Importance of Place and Context in Online Communities

I realized something very interesting about my computer usage patterns a few days ago. For most tasks, I use the GUI environment on my Mac, since I mostly live in my web browser, IM, Twitter apps, and RSS reader. However, my background as a sys admin takes over whenever I am doing certain tasks, despite the fact that I haven’t been a sys admin since the mid 1990s. I found that I shift to the command line automatically for any tasks that I associate with Unix. For example, to edit any configuration file, I’ll go to the terminal window and use vi without even considering editing it using the various text editors that I would use to edit almost any other file on my hard drive. I realized that context plays a very significant role in my computer usage.

When I talk about “context” throughout the rest of this post, I’m referring to the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event or situation.

Bear with me, I am going somewhere relevant with this discussion after one more minor diversion. I was talking to Amber Case a few weeks ago about the role that context plays in human memory. We tend to recall past memories more accurately if we are in the place where we first heard them or in a similar context. I started thinking about the role of context in my strange computer usage patterns. In a context that I associate with Unix or sys admin tasks, I revert to the command line without a second thought even for tasks that could be done as easily using a GUI tool.

I started wondering and thinking about the role that context plays in our social behavior as we interact in online communities and social networks. These online communities and social networks are the location or place equivalents of the local pub, coffee shop, library, or university, but in a specific online context. They are the places where we hang out (virtually) with friends, colleagues, family, and even strangers with common interests. We use our online communities and social networks to learn new things, gather information, and keep up with news about the other people in our lives. These are the new places that become the context for our interaction with people online.

I have noticed that I tend to behave and interact in very different ways depending on the community or social network that I am using. My interactions on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are very different. I use Twitter for conversations and sharing information with people; Facebook for finding non-work information about my friends, and LinkedIn for find work-related information. Realistically, I could send people messages using any of those social networks, but I tend to use Twitter to send messages to people and engage people in conversations; however, I have friends who would say that they primarily use Facebook to engage in conversations. I suspect that all of this comes back to context. We each associate certain activities with our personal context for that situation.

OK, so this is an interesting abstract topic, but what does all of this really mean? For anyone tasked with building online communities for your organization, you need to focus on creating a sense of place, like the neighborhood coffee shop, where people want to hang out and chat with other people who have common interests. Spend some time thinking about how to create an environment focused on discussions and connections between people. Provide other relevant information for your community members, but keep the community as focused as possible on the people and discussions that facilitate connections and interactions between those people. Let your community members develop a sense of place in your community and with it a meaningful context for their interactions within your community.

I would be very interested to hear from other people in the comments about the role of place and context in your interactions with online communities and social networks.

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5 thoughts on “Importance of Place and Context in Online Communities”

  1. I’m with you, Dawn, I believe people who follow me on Twitter know much more about me and my life than anyone looking through the lense of my blog (mostly business, all the time); my facebook account where I mostly follow the lives of my nieces and nephews; and LinkedIN, where I am completely focused on business.

    We’re about to launch the OEN online community, and I’m hoping I’ll be a tad more integrated there, although since it’s a community where I’ll be a member and am serving on the board, I think I’ll be more circumspect about sharing too much of my non-professional thoughts.

    It’s funny I don’t really apply that filter to Twitter at all… which is why it’s such a unique space. I’ll be interested to hear more thoughts from your readers – great post.

  2. Janet,

    Thanks for sharing how you use social networks differently based on the context! I’ll be very interested to see the OEN community and how it’s used by OEN members.

  3. Thank you for this post (and all the others, as well, I only recently joined your audience and I really love your insights). I like to add one dimension to this post on context. It is not just context, but is as much the role you play when you act as a system admin. As a community manager it is ok to use all the handy tools out there, but as a sys admin, hey, you really should be able to use the command line – how on earth could you do otherwise without being an outsider in the community of sys admins? And who wants to be an outsider in a community? Context helps you to switch to another identity (as social psychologists like to call these role-based manifestations of your self). So when building an online community, context can help you to activate a specific working self of an individual. And indeed, this is a major part of community building, I believe.

  4. As Bill Johnston said over on twitter – I’m saying Hello! 🙂

    Context is critical to the design of social software. I’m so adamant about this position that I’ve been giving a talk lately called Context is King, and with any luck I’m going to turn the topic of social context into a book in a year or so.

    You can check out the slides over on Slideshare or on my blog I spoke at BayCHI, and they are supposed to put the presentation up as a podcast of some kind, but I have no idea how long that will take.

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