Participation in Online Communities: Reconfiguring Relations of Participation

by Geri Harris

Institution: University of New South Wales
Department: Information Systems, Technology & Management
Year: 2015
Keywords: Sociomateriality; Online community; Participation; Social media; Exclusion; Digital Divide
Record ID: 1039075
Full text PDF: http://handle.unsw.edu.au/1959.4/54456


Objective – To better understand participation and non-participation in online communities. Research questions – Understanding of participation focuses on a digital divide denying access to online communities. Policy assumes individuals will participate given access to technology. Social capital theory claims online participation benefits society through increased collective action. Critique of prevalent ontological assumptions underlying existing understanding of participation challenges the separation of the social and the technological. The objective is to understand participation from a relational perspective, explaining (1) why and how people participate and (2) why people do not participate and the impacts. Methodology – An ethnographic field study in a parenting community using interviewing and participant observation techniques yielded rich data on participatory behaviour and relationships with social media. Data were interpreted through iterative thematic and narrative analysis and theorized using sociomaterial concepts. Major findings – Participating online is motivated by needs for well-being, information sharing, autonomy, social contact, and entertainment. Online participation materializes as changes to what is communicated, when and where. Reasons for not participating online emerge as perceived lack of value, discouraged by some feature of online communication, and fear of repercussions. Not participating online affects relationships, limits participation in the lives of community members and reduces ability to capitalise on opportunities. This challenges assumptions of participation with access, creating an opportunity to better inform policies. Contributions – The study extends understanding of what it means to participate in community in the digital age. Participation, performed as a sociomaterial practice, is enacted online and offline contemporaneously through entanglements of social actors, social media, community values, beliefs, norms and rules for communication. Multicommunication theory advances existing knowledge of participation, explaining socializing that is online and face-to-face simultaneously. Furthermore, Habermas’ theory of communicative actions (TCA) is reinterpreted to contribute a deeper understanding of how communication differs through social media. The infusion of a sociomaterial research perspective into TCA helps better explain how relations of participation are reconfigured, revealing the materialization of social media. An important implication is the demonstration that sociomateriality can be adopted to extend a social theory, like TCA, to include both human and technological agency.