Online Communities

COMM 4625 SEC01
Office hours Content
TU/FR 1:35 - 3:15 pm
Richards Hall 235
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

Can online communities be “real”? Yes! People use online platforms to coalesce via enduring group identities, activities, and cultures. Upon successful completion of this course you will be able to explain the dynamics of online communities including joining, governance, conflict, and exit—with scholarly readings complemented by contemporary cases. 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. 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 ⌘+f. You can open links in new tabs with control-click. We will also make use of Google Docs. 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.

In general, if you have an issue, such as needing an accommodation for a religious obligation or disability, do not plead afterwards. Instead, beforehand, 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, 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 seven or more words in a row, the same will follow.

We sometimes use devices in class as part of an activity, but the default policy is for gadgets to be silenced and put away. If you want to use a device throughout the course, 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. Deviations from classroom professionalism and respect may result in dismissal from class and demerits against your grade. See full course policies for more detail.


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. 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

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. Include your name.

I recommend your writing be reviewed by two peers relative 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 Canvas). 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, ⌘+f is your friend), but I’ve gathered some of the most important ones below.


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).

You should also have a copy of a college writing handbook, such as:

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

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


Sep 10 Fri - Intro and Wikipedia

We learn each other’s names, review the course objectives.

Wikipedia task 1

  • Before class, start the Wikipedia Essentials and Editing Basics trainings (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.

  • Enroll on our Wikipedia dashboard. Following the “enroll” link should work, if not, “Join course” on our WP dashboard—under “Actions”—using passcode “ncrtumis”.

  • 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. For example, students recently contributed Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia and Friends of the Public Garden.

Sep 14 Tue - Persuasion

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

Sep 17 Fri - Wikipedia and A/B testing

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

Wikipedia task 2

  • Have you completed the tutorials and sign-up from the earlier task?
  • Introduce yourself to Prof. Reagle and a classmate on their Talk pages.
  • Add your User page and Talk page to your watchlist.
  • Complete the Finding Your Article training and choose a topic for which you can write or significantly expand an article with 5-10 well sourced paragraphs. A good topic has a high notability, has reliable sources, and is one your are not associated with. 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.
    • Northeastern’s library provides topics for which there is no article (red link) or a stub in need of expansion.
    • Requested articles includes potential topics—but you still must make sure there are enough reliable and independent sources.
    • Most-wanted articles lists topics linked to by other articles but for which no article exists.
    • 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—you are better off avoiding these.
  • 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. Noteworthy sources tend to have Wikipedia articles of their own.
  • Find three Wikipedia articles most similar to your topic. This will ensure you avoid duplication and you have an exemplar to follow. You might also find help via those articles Talk pages or a related WikiProject.
  • Document your choice, reliable sources, and related Wikipedia articles on the course’s talk page under proposed topics.

Sep 21 Tue - Gaming motivation

What are the types of motivation and to what extent are they exploited?

Sep 24 Fri - Wikipedia project start

Note, we will do much of this assignment in class, so bring your 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 guests Amanda Rust and Brooke Williams, Northeastern librarians.

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 Nexis Uni for news articles and Amazon and Google for books.
  • As part of earlier trainings, you should have a sandbox subpage (video tutorial), which is a subpage (often a user subpage) with a sandbox template included.
    • Make sure `{{ sandbox}} appears near the top of your page; this creates an easy to “Get Help” button which you can use for feedback.
  • 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.

Sep 28 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 was a crowd-funding site, like Patreon, focused on supporting open source software developers by way of recurring user contributions. Yet, might this type of extrinsic reward engender resentment?

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 05 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

Oct 08 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, such as Reddit’s Change My View.

Oct 12 Tue - Norm compliance and breaching

Let’s continue reading about community regulation and norms. Garfinkel is summarized well in the Wikipedia article and I provide the PDF in the zip file for use in your assignment. After today’s class, begin your own breaching experiment.

Oct 15 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.
    • Ask me for a review on Wikipedia with a link to your sandbox.
    • Once you’ve addressed my feedback, read the “Moving your work into Wikipedia’s mainspace” tutorial and do one of the following.
      • If this is a new article, move it into mainspace. You can ask me or Wiki Ed contact—listed on the WP dashboard—to help you
      • If this is an extension, start porting 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, preferably those without reviewers—you don’t need to start reviewing yet.
  • Complete the Images and Media tutorial if you plan on using media on your article.
  • Respond to any feedback you get toward making a perfect article.

Oct 19 Tue - Reddit’s challenges

Let’s dig into more recent happenings at Reddit, which is not easy to moderate. In this collection of readings we can see how Reddit’s character can be both delightful and awful. What could they change to make things better? Do banning fake AI generated faces and legal gun sales help? Find an example of a weird subreddit and an uplifting one for class discussion.

Oct 22 Fri - Governance and banning

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

Oct 26 Tue - Moderation

What options are available for the moderation of online communities?

Oct 29 Fri - Moderation and U.S. law/policy

Moderation has legal impetuses and consequences. Consider the spectrum of Barlow’s laissez-faire in the 90s to the government interventions (and politics) of today. Where do you think the balance should be struck?

Nov 02 Tue - Student nominated topic

One or more students can propose a topic with candidate readings two weeks in advance. Previous topics include K-pop stan communities and Wikipedia controversies. A new possible topic: How do algorithms and AI affect community health?†

Nov 05 Fri - Debrief: Social breaching

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

Nov 09 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 gateway to new membership in an online gaming guild and a humorous take on Wikipedia socialization. Bring your device for editing Wikipedia.

Nov 12 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.

Nov 16 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 the equivalent?

Nov 19 Fri - FOMO, growth hacking, and ethics

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.

Nov 23 Tue - Gratitude

Today we will consider the role of gratitude within a community.

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 26 Fri - NO CLASS

Nov 30 Tue - Wikipedia in the news

Dec 03 Fri - Debrief: Wikipedia

What do we think of the Wikipedia community and experience?

Wikipedia task 8

Due: Wikipedia reflection

  • 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?

Dec 07 Tue - 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.


Dec 10 Tue - TRACE

DUE: Evidence of TRACE completion due via email at 12:00 ET.

© 2014-2020 Joseph Reagle. Please reuse and share! Creative Commons License