Special Session Summary Come Together, Right Now, Virtually: an Examination Into Online Communities

Ann E. Schlosser, University of Washington
[ to cite ]:
Ann E. Schlosser (2003) ,"Special Session Summary Come Together, Right Now, Virtually: an Examination Into Online Communities", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 192-195.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 192-195



Ann E. Schlosser, University of Washington

Online communities have distinct characteristics from offline communities. For instance, consumers can broadcast messages to multiple audiences or can unobtrusively observe the unfolding discussion. Online communities also allow for dispersed consumers with unique product tastes to gain strength in numbers that would otherwise be impossible. In addition, online communities make it possible for marketers to unobtrusively observe and record group behavior in a naturalistic environment. With such benefits come risks, however. Anonymity can cause people to ignore social norms of conversation, resulting in an exchange of insults known as "flame wars."

The objective of this session is to examine in depth these unique characteristics of online communities. The first presentation examines the opportunity to post and read product ratings and reviews in a one-to-many context (Schlosser). Contrary to cognitive tuning theory (Zajonc 1960) and social contingency theory (Tetlock, Skitka and Boettger 1989), knowing another’s opinion did not lead to polarization and the organization of a unified cognitive structure. Instead, a negativity bias occurred: those who read a negative review rated the product less favorably than those who received no review, even when their personal experiences with the product were favorable. In addition, their cognitive structures were more differentiated than unified. The second presentation examines consumer resistance using a netnographic approach (Muniz and Dodds). Their results reveal that an online brand community organized around the discontinuation of a product causes such collectivist behavior as adopting the responsibilities traditionally belonging to the firm (e.g., providing customer service, promotion and software development). The final presentation examines the downside of online communities (Bruckman and Dodds). Firms are confronted with managing online communities in order to reduce member conflict and avoid brand dilution. An analysis of firms’ tactics for tackling this problem reveal that their tactics resemble the management of American "company towns" of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Each paper approaches the substantive domain of online communities from different methodological and theoretical perspectives. The methodologies employed include controlled experiments (Schlosser), netnography (Muniz and Jensen Schau) and one-on-one interviews and observations (Bruckman and Dodds; Muniz and Jensen Schau). The theoretical perspectives applied include those in the areas of social interaction and persuasion (Schlosser), and consumer resistance (Muniz and Jensen Schau). Each paper examines a different function of online communities: online communities as a venue for transmitting marketing information (e.g., posting a rating and review of a book or CD at Amazon.com; Schlosser), as a gathering place for likeminded individuals to resuscitate the life of a discontinued brand (i.e., the Apple Newton PDA; Muniz and Jensen Schau) and as a forum where conflict is managed as "electronic towns" (Bruckman and Dodds).



Ann E. Schlosser, University of Washington

The transmission of product information is an important aspect of market operations, especially when those who are informed are weakly tied to those who are uninformed (Frenzen and Nakamoto, 1993; Johnson Brown and Reingen, 1987). Weak ties, such as casual relationships and acquaintances, are common at Internet sites such as Amazon, Citysearch, and Atomfilms, where individuals post their product ratings and reviews, presumably to inform strangers who are at the pre-purchase deliberation stage of their product satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Previous research has examined what influences individual’s decision to transmit or withhold such information (Frenzen and Nakamoto, 1993). In online communities, such individuals who do versus do not transmit information are called posters and lurkers, respectively. The present research examines how the product attitudes and cognitions of those who post their product experiences might differ from those who read others’ postings (i.e., lurk).

Research in the area of cognitive tuning has compared the attitudes and cognitive structures of those who expect to transmit versus receive information (Zajonc 1960; see Guerin and Innes 1989 for a review). According to cognitive tuning theory, those transmitting information should unify arguments, be resistant to incongruent information and receptive to congruent information, and polarize more in their attitudes. Receivers, on the other hand, are flexible in their thinking and consider incoming information.

There are several critical differences between communicating in face-to-face dyads (i.e., prior experiments on cognitive tuning) and posting versus lurking on the Internet. One difference is that posting messages on the Internet is more akin to broadcasting a message (i.e., one-to-many) than a dialogue (one-to-one). Unlike a dialogue, even if individuals have information about others’ opinions, this does not necessarily reflect the opinions of their entire audience. In fact, with the Internet, there is the likelihood of not a single audience (i.e., an audience with a single opinion) but multiple audiences. Thus, instead of adopting another’s position (as proposed by cognitive tuning theory as well as social contingency theory, Tetlock, Skitka and Boettger1989), posters likely will shift to another’s position only when that position is diagnostic. Prior research indicates that negative product information is more diagnostic than positive product information (Herr, Kardes and Kim 1991). If this is the case, then a negativity bias should occur rather than an extremity bias (i.e., polarization).

In addition to affecting attitudes, multiple audiences likely also impacts individuals’ transmitted reasons for their attitudes. Prior research using a forced compliance paradigm suggests that when people have multiple audiences, they transmit overt and covert mixed messages (Fleming, Darley, Hilton, and Kojetin 1990). On the Internet, an individual’s audience is likely comprised of those with a wide range of tastes and preferences. Thus, in order to appeal to this multiple audience, individuals will likely post messages that recognize diverse perspectives. That is, in addition to explaining their own opinion, posters will acknowledge that other perspectives are equally likely.

One criticism of prior cognitive tuning experiments is that in face-to-face dyads, people are really transmitters and receiversBthe only difference being who begins the conversation (Guerin and Innes 1989). Because receivers do not know how the conversation will begin, they need to have flexible cognitive structures as well as be receptive to incoming information in preparation for eventually being a transmitter in the dialogue. Indeed, research has demonstrated that receivers have similar cognitive structures as transmitters if they anticipate hearing from someone who holds a different opinion (Zajonc 1960). On the Internet, however, lurkers represent a "purer" form of receiving. Because the message is broadcasted, the social pressures to respond are minimal. It has been argued that messages that are broadcasted have less impact on individuals’ attitudes than messages coming from dialogues because during a dialogue (1) social norms dictate that receivers restrain from disagreeing with their face-to-face partner, (2) there is the opportunity to be rewarded by showing agreement, and (3) more activity is involved in face-to-face discussion as the receiver digests what is said and formulates responses (McGuire, 1969). Without these requirements to formulate questions or indicate agreement, individuals may be less likely to "suspend judgment," to process incoming information and to formulate less organized cognitive structures. Instead, their thinking may be complete and organized. Thus, for lurkers, they should be relatively unaffected by knowing another’s reaction to the product. Furthermore, they should have an organized cognitive structure.

Two experiments were conducted to test these hypotheses. In both experiments, people were randomly assigned to either post or lurk. Participants watched a short animated film before recording their attitudes and cognitive responses to the film. In the first experiment, participants then received a negative review, a positive review, or no review. Those assigned to post then recorded their ratings and reviews to put on the Internet. Those assigned to lurk rated and reviewed the film without the expectation that this information would be posted. One difference between the experiments is that in the first experiment, the film was generally disliked, whereas in the second experiment, the film was generally liked. Furthermore, in the second experiment, for those who received a review, it was presented either before people recorded their initial attitudes or afterwards. Two differences from prior experiments are notable: (1) participants actually experienced the attitude object rather than received second-hand information about it, and (2) what was transmitted was directly measured rather than inferred from pre-communication measures.

Across the experiments, both posters and lurkers held similar initial attitudes and cognitive responses. As hypothesized, posters’ ratings (which would be publicly available) were significantly less favorable after they read a negative review than when they read a positive review or no review, regardless of whether their own initial attitude toward the film was negative (experiment 1) or positive (experiment 2). Across the experiments, posters’ ratings were similar if they received a positive review or no review. Lurkers were unaffected by the review manipulation. Furthermore, more posters recognized diverse perspectives in their review than lurkers did, whose reviews were internally consistent.

These results are inconsistent with the predictions of cognitive tuning theory and social contingency theory, thereby suggesting that prior theories focusing on dialogues and single audiences do not apply to one-to-multiple-audiences communications. Furthermore, the findings that posters reduced their movie ratings after reading a negative review of the filmBeven when their personal experience with the film was favorableBsuggests that negative word-of-mouth communication may snowball in a downward spiral on the Internet. Furthermore, these findings suggest that marketers will not enjoy the same effect for positive word-of-mouth communication.



Albert M. Muniz, Jr., DePaul University

Hope Jensen Schau, Temple University

It has been noted that "there are many, many forms of consumer resistance" (Penaloza and Price 1993, p. 123). Increasingly, consumer researchers recognize and depict consumers taking matters into their own hands in order to compensate for the shortcomings of marketers and the marketing process (cf., Handleman 2001, Fischer 2001, Holt 2001). Sometimes this resistance is a function of necessity, as when consumers form buying co-ops or credit unions (Herrmann 1993). Other times this resistance is a manifestation of personal values and beliefs, as when consumers create their own products to resist a system they perceive as destroying the environment (Dobscha 1998). This paper examines consumer resistance within the context of a brand community (Muniz and O’Guinn 2001), in this case a community that has resisted market and social forces to abandon a discontinued technological product, the Apple Newton PDA.

The Apple Newton was one of the earliest entrants into the Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) product category. Introduced in 1993, the Newton never achieved critical mass. Despite a fiercely loyal user base (close to 200,000 were estimated to have been using the product at the height of its popularity), the Newton lost its lead in the emerging PDA category to the Palm Pilot when it was introduced in 1996. The Newton was officially abandoned by Apple in February of 1998. Since then, Apple has largely stopped providing technological assistance for the product. Despite these limitations, a community of users still interacts online. Utilizing Usenet newsgroups, listservs, and organized personal webspace, members of this brand community interact, exchange assistance, share advice and encouragement, and create new software and hardware for their Newtons. Over one-thousand messages are posted to the listserv and newsgroup each month, there are over 200 websites listed as members of the Apple Newton webring, and a search on Internet auction site eBay yielded several Newtons for sale, some fetching upwards of $600.00 each. Internet media appear to be the most popular forum by which members of this community interact. Consequently, a netnographic approach (Kozinets 2002, Kozinets and Handleman 1998; Paccagnella 1997) was used.

The netnographic data come from several sources. First, community forums were observed, archived and analyzed. These forums included a newsgroup, a listserv, as well as several user-created webpages. The content from these forums provided insight into the way the community operated and how resistance manifested itself in this context. Second, interviews were conducted with seventy members of the community. These interviews began as online endeavors, with several producing ongoing email exchanges, as well as telephone and face to face interviews.

The data reveal a variety of consumer resistance tactics. The actions of the Newton brand community are an example of resistance to market and social forces to adopt newer, more widely accepted and serviced products. Members of the community have become the primary means for ongoing product support, service, promotion and innovation. These behaviors represent an active and constructive approach to solving the problem presented by the discontinuation of the product, rather than passive acceptance of its discontinuation. These actions could be characterized as collective and reformist (Penaloza and Price 1993) in that they work as a group, seeking to keep the products usable and ultimately re-introduced into the market.

Utilizing Jensen’s (1989) consumer resistance typology, three classes of behavior are evident, each representing three different focal points: structural behaviors, communal behaviors and functional behaviors. Structural behaviors are those directed at the market as a whole. They include the collective exploration, analysis and, ultimately, disparagement of newer alternatives to the Newton (iPaq, Palm, etc), actions to get users of current PDAs to switch to Newtons, as well as actions designed to get Apple to re-enter this market or license the Newton technology to another company that would. Communal behaviors refer to those acts designed to maintain the brand community and insure its persistence. These include, assisting fellow users in solving product problems or locating resources; promoting those suppliers who still repair and service the Newton, and promoting the strength and resourcefulness of the community. Functional behaviors are those directed to improve the functioning of the Newton as a device. These include creating new programs and product add-ons for the Newton as well as creating new markets for these products and services.

Most interesting is the fact that most members of the community do not see what they are doing as resistance. Rather, members take issue with a system that fosters planned obsolescence and discourages true innovation and work to overcome that system. Members recognize that their actions are a form of resistance, but it is not the primary motivation for their behavior. It is a utilitarian form of resistance. They construe their behavior as a logical reaction to such a system. From this, we propose that consumer resistance need not be limited to activities labeled as such, meaningful resistance can take many other forms.



Amy Bruckman, Georgia Institute of Technology

Priscilla Dodds, Georgia Perimeter College

The Internet makes new kinds of communication possible. Not only are corporations using this medium to communicate with consumers, but they are also facilitating the process of consumers talking with one another. This raises new management issues of an unprecedented level of complexity. Groups of people communicating online inevitably have conflicts. Consequently, a managing entity must form policy for acceptable conduct, and decide how to enforce it. Through participant observation and interviews with managers of thirteen online groups, we document both the value added by and the social cost of this management process, for both consumers and corporations.

On some Internet sites, communication may be the primary purpose in itself. For others, the communication may be affiliated with a product, service, or real-world activity. Regardless of a site’s purpose, behavior problems are inevitable. Is foul language allowed? What words are defined as #foul’ and does context matter? Are ad hominem attacks allowed? Is criticism of the site itself allowed? Writing rules for acceptable conduct and enforcing those rules are both inherently subjective and value-laden processes.

For most electronic communities the principle means of communication is text-based chat or text-based discussion forums. Censorship becomes one of the primary means, therefore, for site managers to control behavior online.

In this study, our goal was to better understand the problems faced by managersChow rules of conduct are written, and how they are enforced. Towards this end, we interviewed managers of thirteen groups, using a clinical-style interview technique. Interview results were supplemented by participant observation on the sites.

The results of these interviews an observations reveal that in many ways, management of many online communities resembles the management of American "company towns" of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Aiming to provide affordable employee housing near factory sites, a number of companies built model communities for their workers. Company owners assumed a benevolent rulership, not only of company business, but of town and civic affairs as well. When corporate management reaches beyond the workplace and into the homes and communities of its employees, there can be a significant impact on individual freedom as well as family and community institutions. In some ways, company towns have more power over their residents than the government itself. For example, in the United States, the government can’t ban someone from posting a sign because that would constitute a restriction on freedom of speech. The management of a company town or a residential subdivision, on the other hand, much like a private club, is not bound by such restrictions. Managers of company towns in practice gained unprecedented levels of control over the culture that emerged, and ultimately the values of the population as embodied in their way of life. Today, online discourse is becoming our new "public sphere," and corporate community managers are gaining this same broad control over the culture that emerges there.

It can be argued that companies have not only an opportunity to control social discourse, but an obligation to do so. A public corporation has an obligation to maximize shareholder value. If controversy risks lowering revenue by displeasing sponsors or sapping expensive staff time, then the corporation has a fiduciary responsibility to eliminate that controversy. There is an inherent conflict between the ideal of free public discourse and corporate control of the forums in which discourse takes place. In this paper, we document the nature of that conflict and examine broader implications.


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