An ecological model for understanding and influencing behaviour in virtual communities

Firstly I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to speak at this exciting conference. Whilst the media may be focussed on the G8 in Edinburgh, G1 in Glasgow is where their attention should be. That is the postcode of this conference, a conference that will set the tone of research into perception and action for years to come.

You may be wondering who I am and why I’m speaking today. My name is Jonathan Bishop. My background is in human computer interaction. Since 1995 I have been designing and evaluating web sites and user interfaces. I built and evaluated my first virtual community in 1998 as part of my undergraduate education, and in 2001 was the lead developer in the design of the Llantrisant Online virtual community.

Llantrisant Online was typical of many successful virtual communities – it provided opportunities for its members to be social and post messages on message boards and discuss things in chat rooms as well as allow them to be creative through providing them with information. Llantrisant Online also had a few unique features, including the functionality to allow people to search ancient records from the town and the ‘Circle of Friends’ that allowed people to create lists of friends – a feature that has been adopted by other virtual communities. The term ‘virtual community’ has existed since 1993, and is used to describe online environments that support sociability through allowing people to communicate on shared interests, come together through shared values and beliefs and achieve things though working on shared goals.

My interest in virtual communities has gone beyond their development and evaluation, into the psychology of their members and what it is that drives them to participate. It is therefore with delight that I announce today  the creation of the Centre for Research into Online Communities and E-Learning Systems. A research initiative to increase the understanding of virtual communities and their role in today’s society.

So I hope the paper I’m presenting to you today – a paper that sets out an ecological model for understanding and influencing behaviour in virtual communities – one paper and many future to come.

There is a huge problem for managers of virtual communities. According to J. Preece, up to 90% of those who form part of these environments can be classed a lurkers. Lurkers are people who have never contributed to the community; never posted a message or never updated a page. A.J. Kim in 2000 described lurkers as people without a persistent identity in the community. Others describe them as free-riders – people who just take from the community and don’t give back. To become active members of the community, lurkers have to break through barriers and become novices, then become regulars, then if they desire, break through another barrier to become a community leader, and then an elder.

So how do we solve this problem and turn lurkers into novices?

When I developed Llantrisant Online four years ago, I thought the answer lay in providing opportunities for people to meet their needs, as did many of my peers in the academic community, including A.J. Kim in 2000, M.D. Grosso in 2001 and B. Shneiderman in 2002 – all suggesting A.H. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as the basis of developing virtual communities. Understanding what drives people to take part in virtual communities is the first step to solving the problem, but as I will explain shortly, needs-based models do not explain why actors such as regulars and elders continue to give to the community when their so-called needs have been met.

The next steps to solving the problem are to understand what determines whether people contribute to the community and how they go about contributing to it. To do this we could turn to behaviourist understandings, which suggest actors will participate if they have been rewarded for participating, or cognitivist understandings, which suggest that actors are like computers, driven by goals and interpreting their environment through mental models. The model I’m presenting to you today came about after dissatisfaction with these approaches, it is a post-behaviourist, post-cognitivist solution called ecological cognition.

Ecological cognition is the term I’ve used to describe my model as it is based on principles from ecological psychology to explain how actors interact with virtual communities, which are environments. According to ecological cognition, the computer is not an artefact as activity theory suggests, but is an environment for analysis. The unit of analysis in ecological cognition is the relationship between the actor and the environment.

A.H. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that he published in 1943 seems to suggest that the reason that lurkers do not participate is that their physiological or security needs are not being met and the reason novices, regulars, leaders and elders participate is that they are satisfying what he described as social and esteem needs. However, studies have shown that where a person’s so-called lower needs are not being met, such as security, they still want to be sociable with those in a similar position to them. This suggests two things; that there is something other than need driving people to take part in virtual communities, and that there are factors beyond a hierarchy that determine whether a person will carry out an action.

My model indicates that people are driven by at least five desires, which can be influenced by affordances, which are perceived either directly or indirectly in the environment. As I’m sure most people at this conference know, an affordance according to J.J. Gibson in 1979 is something offered by an artefact in the environment. In an organic environment a door offers the affordance of opening for example and in a virtual environment an icon offers the perceived affordance of clickability.

In the context of my model, a desire is something that results from what we think and perceive, and differs from a need in that it has to be acted out, not fulfilled. That is, actors will be driven to act by the desire to do something such as eat, as opposed to a need, such as the need for food. In its most basic form, a desire can be seen as thought to do something, something that has to be acted out. A desire can be influenced by the environment or come from what would seem like nowhere. An actor, for example, could experience a desire to say something after interacting with another actor who said something that resonated with them.

I have identified five universal desires that occur in both virtual communities and organic communities. These are Social, which includes the desire to become part of the community through socializing and communicating; Order, which includes the desire to arrange and sort artefacts and other external representations as well as the desire to take control of situations; Existential, which includes the desire to eat food and drink water; Vengeance, which includes the desire to give negative comments or ‘flame’ others; and Creative, which includes the desire to problem solve, improve self or others and be different or rebellious.

If we accept that people are driven to do something by their desires, the next question is why don’t people just act out their desires, why don’t people eat fruit the moment they have a desire to eat, or post a message the moment they have a desire to be social? Behaviourist theories suggest it is because they’ve been conditioned not to respond to the stimuli or have been conditioned to not perform certain behaviours. Cognitivist theories suggest they follow strict routines like a computer does – only performing behaviours that conform to a set of rules.

Conference, I believe these theories are wrong. My model, based on studies using positron emission tomography, indicates that when an actor perceives an affordance that results in a desire they conceive a plan and they will act out that plan unless they experience dissonance of their cognitions. This plan is not the result of interpretation as cognitivist models suggest, it does not come from long-term memory. It is as the result of the affordance being directly perceived.

In Level 2 of my model I have identified five cognitions that can make an actor experience dissonance. They are; existing goals, plans, values, beliefs and interests. I will explain these to you using an example.

If an actor perceives that a piece of fruit affords eating, they will immediately conceive a plan to eat it. They will probably experience dissonance if they hold a belief that eating this particular fruit is bad for you, if they hold a value that you should only eat something that belongs to you, or if they have a existing plan or goal that this new plan conflicts with. They may end this experience of dissonance by abandoning the plan, or they may challenge the values of their cognitions. They may, for example, rule out the belief that the fruit is bad from them if they have heard from a persuasive source that the fruit is good for them, which may achieve consonance of their cognitions.

This view of an actor conceiving a plan as the result of perceiving an affordance differs greatly from cogntivist models, which suggest that an actor will have a goal and then use that goal to develop plan based on intent, as the Reference Model proposed by D. Norman indicates. My model indicates that plans are conceived as the result of experiencing desires, and these plans are then challenged by goals. Goals are not what lead to a plan; they are like any of the other cognitions – used to validate the plan.

You may ask what this new understanding of how people conceive and deal with plans after experiencing desires can offer managers of virtual communities.

Lurkers, like other virtual community members are driven by their desires. They desire to be social, and they desire to be creative just like the other members. When they experience a desire they conceive a plan to act it out. I put to you that the reason they don’t act out the plan is that they are experiencing dissonance that leads them to abandon the plan. J. Preece and others in 2004 identified some of the beliefs that can cause this dissonance, including that lurkers believe they would not be being helpful by contributing.

In order for lurkers to post, their beliefs need to be changed. They should be made to realise that they are being helpful by posting, and the other reasons preventing them from participating should also be challenged. Elders and leaders have a role as persuaders, to change the beliefs of lurkers and encourage them to act out their desires through posting messages or updating pages. Developers also have a role, to make the virtual community more persuasive through making the system offer perceived affordances, that persuade lurkers to participate.

The model of ecological cognition that I’ve presented to you today will go some way to explaining what drives members of virtual communities to participate and what prevents them from participating. The next step is to translate this into clear design methodologies that will lead to systems that persuade users to participate.