Online Communities

COMM 4625 <2024-SP> Help desk Content
TU/FR 1:35–3:15pm
Ryder 283 (map)
TU&FR at 15:30+ email to schedule,
Dr. Reagle <j.reagle@…>
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 the joining, culture, governance, 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:

Policies

Active learning and the Web

to really know shoelaces, you have to tie shoes. — Matthew Crawford, (2009) Shop Class as Soulcraft.

This is an active learning course meaning that you will be partaking in class and group discussions, participating in class exercises, and sharing and relating what we learn to the larger world.

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 or misuse AI-based tools, the same will follow.

AI-based tools can help and hinder our education. They can tempt us to skip learning and misrepresent our work, this is academic misconduct. They can also be used well and honestly, which requires careful effort — they can plagiarize and “hallucinate” facts and sources — and disclosure of their use. Therefore, AI tools cannot be used for quizzes or exams; doing so is misconduct. For anything else, submitted work must substantively be your own; if not, this is misconduct. If you use AI tools for improving your work (e.g., ChatGPT for feedback or GrammarlyGo and Quillbot for improving composition), include a note or appendix describing your use, including important prompts; failing to do so is misconduct.

WARNING: To show your work is your own, you must be prepared to show a (1) real-time demonstration of your understanding and (2) evidence of its progression via a document’s version history. This feature is native to GDocs and Pages; if you use MS Word you must use Northeastern’s Office 365 or save it to your OneDrive/Sharepoint account.

Devices and professionalism

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.

Assignments

There are 1000 points at stake over the term. This is converted to letter grades based on thresholds, without rounding. For example, 870 is a B+; 869 is not. Due dates are included in the schedule.

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, let me know!

Writing requirements

Except for the Wikipedia reflection, assignments must be double-spaced, 12 point font, 1-inch margins. (One page contains approximately 250 words.) Citations and bibliography must be in the APA style. No APA cover page is required. Include your name and submit the electronic version via Canvas before class.

Your mission is to demonstrate comprehensive engagement and understanding of course material in prose that is clear, concise, coherent, and cohesive; see the writing rubric.

If you have permission to revise a written assignment for re-assessment, please see these revision instructions.

Rubrics

Course

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.

And, according to the course rubric, an excellent “A” student:

  • shows 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.
  • has virtually perfect attendance. Their commitment to the class resembles that of the teacher.
  • is 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.
  • shows interest in the class. They look up or dig out what they don’t understand. They often ask interesting questions or make thoughtful comments.
  • has retentive minds. They are able to connect past learning with the present.
  • has a winning attitude. They have the determination, initiative, and self-discipline to succeed.

Letter grades

  1. Impressive: worthy of being an exemplar.
  2. Good: many strengths and some weaknesses.
  3. Satisfactory: strengths marred by weaknesses.
  4. Unsatisfactory: weaknesses dominate (any) strengths.
  5. Deficient: fails to address assignment or academic requirements.

See the grading scale for letter↔︎points thresholds.

Writing

As the writing rubric states, excellent prose:

Participation

See the participation assessment.

Resources

Many links to my website are found through-out this syllabus (remember, ⌘+f is your friend), but I’ve gathered some of the most important ones below.

Readings

Most readings are linked to from this page, if not check this zip file. For selections, I specify the chapter (ch=) or pages (pp=) to read.

If you encounter a paywall, try incognito mode; pasting the URL at archive.ph, archive.org, or 1ft.io, or searching for the title at Proquest via our library.

Schedule

Jan 09 Tue - Introduction and community

We learn each other’s names, review the course objectives, and begin our discussion of community by way of early examples. What do we mean by “community” and how do online forums qualify?

Bring a mnemonic that connects your name with a memorable image: “Imagine me …” I could say: “Imagine Prof. Reagle being chased by beagles.”

Jan 12 Fri - Wikipedia introduction

Prior to class, read “Nazis and Norms” and complete the tasks below to learn the basics of editing Wikipedia.

Bring your device.

Wikipedia task 1

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

  • Make sure you are enrolled and logged in and complete the tutorials for (1) the Sandbox, Talk Pages, and Watchlists, (2) Editing Basics, and (3) Wikipedia Policies (20 + 10 + 20 = 50 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.

  • On your user page introduce yourself to the community—but you need not disclose personally identifiable information. Consider adding some userboxes. 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, past students contributed Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia and Friends of the Public Garden.

Jan 16 Tue - Persuasion

Why might people join a community, platform, or app? What is the psychology behind motivation and the dangers of its exploitation?

Jan 19 Fri - Designing for motivation

Is it possible for extrinsic motivators to “crowd out” intrinsic motives? Kohn has concerns about the extrinsic motive of rewards. Gittip/Gratipay 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?

Jan 23 Tue - A/B testing & finding a Wikipedia topic

We make a slight digression to consider one of the dominant means of online design (A/B testing) and in understanding how Wikipedia users are persuaded to donate, based on an unusually transparent fundraiser.

Before class, complete the following tasks. We will review and extend your efforts in class. Bring your device. We’ll be working with guest Brooke Williams, a Northeastern librarian.

Wikipedia task 2

  • Have you completed the first trainings and signed-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 Evaluating Articles and Sources and the Finding Your Article training; choose a topic for which you can write or significantly expand an article with 5–8 well sourced paragraphs. A good topic has a high notability (significant coverage in reliable sources independent of the subject) 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.
    • Consider interesting scholars or books, under-appreciated locales or history, and recent events or people in the news.
      • Popular culture, products and businesses, and social media celebrities are too often challenged as promotional—they are best avoided.
    • Requested articles includes potential topics—but you still must make sure there are enough reliable sources.
    • WikiProject Stub includes categories for articles that have been categorized as stubs in need expansion—can you find one that you can expand with sufficient and well-sourced content.
  • 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. Reliable sources, such as The New York Times, typically have their own Wikipedia article. If your source isn’t notable enough to have its own article, it might not be reliable enough to serve as a bibliographic source.
  • Find three Wikipedia articles most similar to your topic. This will ensure you avoid duplication and you have exemplars to follow. Review their Talk pages to see what kind of issues are of concern. (Maybe earlier attempts at your topic failed.) Contributors to these related pages and those of associated WikiProjects can be a source of help and feedback.
  • Document your choice, reliable sources, and related Wikipedia articles on the course’s talk page under proposed topics.
  • If you are uncertain about your choice, propose a few and we’ll discuss.

Jan 26 Fri - Platform affordances: Twitter and Mastodon

What kind of community can exist on Twitter? What does the platform facilitate and how might a community function? Could Mastodon be a new home for Black Twitter?

Jan 30 Tue - Creating a Wikipedia outline with citations

Before class, complete the following tasks. We will review and extend your efforts in class. Bring your device. We’ll be working with guest Brooke Williams, a Northeastern librarian. No need to write a QIC.

Make sure you have at least four reliable sources on your topic and experiment with how to make Wikipedia citations on your sandbox subpage.

Wikipedia task 3

Feb 02 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 the Facebook study was ethical? Should academics be held to a higher standard?

Due: Essay on user influence and motivation

Feb 06 Tue - Norm compliance and breaching

We are now going to spend a couple of weeks on how communities regulate and govern themselves. Garfinkel is summarized well in the Wikipedia article and I provide the PDF in the zip file – should you need specifics or quotes for the breach assignment. After today’s class, begin your own breaching experiment.

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

Wikipedia task 4

Do at least two “suitable for all editor” tasks from the Wikipedia:Task Center (i.e., categorization, copy editing, fact-checking, and random article patrol).

Feb 13 Tue - Regulation and pro-social norms

Let’s continue reading about community regulation and norms. 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.

Feb 16 Fri - Newcomer initiation

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

Feb 20 Tue - Collaboration and feedback

In one reading we look at Wikipedia’s collaborative culture and ask if there is something there that contributes to its success? We also consider an experimental study on the efficacy of feedback.

Due: Wikipedia contribution rough draft

Wikipedia task 5

  • Complete the Images and Media training if you plan on using media on your article.
  • Your sandbox article should now be roughly complete, with a good structure, 5–10 paragraphs of contributed content, and references.
    • Ask me for a review of your contribution with a link to your sandbox (in email or on Wikipedia).
    • Once you’ve addressed my feedback, read the “Moving your work into Wikipedia’s mainspace” training and do one of the following.
      • If this is a new article, ask me to help you move it to mainspace.
      • If this is an extension, start porting your revised and new sections over to the existing article.
      • On its Talk page, invite feedback; you can find interested Wikipedians on related WikiProjects or via major authors of this or related pages.
      • Respond to any feedback you get toward making a perfect article.

Feb 23 Fri - Moderation: Frameworks

What options are available for the moderation of online communities?

Feb 27 Tue - Moderation: Platforms’ liability

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?

Bring your device for editing Wikipedia.

Mar 01 Fri - Reddit’s challenges and delights

Let’s consider Reddit’s attempts at moderating its forums, which is not easy. 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? Find an example of a weird subreddit and an uplifting one for class discussion.

Mar 05 Tue - NO CLASS

Mar 08 Fri - NO CLASS

Mar 12 Tue - 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 use a projector make your deck public—to everyone, not just Northeastern—and link to your slides in the Slides Doc.

Mar 15 Fri - Governance and banning at Wikipedia

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?

Wikipedia task 6

  • In your Wikipedia preferences, go to the Gadets tab and enable:
    1. Navigation popups (under Browsing): hovering your mouse over “(prev)” in your article’s history show you the changes people make.
    2. wikEdDiff (under Editing): can show a nicer version of differences between pages, as borrowed from the WikiEdu dashboard.
  • With your work now live in the Mainspace, begin reaching out for help from Wikipedians: look to articles’ edit histories, Talk pages, and related projects. Drop a friendly note on Wikipedians’ User/Talk pages.
  • Respond to any feedback you get toward making a perfect article.

Mar 19 Tue - Artificial Intelligence and moderation

Platforms have used artificial intelligence (AI) to filter and moderate content. What are the dangers and limitations? Now, AI is being used by spammers, scammers, and plagiarists to get around such controls. What can platforms and communities do?

Mar 22 Fri - Algorithms and community health: TikTok

How do algorithms shape the communities we inhabit, especially those people typically on the margins?

Wikipedia task 7

  • I will randomly assign your two peer reviews on our WikiEdu Dashboard.
  • Give feedback 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 26 Tue - Parasocial relationships, “stans”, and “wife guys”

Wong introduces the notion of “parasocial relationships” in the context of “wife guy” disappointment—and it’s not just guys, I was disappointed to learn of Ali Wong’s divorce. Malik and Haidar show how a community can develop around fan-based para-social relationships.

Mar 29 Fri - FOMO and dark patterns

We return to psychology, and how it can be exploited to make users feel they might miss out. Is this something online communities and marketers should take advantage of? Or do you think it unethical? Bring your device.

Apr 02 Tue - RTFM: Read the Fine Manual

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?

Apr 05 Fri - Community fission and the Reddit diaspora

Controversial communities are sometimes pushed from a platform. Our key question: Is this a good thing? Is the moderation fair? Ought platforms support free speech? And if you think a community is harmful, is it productive to push it out to metastasize elsewhere?

These are controversial, culture-war topics. And Fain and Astria, plus the linked to podcast, are written from the perspective of the Reddit diaspora. Independent of how you feel about the positions expressed, use these cases to consider the questions above.

Apr 09 Tue - Gratitude

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

Bring your device for our final Wikipedia editing session.

Wikipedia task 8

  • Give at least one Wikipedian who is not associated with our class a token of Wikilove or thanks.

Apr 12 Fri - Debrief: Wikipedia

What do we think of the Wikipedia community and experience? No need for a QIC today, rather think about the following.

Wikipedia task 9

Due: Wikipedia reflection

UPDATE: WRITTEN REFLECTION NOW DUE APR 19, START OF CLASS; STILL COME PREPARED TO DISCUSS THE FOLLOWING

  • Add final touches to your Wikipedia article. Has anyone seen your page? I’ll also be looking to your other Wikipedia contributions in the second half of the semester.
  • 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 16 Tue - Exit and 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 19 Fri - TRACE

DUE: Screenshot of TRACE completion on due Canvas.


© 2013-2024 Joseph Reagle. Please reuse and share! Creative Commons License

Elements of this course are inspired by similar courses from Aaron Shaw and Mako Hill.