Online Communities

COMM 4625 SEC01 Office hours Content
TU/FR 1:35 - 3:15 pm
Ryder 215
Joseph Reagle, Ph.D., <j.reagle>
TU appointments starting at 15:30
Comm Studies, 215 Holmes Hall
Tip: Enter at 41A Leon St.

Course objectives

In the 90s many people drew a line between the online and offline worlds and asked if online communities were “real.” Over time, scholars concluded “yes,” people share enduring activities, identity, and relations online. In the new millennium, this is not only widely accepted as a fact, but as a focus of significant business interests. Upon successful completion of this course you will be able to explain the dynamics of online communities including formation, joining, governance, conflict, and exit. Furthermore, you will have experience with the development, challenges, and maintenance of online communities via hands-on interventions, such as experiments with your own online networks and via contributions to communities like Wikipedia. Our orientation will be that of asking how can one design successful online communities? This could be valuable to you as a participant, as a supporter of a social cause, or as part of your employment. As much as possible, scholarly readings will be complemented by contemporary cases.

Successful completion of this course enables one to:


Active learning and the Web

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” – Confucius

This is an active learning course meaning that you will be engaged with activities such as class and group discussion, participating in and designing class exercises, collaborative note-taking, and peer assessment. An implication of this is, for example, if you do not volunteer at least one good discussion contribution during a class, I might “cold call” you myself.

I also make much use of the Web. For instance, this syllabus is a Web page that will change, which you can bookmark, and I expect you to follow links. (If you find a broken one, let me know!) You can easily find things on this page with control-f. We will also make use of Google Docs.

This is a 4 credit course, which is a 12 hour per week workload. Subtracting ~4 hours for class time, that’s 4 hours per class to be spent in preparation or on assignments.

Academic policies

In short, come to class on time and with the readings and assignments completed; be respectful and willing to collaborate. There are no provisions for missed exams or late assignments.

We sometimes use devices in class as part of an activity, but the default policy is for gadgets to be silenced and put away. (Interestingly, as noted in my tips for note-taking, handwritten notes can lead to better learning.) If you want to use a device throughout classes, email me a proposal with your intended usage (e.g., device proposal). Note, device users might also be called upon you to perform tasks such as looking things up or taking collaborative notes. I can also rescind device privileges. Deviations from classroom professionalism and respect may result in dismissal from class and demerits against your grade. See full course policies for more detail.

In general, if you have an issue, such as needing an accommodation for a religious obligation or learning disability, speak with me before it affects your performance; afterward it is too late. Do not ask for favors; instead, offer proposals that show initiative and a willingness to work.

Academic Integrity: “The promotion of independent and original scholarship ensures that students derive the most from their educational experience and their pursuit of knowledge.” Violations include cheating, fabrication, plagiarism, and participating in or encouraging dishonesty. I will and have reported violators to the Office of Student Conduct.


There are 1000 points at stake over the course of the term. This is converted to letter grades on the basis of these thresholds; they are not rounded.

Because this is a upper-level course, I give greater freedom than in introduction classes where I require things like reading responses, essay proposals, and formal peer review. Being prepared and getting good feedback are still essential to doing well, I just don’t make you do it: you have greater freedom to do poorly. Also, because this is a capstone, I’d like for you to have work products you can be proud of. So if you have a creative idea, please let me know!

Writing requirements

Written assignments (greater than 450 words) must be double-spaced, 12 point font, 1-inch margins. (One contains approximately 250 words.) Pages must be numbered and stapled together. Citations must be in the APA style.

No APA cover page is required. In fact, so as to avoid bias, I read assignments “blind” without knowing the author until the last page. Hence, your name (and final word count absent bibliography) should only appear on the back side of the final page. That is, I should only know your name by turning the assignment over.

All assignments should be reviewed by two peers and assessed according to the writing rubric. Make use of Hacker’s Pocket Manual and my writing tips handout. On the due date, assignments are due at start of class (print copies must be submitted in class and the electronic version must be submitted to BlackBoard Turnitin). If you have permission to revise a written assignment for re-assessment, please see these revision instructions.

Grading Rubric

The course rubric notes that “A” students have all of the following attributes.

  1. show mastery in assignments. Their work demonstrates impressive understanding of readings, discussions, themes and ideas. It is fluid, clear, analytical, well-organized and grammatically polished. Reasoning and logic are well-grounded and examples precise.
  2. have virtually perfect attendance. Their commitment to the class resembles that of the teacher.
  3. are prepared for class. They always read assignments and participate fully. Their attention to detail is such that they occasionally catch the teacher in a mistake.
  4. show interest in the class. They look up or dig out what they don’t understand. They often ask interesting questions or make thoughtful comments.
  5. have retentive minds. They are able to connect past learning with the present.
  6. have a winning attitude. They have the determination, initiative and self-discipline to succeed.


Many links are found through-out this syllabus (remember, control-f is your friend), but I’ve gathered some of the most important ones below. I also recommend Northeastern’s library resources, writing center, and international tutoring center.

Tip: temporarily place requirements and rubrics into your work (e.g., at the top of the response file template).


Most readings are linked to from this page, if not check Blackboard (“Course Materials/Course Documents”) or in this password protected zip file (ask me in class). However, you must acquire:

I also expect you to have a copy of:

Like other skills, bibliography is something you learn to do well. Technology can make it easier. NU makes RefWorks and EndNote available to students; you can also use the freely available browser-based Zotero.

Note that for selections, I specify the chapter (ch=) or pages (pp=) to read.



Sep 05 Fri - Intro and Wikipedia

We learn each other’s names, review the course objectives, and get started with Wikipedia with the help of guest Amanda Rust, our Wikipedia Ambassador and NU librarian.

Wikipedia task 1


  1. Subscribe to the class email list.
  2. Come to class with mnemonic linking your name with something novel about yourself. For instance, I like science fiction: “Joseph the Jedi”.

Persuasion and motivation

Sep 09 Tue - Persuasion

We begin with motivation, starting with requesting and enhancing motivation. What is some of the science behind motivation?

Sep 12 Fri - A/B testing

We make a slight digression to consider one of the dominant means of online design (A/B testing) and in understanding the Wikipedia community.

Wikipedia task 2

  • Complete the online training for students.
  • Create a user page, and sign up on the list of students on the course page.
  • To practice editing and communicating on Wikipedia, introduce yourself to Prof. Reagle, one classmate, and any Wikipedians helping your class (such as a Wikipedia Ambassador) on their talk page.
  • Choose a possible topic.
    • NEU’s library provides topics for which there is no article (red link) but for which they have sources and support.
    • You may also choose a topic related to your interests, studies, or career if you are confident in your knowledge and ability to find sources. (Feel free to discuss ideas with me.)
    • Look for articles related to your candidate topic:
      • so as to avoid duplication;
      • for an idea of what type of content and sources you’ll have to find (e.g., who, when, major events, impact, and sources);
      • so that you’ll be able to create links to and from your article;
      • their Talk pages might also be places where you’ll be able to ask for help;
    • Document this on the course’s talk page under proposed topics.

Sep 16 Tue - Gaming motivation

What are the types of motivation and to what extent can they be “gamed”?

Sep 19 Fri - NEU Special Collections

Meet at Library Special Collections (92 Snell Library); after we are done there we will retire to Snell 421. Note, we will do this assignment in class rather than it being due before class. However, you should experiment with how to make Wikipedia citations.

  • Wikipedia task 3
  • Compile a bibliography of relevant research.
  • Write a 3-4 paragraph summary version of your article—with citations—in your Wikipedia sandbox subpage.

Sep 23 Tue - Kohn on motivation

Is it possible for extrinsic motivators to “crowd out” intrinsic motives?

  • Alfie Kohn, 1999, “Cutting the interest rate: the fifth reason rewards fail” ch=4-6
    • Skim chapter 4, read chapter 5, chapter 6 might be interesting to you as a student
  • Gittip, 201406, About
  • Chad Whitacre, 2013, Resentment


Sep 26 Fri - Ethics

While I will not be asking you to conduct formal interviews it is still important for us to consider the ethical implications of studying online communities. Do you think Facebook and OkCupid are ethical? Should academics be held to a higher standard?


Sep 30 Tue - Relational commitment

In the next few classes, we will be looking at how to encourage commitment from members towards a community. We begin with what is called “affective” and “bonds-based” commitment.

  • Kraut ch=3 pp=77-102
  • Joseph Reagle, 2015, “Introduction”, Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web, ch=1

Wikipedia task 4

Under the “Help out” section of the Community Portal do one of each:

  1. Fix spelling and grammar
  2. Fix wikilinks

Oct 03 Fri - Needs-based and lock-in

Today, I am asking you to read about normative and needs-based communities. When you think of exemplar communities, what kind are they? I’ve also provided a couple of short readings about how online communities can “lock-in” their members.

Community regulation and governance

Oct 07 Tue - Internet rules & CoC

We are now going to spend a couple of weeks on how communities regulate and govern themselves. Today, we’re looking at limiting bad behavior and the effects thereof, especially with respect to making norms salient. Also, consider the juxtaposition of the farcical “Internet rules” with actual community codes of conduct.

Due: Essay

Oct 10 Fri - Compliance and norms

Let’s continue reading about community regulation and norms. Garfinkel is summarized well in the Wikipedia article but I provide the PDF on BlackBoard for use in your assignment.

  • Kraut ch=4 pp=151-170 (claims 21-33)
  • Wikpedia, Breaching experiment
  • Harold Garfinkel, 1976, Studies in ethnomethodology

Begin your social breaching experiment.

Oct 14 Tue - Community and collaboration

I’m asking you read two chapters from two different books. In the one, we return to the question of why it is that online communities often struggle, and in the other we look at Wikipedia’s collaborative culture, and if there is something there that contributes to its success?

Oct 17 Fri - Consensus and banning

Let’s focus specifically on questions of governance, specifically how does the consensus process at Wikipedia work. Also, what kind of sanctions are there against those that violate Wikipedia policies?

Wikipedia task 5

  • Your sandbox article should now be roughly complete, with a good structure, 4-6 paragraphs of content, and references.
  • Move sandbox articles into main space.
  • Add your article to the class’s course page via the template.
  • Select two classmates’ articles that you will peer review and copy-edit. (Place your name under two such articles; try to select one without reviews. You don’t need to start reviewing yet.)
  • Begin polishing your article.


Oct 21 Tue - Newcomer gateways

In many regards, having newcomers to a community is a good problem to have. Nonetheless, it can be a problem. Hence, how do successful communities keep and integrate newcomers into their fold? I’ve also asked you to read about a particular gateway to new membership.

Oct 24 Fri - Newcomer hazing

Why do people sometimes feel such an affinity for groups that abuse them?

  • Kraut ch=5 pp=205-223 (claims 17-25)
  • Elliot Aronson, Judson Mills, 1959, “The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology

Wikipedia task 6

  • Peer review two of your classmates’ articles.
    • Big changes could be suggested or done (and documented) on the article talk page.
    • Be bold and directly copy-edit smaller changes in the two reviewed articles.

Oct 28 Tue - Debrief: Social breaching

Due: Social breaching

Oct 31 Fri - RTFM

Newcomers are sometimes explicitly (or implicitly) expected to learn rudimentary knowledge before joining the community. But is it alienating to ask them to first “read the fucking manual”?


Nov 04 Tue - Bootstrapping a niche

The final chapter from Kraut et al. asks that if one is starting a new community, how best to bootstrap it? I’ve also asked you look at how one community manages its “issues.”

Nov 07 Fri - Gratitude

Today we will be joined by a guest Nathan Matias so as to consider the role of gratitude within a community.

Due: Wikipedia task 7

  • Give at least one Wikipedian who is not associated with our class some Wikilove. Of course, you can also share as much Wikilove as you wish, in or out of class. (You can also thank contributors for specific edits.)

Nov 11 Tue - NO CLASS

Nov 14 Fri - Winner-take-all

Today we take a bit of a digression, but one that explains, in part, the competitive aspect of so much of online community and social media. Do you think Facebook friends are a “winner take all society”?

  • Robert H. Frank, Philip J. Cook, 1995, The winner-take-all society, ch=1,2

We’ll also be joined Amanda Rust, our Wikipedia Ambassador, for our final editing Q&A.

Nov 18 Tue - Bootstrapping and critical mass

Let’s consider additional bootstrapping tactics; do you think Uber will win the day?

Nov 21 Fri - FOMO

We again focus on that sense that if one doesn’t join a community soon, one might be left behind. Is this something online communities and marketers should take advantage of? Or do you think it unethical?

Nov 25 Tue - Debrief: Wikipedia

Due: Wikipedia task 8

  • Add final touches to your Wikipedia article.
  • Write a reflective essay (see assignments) on your Wikipedia contributions on a user page.
  • Prepare for an in-class discussion about your Wikipedia editing experience relative to our discussions on how to design for a successful community.


Nov 28 Fri - NO CLASS

Dec 02 Tue - Debrief: community

Due: Community Analysis

© 2014 Joseph Reagle. Please reuse and share! Creative Commons License