Online Communities

COMM 4625 SEC01
Office hours Content
TU/FR 1:35 - 3:15 pm
Snell Library 009
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 interest. 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 contributions to Wikipedia and an experiment with your own online networks). 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.

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.

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. 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. Do not ask for favors; instead, offer proposals that show initiative and a willingness to work.

Academic Integrity is of utmost importance: “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. If you cheat on an exam, you will receive zero credit and be referred to the Office of Student Conduct. If you plagiarize ideas or seven or more words in a row, the same will follow.


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 via BlackBoard). 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.


Jan 09 Tue - 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, 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. 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.
  • “Join course” on our WP dashboard—under “Actions”—using passcode “gcujhmnq”.
  • On your user page introduce yourself to the community—but you need not disclose personally identifiable information. Make sure to include the following:
    As part of [[User:Reagle]]'s online community class, I will be
    contributing to Wikipedia and reflecting on the experience on a 
    user page here.
  • Look ahead to the class where you pick a topic and start thinking about what you’d like to write an article about.


Jan 12 Fri - Persuasion

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

Jan 16 Tue - 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

  • Have you completed the tutorials and sign-up from the earlier task?
  • Use Talk pages (tabs) to introduce yourself to Prof. Reagle, a classmate, and a Wikipedian helping your class (e.g., librarian or ambassador).
  • Add your User page and Talk page to your watchlist. You can configure this to notify you when someone edits a page you are watching.
  • Choose a topic for which you can write or significantly expand an article with 5-10 well sourced paragraphs.
    • Northeastern’s library provides topics for which there is no article (red link) or a stub in need of expansion.
    • You may choose a topic of your own if you are confident of its notability, can find reliable sources, and edit without a conflict of interest. It is better to choose a notable and well-sourced topic of which you are ignorant than vice versa; feel free to discuss ideas with me.
      • Requested articles includes potential topics—but you still must make sure there are enough reliable and independent sources.
      • Consider interesting scholars or books, under-appreciated locales or history, and recent events or people in the news.
      • Products, businesses, and social media celebrities will be challenged as promotional—be very careful on this front.
      • You can peruse older course pages (linked from my User page) for past topics.
  • Find at least four reliable sources that are independent of the subject: this can include books, magazines, and newspapers—but not press releases, marketing, PR news wires, blogs, and self-published material.
  • Find three Wikipedia articles related to your topic so as to: avoid duplication, have an exemplar, find help via their Talk pages or a related WikiProject;
  • Document your choice, reliable sources, and related Wikipedia articles on the course’s talk page under proposed topics.

Jan 19 Fri - Gaming motivation

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

Jan 23 Tue - Wikipedia project start

Note, we will do much of this assignment in class, so bring a device. Before class, make sure you have at least four reliable sources on your topic and experiment with how to make Wikipedia citations on your sandbox subpage. We’ll be working with Amanda Rust and Brooke Williams. No need to write a QIC.

Wikipedia task 3

  • Make sure your preferences are set such that you still have the visual and syntax editor tabs available.
  • Compile a bibliography of at least four reliable sources.
    • Remember, there’s more to the world than that found in a Web search. You could search LexisNexis for news articles and Amazon and Google for books.
  • Create a sandbox subpage (video tutorial). 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.
  • Write an outline of your article—with citations—in your Wikipedia sandbox.
  • 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.

Jan 26 Fri - 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.

Jan 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.

Wikipedia task 4

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

  1. Fix spelling and grammar
  2. Fix wikilinks

Feb 02 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 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)?

Feb 06 Tue - 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

Feb 09 Fri - Regulation and 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.

Feb 13 Tue - Norm compliance and breaching

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.

Feb 16 Fri - 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.
    • When you think your draft is ready for review, let me know (on Wikipedia or via email).
    • After I’ve had a look, and when you are ready do one of the following.
      • If this is a new article, click the “Submit your draft for review!” button at the top of your page.
      • If this is an extension, start copying your revised and new sections over to the existing article and create a section on the Talk page inviting feedback.
  • On our WP dashboard, assign yourself your article and sign up for two reviews; try to select one without reviews—you don’t need to start reviewing yet.
  • Respond to any feedback you get toward making it a perfect article.

Feb 20 Tue - Moderation

What options are available for the moderation of online communities?

Feb 23 Fri - 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?

Feb 27 Tue - 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 in the Debian community and a humorous take on Wikipedia socialization.

Bring your device for editing Wikipedia.

Mar 02 Fri - 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.

Mar 06 Tue - NO CLASS

Mar 09 Fri - NO CLASS

Mar 13 Tue - 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? Bring your device for a class activity.

Mar 16 Fri - Debrief: Social breaching

Due: Social breaching. You must give a five minute or less talk, in-person (TED-like) or online (like Veritasium) following the presentation recommendations. If you wish to present from my Chromebook, make your deck public—to everyone, not just Northeastern—and link to your slides in the Slides Doc.

Mar 20 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.)

Mar 23 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”? Can you find an example of a “FAQ slap” in which someone is told to RTFM?

Mar 27 Tue - 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?

Mar 30 Fri - Bootstrapping and critical mass

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

We’ll also be joined librarians Amanda Rust and Brooke Williams. Bring your device for our final Wikipedia editing session.

Apr 03 Tue - Reddit’s challenges

As you read the short essays, think about what makes reddit work? What is it good at and what are some of the challenges it faces as an online community?

Apr 06 Fri - Debrief: Wikipedia

What do we think of the Wikipedia community and experience?

Due: Wikipedia task 8

  • Add final touches to your Wikipedia article. Has anyone seen your page?
  • 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?

Apr 10 Tue - 4chan & community content analysis

4chan is a controversial online community. How can it be studied and what can we learn—including about its effects on other communities? Make sure you bring your annotated copy of the reading (print or digital) for class discussion. Don’t worry about the fancy math, focus on what conclusions we can draw about this difficult to understand community.

Apr 13 Fri - Infocide

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

Bring your device for a class activity.

Apr 17 Tue - Debrief: Newcomer campaign

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

  • For the debrief, don’t ramble, I will ask you to answer:
    • what was your community/platform?
    • what are you proposing?
    • do you really think it would work?

© 2014-2018 Joseph Reagle. Please reuse and share! Creative Commons License