The Embeddedness of Academic Online Groups in Offline Social Networks

Uwe Matzat
2009 International Sociology  
This paper contributes to answering the question of under which conditions members of academic Internet Discussion Groups (IDGs) are motivated to provide help and answers to colleagues during group discussions on the Internet. It presents a simple micro-economic model that specifies mechanisms by which the embeddedness of IDGs in academic social networks provides incentives for active participation of members during group discussions. According to the reputation model the sending of public
more » ... messages is a means of the researcher to gain reputation in the academic community. Hypotheses of the models are tested with the help of data on the observed communication behavior of researchers in 49 academic IDGs. The results provide some support for the hypotheses of the model. Most important, they show that the embeddedness of academic IDGs in social networks stimulates the active participation in online discussions. The findings contribute to filling an important gap. They help understanding how offline networks influence online communication by showing which characteristics of offline networks have what impact. Conclusions are drawn for the social design of online groups. Kraut 2002), so that free riding indeed can be a serious problem. This paper not only points to conditions that facilitate overcoming the public good problem. Additionally, it contributes to enhancing our theoretical knowledge about the mechanisms by which the conditions stimulate active participation in online discussions. Research gives two prominent answers to the question of which incentives members of online groups have for the provision of information. On the one hand, it is argued that reciprocity considerations motivate members to help other members (e.g. Constant, Kiesler, and Sproull 1994; Connolly and Thorn 1990; Rafaeli and LaRose 1993; Rojo and Ragsdale 1997; Thorn & Connolly 1987). On the other hand, it is argued that not only information incentives, but also social incentives could play an important role (Wellman et al. 1996; Kollock 1999; Wellman and Gulia 1999). Kollock (1999) argues that potential reputation gains could motivate members to provide help to other members in online discussions. Wellman & Gulia (1999) argue that online communication is affected by the members' social networks that exist offline. These arguments, however, have to be elaborated. It is unclear by which mechanisms the members' social networks that exist offline could influence the online communication and which characteristics of (what type of) offline networks show an impact. This paper contributes to filling these gaps. It elaborates a general model that makes clear under which conditions the members' offline social networks stimulate active participation in discussions of online groups and by what mechanisms they do so. 1 The model makes use of Granovetter's (1985) idea about the importance of the social embeddedness of individual action which in the field of internet research can be found back in the statement that 'relations offline affect relations online ' (Wellman et al. 1996) . It is tested with data on the communication behavior of researchers in 49 academic IDGs. Section 2 presents the model. It U. Matzat: The Embeddedness of Academic Online Groups in Offline Social Networks: Reputation Gain as a Stimulus for Online Discussion Participation? forthcoming in: International Sociology. Pre-print version. -3-is used to deduce a number of hypotheses. In section 3 the design of the research project and descriptive findings are presented. Section 4 shows the results of the tests of the hypotheses. Section 5 summarizes the findings, proposes modifications of some weak points of the model, and draws conclusions for the planned design of online communities. U.
doi:10.1177/0268580908095911 fatcat:o75plzhforcq3glitbu2s4sxvy