of posts by eliminating low quality posts which are either: spam, offensive, flaming (harassment) or illegal. Severe punishment conditions the user behavior towards good posts. People are liable for their own posts and any unwanted behavior from their side is punished. One consideration to be kept in mind while implementing severe punishment is that this design will work effectively only in a community which is identity based and has a large number of users because in bond based communities or those with small number of users severe punishment may lead low participation and users may
leave/not join the community.

Goal:
The forum guidelines clearly mention, “We want to show this website to our mums”. The design therefore tries to accomplish the goal of improving the quality of posts by ensuring that the unwanted posts are kept at bay. These unwanted posts can be one of the following,

a) Spam: Advertising of any commercial product or services.
b) Flaming: Material which contains defamation, harassment, or abuse.
c) Offensive Content: Materials which are sexually or otherwise obscene, racist, or discriminatory.
d) Illegal Content: Posts asking for or providing information to illegally obtain software or music.
(The site encourages the users to visit http://www.albinoblacksheep.com/flash/posting.php before posting the comments. The link is a flash animation teaching the users the basics of posting in forums)

This design helps most of the stakeholders which includes newcomers, old users and the moderators. The content providers and the developers can also be categorized as users in the context of the community forum. Since the community is predominantly identity based, the users are only interested in topics which are relevant to them. The design helps in keeping the bad and offtopic discussion away from the forum leaving the users with only relevant data to discuss. While the newcomers find only relevant posts on their first visits and stay in the community, old users are kept engaged by these posts.

As far as the moderators are concerned the threat of severe punishment ensures that posts are good quality and therefore the amount of effort and moderation required is less. The content providers and developers also find only relevant information which can be quickly accessed without any spam and therefore stick to the community. A good audience for their products means that their commitment is also ensured.

Design alternative:
The design feature which has been implemented is severe punishment for bad posts in the community forums. This feature is like creating high formal barriers for posting new messages which is similar if not alike to high barriers for entry to newcomers (Powazek, ch8)[1]. Since the unwanted newcomer behavior is not reinforced rather than extinguished (Van Maanen, J., & Schein, E. H. (1979)[2] due to the fear of punishment, the behavior is finally conditioned to post only good posts.

Also, as mentioned in Krauts article [3], there are two main socializing theories which can be extended to the scenario of posts. Firstly, signaling theory suggests the designer to have entry barriers so that only desirable members can enter. Secondly, cognitive dissonance says the more the effort a member puts in entering the community the higher the commitment. We can extend both of these theories to assume that higher restriction for bad posts and more effort required by user for a good post will require higher commitment from the user thereby ensuring desirable posts.

There are also other benefits which the users of the community enjoy by implementing this design, making it reasonable to expect that the design will achieve the goal. Firstly, random posts and offtopic discussions are minimized and only users who are eager to get a response will post which means that the posts are credible.
The design alternative is working fairly well, although there are certain instances where violations occur. The places where the design alternative is working include most of the forum topics. This can be observed from the healthy nature of discussion posts and the language used in these posts. Most of the posts in the communities are similar to the ones shown in Figure1. The assumption made in the previous paragraph about user commitment leading to good posts can be affirmed by this.
Fig1: Posts in General Discussion forums: first album you ever owned?
Also, the rules of the community clearly says,
“No, really…
Any penalties for the above rules are at the moderation team’s discretion. People have been banned (username/IP range) from the site in the past for causing trouble in the forums.”
which means that many users have been banned in the past for inappropriate behavior.

So while the fear of getting banned has kept the unwanted posts under control there are other instances, although rare, where lack of moderation has resulted in unwanted posts. An example can be seen in Figure2.
Figure2: Posts showing illegal content being discussed.
There are two ways in which the design can be improved. These improvements are more related to the process in which the design (severe punishment for unwanted posts) is implemented rather than the design itself. Firstly, at the interface level the rules and guidelines can be made more distinct so that they are visible. As of now these guidelines are accessible through a small HTML link at the top of the content page (Figure 3). There are higher chances that people will follow a guideline if they are aware about it.

Fig3: Image showing forum link on top of page separated from the main content and not highlighted enough
Secondly, at the system design level the moderators can be assigned to one particular forum so that now every moderator will know which forum they are accountable for. This will ensure proper moderation in the community eventually leading to unwanted posts being removed and rogue users being banned. Since the number of moderators for Last.fm is limited (25 in number) and the users many and that too in different countries speaking different languages this approach can work pretty well. One example of a community which implements proper moderation which in turn ensures good quality posts is Miniclip forum which is a flash game website.

Contexts:
One of the main characteristic of the community is that it is identity based and there are very few bond based connections. All bond based connections take place on the personal profiles rather than community forums. According to Ren et. al. “people with identity‐based attachment to an online community maybe more likely to take over responsibilities from lurkers or slackers and compensate for their lack of contribution. At the same time, they are also likely to have strong opinions against behaviors that jeopardize group survival or success such as social loafing” [4]. This means two things,

1) Users will not mind severe punishments for unwanted posts as long as the quality of posts is ensured. Also, banning one user from the site has no direct loss for the other user since they are not attached by any personal bonds.
2) This also means that even though one user has left /removed from the community, the other user will stick to it and not shift to other communities. The user will compensate for the loss of one user by taking over the responsibilities of keeping the discussion alive.

Although overall the community characteristics support such a design, the characteristic that undermines the design in achieving the goal is the diverse nature of people present on the site. It makes it very difficult for the moderators to judge between which unwanted posts are intentional and which are unintentional. Especially in cases where language differences might make it hard for the user to accurately gauge the guidelines and the circumstances, the design will ruin the experience.

This design while favorable for most identity based communities may not be successful for others. The users in bond based communities tend to discuss off‐topic. In communities like these where users are attached to each other the percentage of posts will go down in fear of severe punishment as they may use a certain degree of informal words/slangs in their posts which can be categorized offensive by the moderator. The last.fm moderators ban spam (promoting commercial product) but in the context of Cramster.com where students come to learn mathematical concepts the moderator cannot ban the post which promotes other commercial sites which in turn help in learning Mathematics because the community wants to promote such learning. This is also the case in communities like yelp.com where promotion of one restaurant is expected. Also in communities where there are a small number of users such severe punishments will mean that “you also may discourage many potential members who self‐select out of the applicant pool”. This will mean that the participation is very low and eventually the community will cease to exist.

References:
1. Powazek, Derek M (2002). Entry Barriers. In Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places (chap. 8). Indianapolis, New Riders.
2. Van Maanen, J., & Schein, E. H. (1979). Toward a theory of organizational socialization. In Research in Organizational Behavior, Barry Straw, Ed. 1, 209–264.
3. Robert Kraut, Moira Burke, John Riedl, Sara Drenner. Draft of Chapter 3 of the CommunityLab Handbook.
4. Ren, Yuqing, & Kraut, Robert, & Kiesler, Sara (2007). Applying Common Identity and Bond Theory to Design of Online Communities. Organizational Studies Vol. 28, No. 3. pp.377‐408.

The Last.fm community can be categorized predominantly as a identity based community since most of the members identify themselves as being a part of the group (last.fm) but there are traces of a bond based community as well where users interact with each other on a personal scale. The forum maintains its diversity by using segregation for topics, which is very nicely supplemented by the diverse user group. According to Ren et al. “Having large numbers of members and high turnover is less of a  problem for identity-based communities”, which holds very true for my community. The community thrives on these large numbers and diverse ideas to come up with core-resource, rich new content in discussion terms.

Ren et. al. mention social categorization,in-group interdependence, intergroup comparison as three factors leading to identity based communities. While some of these characteristics are quite evident, there are others which are hard to find. For example, the social categorization is done by dividing the user status as moderators or only users. If we consider last.fm as a group the in-group interdependence is evident from the postings and posts of the users on each other’s pages (called shouts) and discussion boards. On the other hand, intergroup comparison is hardly seen in the site discussions at any stage. Although by the authors definition intergroup comparison means the sites comparison with other sites, if we consider two internal groups of Last.fm this characteristic of intergroup comparison is quite high.

Having said that a closer look into the community shows that there are many instances when the social interaction and personal disclosure is seen. For instance in one of the forum posts the users posted their personal pictures with others commenting on it. It is definitely an instance of personal disclosure which is increasing interactivity and identification between the users. Social interaction norms are also encouraged through the use of posts on profiles of other users. Although the quantity of these posts is less when compared to that of posts on forums for discussion,there are enough evidences which show high interaction in between two users with similar taste in music rather than the community as a whole. (This evidence was collected from the feed on profiles about a user’s activity).

And since the community shows some characteristics of both identity and bond based communities, the challenges as stated by the authors apply. For such mixed modeled communities it is very important to orient the newcomer. For this purpose the community forum has a list of ‘Read First’ threads which are expected to be read first by a newcomer before posting. Also, an introduction thread is also present where users post their personal information, likes and dislikes. The most interesting thread is the “Happy Friendly Forum Guidelines for Happy Friendly Forum” which is actually a post about the rules and regulation to be followed in the community. This thread teaches the basics required to be followed in the community and therefore helps the users who are bond based from getting unwanted general material. Certainly, this link tells a story to a newcomer in a better way http://www.albinoblacksheep.com/flash/postinghttp://www.albinoblacksheep.com/flash/posting

Like I said other challenges of off topic discussions are solved by using segregation in the forum topics. This allows threads with off topic discussions to go in the general discussion forum where people can discuss anything. Basically, giving users a platform to post off topic discussions helps diverting the unwanted posts from other context driven forums and reduce entropy in these forums. However the penalties for not following the rule are very strict, which may even lead to a ban in the member profile which eventually bans them from the website.

The site also encourages people to discuss topics related to music bands but only in the individual groups. This means  that the division of users in the forum into subgroups is not done. This along with the shallow nature of user categorization based on experience in the community results in no categorization of people and does not promote bond based interactions. Users at times may face the dilemma of where to go.

So while some of the design features arevery effectively modeled to suit their type of community there are a few otherfeatures which can be incorporated to make the community lively and moreimportantly effective.

Hello!

March 8, 2009

Hi, I am a newcomer in the world of blogs. Most of my blogs will be about the Last.fm community, though I may take a few detours. My insights and design claims about the community can be found here and I am open to comments and critics.

-Mayank

Community Description

March 7, 2009

The community that I am studying is Last.fm which is a website based on music. Last.fm’s basic feature is a recommendation system (item-item) which plays songs according to one’s prior selections. They publicize the fact that the more one listens the better it gets. Once a song is being played it can either be ‘loved’ (added to recommendation) or ‘banned’, which is then used to determine the next song. Users can start from a particular artist and the player plays songs from other artists of similar genre. Basically a music based community, the website content spans from music, videos, and artists to forums, groups, and blogs to events, promotions and contests. Therefore the site supports a number of interaction paradigms.

While music is the main theme which drives the community the site has all the features of a social networking site. When the website started; it had more of the music related features but slowly it evolved into an existent community space for music lovers, much like Wenger described the need for evolution [1]. Since each user has to login into the site so that the system maintains their preferences, the system automatically creates a personal profile page of each user. This page consists of the user profile data, music he has heard recently, bands and groups he belongs to, his ‘shouts’ page (like wall posts) and his music library. There is also a mini-feed about latest activities like Facebook which can be accessed from the profile page.

The forums, groups and blogs on the other hand have more community generated content. These pages each deal with three different aspects and realms which are true for any other e-community. The forums basically deal with support and general discussions while the groups are based on music genre, bands or fan clubs. Any user can create or join the group as long as he has the owner’s consent. The blogs on the other hand are personal insights from individuals who want to share their thoughts based on music, bands and new feature add.

According to Wenger, the main attributes of any community are participants, purpose and the community. To define the participants it is of utmost necessary to define the domain as the community based on a particular theme tends to attract a particular set of users. As obvious from the brief introduction the domain of the community in general is ‘Music’. If we dig deeper into the community we find that the domain is more of getting people together who has similar taste.

Apart from this the site also extends into a number of different domains of web applications, desktop applications, widgets as well as information visualization. All these are based on tools to interact with the amount of data related to music that is present on the site. These increase the number of ways the participants can interact with the site. There are also special applications called ‘scrobblers’ which in effect keep a record of the music played. All these applications and many other are available for hacking, building and modifying these systems. The domain can therefore also be thought as an application development as there are quite a few users whose main activity is to visit the site for development.

The latest figure puts the number of active users to 21 million based on more than 200 countries which means that the users are widely distributed over geography as well as culture, language and norms. The participants of the site can then be divided into three main categories based on administrative rights. First are the general music listener and enthusiast who come to the site for listening music and sharing views, critics and thoughts about a particular song, artist or any event in general. Second are the moderators who are responsible for maintaining a clean community by looking after forums, artists’ images, wikis and groups. The criteria for selection of a moderator are not very clear and it can be presumed that they are selected from the user population belonging to high usage. Also, since the community supports users from a number of different languages the moderators are divided based on language as well. Finally, the last types of users are the Last.fm administrative and development staff who are responsible for uploading latest music files onto the system (this right is not available to other users).

While the listeners make a large percentage of the users, there are a number of other participants as well. Since the site diverges into a number of different spheres each with their own characteristics and features, other participants include application developers and content providers. While application developers are in general interested in the beta testing and hacking, content providers consists of new bands and music labels. These groups find interest in the community because of the advertisement they can get from it. They can post their music online for people to listen, analyze the data about their listeners, publicize their events as well as get a royalty for each of the songs played.

By enabling features like ‘shouts’, groups etc they first created a user base which could interact with each other, listen to what others are listening and recommend and share songs with others. Also, features on the groups like group members, discussions, recent activity, and shouts tend to create a speaking place for the members of that group and stay connected with people who have similar taste in music. Therefore by creating a social network they have increased their user base from music listeners to music enthusiasts. The community is then thriving by evolving at each stage. First it created a user base from the open music available and then used this user base to attract the providers of these music and songs. And even though a major redesign was not well accepted by the present users, effective strategies to attract new users lead to an increase in the user base by almost 20% [2].

The main activities that the community engages itself in, which is of interest and which can be observed easily ranges from listening, sharing, tagging, filtering music to sharing views about a topic in hand. The activities of sharing and tagging are personal in nature and is used a particular user to share/tag a track. The feature of music compatibility helps the user to identify other users with similar likes, whom they can add as friend and listen to their selection of music. While these personal activities and pages are moderated by the user himself, group and community activities are moderated by an assigned moderator. Other activities include posting on forums where the users reply in quick succession to each other on topics of general interest and writing blogs. Any user can add comment at one of these pages i.e. personal, artist page, group, blog and forum.

The site in their community guidelines mention “Our goal is to create a connected environment that is fun, unique, enriching and safe by encouraging our users to conduct themselves with a high degree of integrity, decency and respect.” The community also mentions the need to avoid commercial messages, diverging from the topic, breaking the law (copyright) and most important of all to be respectful to others. Considering the fanaticism with which music drives the followers and low barriers for entry, irregular behavior is highly anticipated. There are points of conflict as the community has both die hard followers of a band as well as users who hate them. There are therefore a number of anti-groups. These groups also have a large user population participating in them and which is constantly trying to degrade the value of a particular band. Also, since the number of moderators is very less (equal to 25) therefore it is very difficult to put a screener on all the activities. Many activities go un-moderated and are at times are abusive in nature.

As it is evident from above the community as a whole is very big and also very active. Posts in groups and walls are updated every minute because of such activity. Therefore, although the main interaction is to play music, to keep the study in scope I plan to focus more upon the secondary interactions like users’ interaction on group pages which belong to two opposite genre. For the same purpose I want to observe a specified set of users who although in the community belong to different demographics so that the study can present some interesting evaluation on cross culture interactions within communities. Basically I want to compare e-communities with two contrasting themes and participants to analyze how the issues related to such sub-communities like entry barrier, formation and group interaction vary with the design decisions.

References:

[1] Wenger et.al. Chapter 3, “Building Communities of Practice”.
[2] Ben Cardew . “Music Week – Last.fm claims controversial re-design a success”, Musicweek.com,  http://www.musicweek.com/story.asp?sectioncode=1&storycode=1035180&c=1.

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