Online Communities

COMM 4625 SEC01
Office hours Content
TU/FR 1:35 - 3:15 pm
Ryder Hall 456
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 identities, activities, 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 joining, governance, conflict, and exit. Furthermore, you will have experience with the development and challenges of online communities via hands-on interventions (including experiments with your own online networks and contributions to 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, for example, is 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 I update; I expect you to bookmark it and to follow links. (If you find a broken link or typo, let me know!) You can easily find things on this page with control-f. You can open links in new tabs with control-click. We will also make use of Google Docs. I recommend you use something like Zim, FoldingText, or Evernote to “make information your own.” By the way, in emails I often use markdown conventions and respond below your quoted (‘>’) text.

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 device proposal with your intended usage. 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 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 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

Printed assignments must be double-spaced, 12 point font, 1-inch margins. (One page 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

Communication Studies courses are expected, on average, to have a GPA of no more than a 3.3 (B+); this means those receiving an A or A- are in the minority. 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 to my public wiki are found through-out this syllabus (remember, control-f is your friend), but I’ve gathered some of the most important ones below. As I explain in this video about tracking assignment requirements, I have high expectations and send a lot of information your way, I recommend you use something like Zim, FoldingText, or Evernote to “make information your own.”

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


Most readings are linked to from this page, if not check this password protected zip file (the password is my dog’s name in lowercase). However, you must acquire the following:

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 09 Fri - Intro and Wikipedia

We learn each other’s names, review the course objectives, and get started with Wikipedia with the help of guests Amanda Rust and Brooke Williams, Wikipedians and Northeastern librarians.

Wikipedia task 1

  • Before class, start the Wikipedia Essentials and Editing Basics tutorials (35 + 25 = 60 minutes). Upon completion, you will have created an account, made edits in a sandbox, and learned the basic rules of the Wikipedia community. Sign up on our course page. I recommend you add the pages Help:Cheatsheet and Help:Wiki markup as the first (of many to come) bookmarks in a new folder on your browser. If you are in need of quick help, head over to the English Wikipedia chat channel.
  • Look ahead to the class where you pick a topic and start thinking about what you’d like to write an article about.


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

Sep 13 Tue - Persuasion

We begin with motivation: What is some of the science behind motivation?

Sep 16 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. Bring your device.

Wikipedia task 2

  • Before class, make sure you’ve completed the Wikipedia Essentials and Editing Basics tutorials.
  • Make sure you’ve create a user page and that you appear on the list of students on the course page.
  • To practice editing and communicating on Wikipedia, introduce yourself to Prof. Reagle, one classmate.
  • Add your User page and Talk page to your wachlist. You can configure this to notify you when someone edits a page you are watching. (You can also use IFTTT for notifications.)
  • Choose a possible topic.
    • NEU’s library provides topics for which there is no article (red link) or only a stub but for which they have sources you can use.
    • You may also choose a topic related to your interests, studies, or career if you are confident in its notability, your knowledge and ability to find sources and edit without a conflict of interest. (Feel free to discuss ideas with me.)
      • Requested articles includes categories of topics others’ have identified to be in need of an article.
      • You might also consider recent events or people in the news. Note that products and businesses sometimes face challenges on notability and neutrality.
  • Look for Wikipedia articles related to your possible 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);
    • for a sense of article structure that you will want to emulate;
    • so that you’ll be able to create links to and from your article;
    • because their Talk pages might also be places where you’ll be able to ask for help, and there may be links to a related WikiProject;
  • Document your choice and three related Wikipedia articles (from the step above) on the course’s talk page under proposed topics.

Sep 20 Tue - Gaming motivation

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

Sep 23 Fri - NEU Special Collections

Meet at 90 Snell Library (next to Special Collections). Note, we will do this assignment in class, so bring a device. Before class, try to find some sources and experiment with how to make Wikipedia citations. We’ll be working with Amanda Rust and Michelle Romero. No need to write a QIC.

Wikipedia task 3

  • Compile a bibliography of at least 4-5 relevant research sources, primarily published in reputable books, journals, and newspapers.
    • Remember, there’s more to the world than that found in a Web search. You could search LexisNexis for news articles and books via Amazon and Google.
  • Write a 3-4 paragraph summary version of your article—with citations—in your Wikipedia sandbox subpage. (A sandbox is just a subpage (often a user subpage) with the {{User sandbox}} template included; this creates an easy to use button to move the page into Wikipedia’s article space when you are ready.)
  • Feel free to use the class email list to share tips or ask for help from classmates. You could also create a wiki-page or Google Doc for this.

Sep 27 Tue - Kohn on motivation

Is it possible for extrinsic motivators to “crowd out” intrinsic motives? Kohn has concerns about the extrinsic motive of rewards. Gittip/Gratipay is a crowd-funding site, like Patreon, focused on supporting open source software developers by way of recurring user contributions.

Sep 30 Fri - 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.

Wikipedia task 4

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

  1. Fix spelling and grammar
  2. Fix wikilinks

Oct 04 Tue - 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 short readings on why young people are leaving social networks. How easy is it to leave a network? Have you ever been able to migrate your data (e.g., Facebook’s download your info)?

Oct 07 Fri - Ethics (interlude)

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 were ethical? Should academics be held to a higher standard?

Due: Essay on user influence and motivation

Oct 11 Tue - Pro-social norms

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. Have you been able to discern norms at Wikipedia? As you read, think about other spaces (online and off) that may have related norms.

Oct 14 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 in the zip file for use in your assignment.

Begin your social breaching experiment.

Oct 18 Tue - Community and collaboration

In one reading we look at Wikipedia’s collaborative culture and ask if there is something there that contributes to its success? In the other, we look at a study of feedback at Wikipedia.

Wikipedia task 5

  • Your sandbox article should now be roughly complete, with a good structure, 4-6 paragraphs of content, and references.
  • Move your sandbox article into main space.
  • Link to your article from the class’s course page.
  • Sign up for two reviews as students put their articles up; try to select one without reviews—you don’t need to start reviewing yet
  • Begin polishing your article.

Oct 21 Fri - Moderation

What options are available for the moderation of online communities?

Oct 25 Tue - Governance and banning

Let’s focus specifically on questions of governance, specifically: how are decisions made? Also, what kind of sanctions and decision making processes are available to censure users?

Oct 28 Fri - Newcomer gateways

In many regards, having newcomers to a community is a good problem to have. Nonetheless, it can be a problem. 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.

Nov 01 Tue - Newcomer initiation

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

Wikipedia task 6

  • Peer review two of your classmates’ articles using the criteria of a perfect article.
    • 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.

Nov 04 Fri - Debrief: Social breaching

Due: Social breaching You may give an in-person (TED-like) talk or an online YouTube video (like Veritasium) and should follow the presentation recommendations. If you wish to use slides, you must do so from my Chromebook: make your deck public and link to your slides in this Slides Doc.

Nov 08 Tue - Gratitude

Today we will 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 Fri - NO CLASS

Nov 15 Tue - 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”? Can you find an example of a “FAQ slap” in which someone is told to RTFM?

Nov 18 Fri - Bootstrapping a niche and Winner-Take-All

The final chapter from Kraut et al. asks that if one is starting a new community, how best to bootstrap it? What connections can you draw between online communities and the winner-take-all society?

Nov 22 Tue - Bootstrapping and critical mass

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

Bring your device for our final Wikipedia editing session.

Nov 25 Fri - NO CLASS

Nov 29 Tue - Debrief: Wikipedia

What do we think of the Wikipedia community and experience? We’ll be joined by Dr. Zachary McDowell, who is researching student contributions to 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. Don’t ramble, but tell us in about 4 minutes:
    • what would you recommend Wikipedia do to:
      • welcome newcomers
      • persuade people to contribute and donate
      • increase motivation
      • regulate vandals
    • what surprised you?
    • what annoyed you?

Dec 02 Fri - Infocide

Although many scholars and practitioners focus on recruiting and retaining community members, what about exit? Beyond the celebrities who quit Twitter, let us consider why people leave. Check out some of the user pages that use Template:Retired.

Bring your device for a class activity.

Dec 06 Tue - Debrief: Newcomer campaign

Due: Newcomer campaign and debrief. Come to class prepared to briefly describe your campaign.

  • Don’t ramble, but tell us in about 4 minutes:
    • what was your community/platform
    • what are you proposing
    • do you really think it would work?

© 2014-2016 Joseph Reagle. Please reuse and share! Creative Commons License