Update July 2014 :
This is the second part of a three part series of articles detailing a case study that I undertook in 2008 as part of a research project into social media and online communication and was originally published on my own personal blog Ffynnonweb which continues to undertake a journey across the changing online landscape, observing and chronicling developments in social technology and noting how they impact upon online communities – with a particular focus on opportunities in education known as ‘technology enhanced learning’ (TEL).
A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA
Please also read:
to gain the full picture…
We have discussed in the post Which Online Social Network? how online social networks use the ‘viral expansion loop’ as described by the Ning CEO, to attract new members and this viral expansion brought me to Ning itself.
A colleague had been introduced to Ning by his University, which had created an online social network there as a contact method for its distance students and he subsequently decided that it would be a suitable platform for a project he was about to undertake. This friend then introduced me to Ning.
In order to fully investigate and evaluate the Ning Networks as part of my research into online social networks, I created my own social network – initially as a test bed and a ‘sandbox’ to play around in. I already had Facebook and Myspace accounts and had created accounts in a variety of other social media platforms at around the same time to assist with my general research and get fully involved in the Web 2.0 platform.
From time to time, one’s leisure and study activities converge and that is how this project emerged. At exactly the same time as I was having the difficulties with the forum community and looking to move on, I was also conducting my general Web 2.0 research when I was struck with the idea that I could use my embryonic network for both purposes.
It would provide a new home for those ‘Chiggy’ refugees who had also become disenchanted with the discordant atmosphere prevailing in the forums and the Change Management process involved in the move from Web 1.0 forums to Web 2.0 online social networks and the attendant other new social media, could be observed and documented as a case study for this research project.
I knew from my previous studies of change management that the upheaval would be a considerable challenge for many of the members of the old forums because quite a few of them were fairly new to the web and computers in general and had only recently mastered the art of forum posting. I didn’t realise at that point though, just how difficult some people would find the new system and how hostile they would be towards the differences, but more on this later.
I was unsure of the best way to tactfully initiate the change process, because I knew that I only wanted to invite certain members of the private forum that I had formed bonds with and not others that I did not particularly like. I also wanted to avoid awkwardness with the founding members, because I knew they would not want to leave the forum. I decided to send a private message to all ‘chosen’ members setting out my reasons for leaving and explaining what I was trying to do. I was rather worried that people would have negative connotations of research in terms of experimentation and mental images of rats and mice in cages, so felt it was better to play down the research aspect.
In so doing, I had forgotten the important lessons learned when studying the Hawthorne Effect which is the proposition that people generally perform better if they feel involved and important. In research terms, it means letting your subjects know that they are valuable to your research and then they are more likely to co-operate willingly and enthusiastically. This glaring omission on my part proved to be quite disastrous in a way that was not anticipated at all and perhaps really should have been.
Therefore, this private message mentioned my research project, but also spoke about feeling personally undervalued, wanting to move on, having found a new home for the group and that we could all have some fun away from the negativity of that forum. Crucially in view of later events, the message also stated that some members of the forum were not being informed because I felt that they would disrupt the harmony of the new network and it would be better if they were kept in ignorance of its existence.
The fact that the new online social network was somewhat embryonic and that the job of the group members as research subjects was to go in, try everything out and report back to me on their findings whether positive or negative was not sufficiently stressed by me, because I made the rather foolish assumption that this would be completely understood and as obvious to everyone as it was to me.
Naturally, I now realise that things are never as obvious to other people as they are to you and that you need to explain clearly and without ambiguity exactly what it is you are expecting of people, to avoid any confusion or misunderstandings.
David Drennan1 said that “The reactions of employees to any event will be favourable only if it matches or exceeds their expectations.” Therefore, the group members who were being asked to participate in the research project needed to know exactly what to expect and perhaps even more importantly, what was expected of them in this new venture. This patently was not the case, because expectations were raised when the message was sent out inviting members to participate in an exciting new challenge and have ‘lots of fun’ in the process.
Unfortunately, the actual network itself fell so far short of expectations raised, that the negative reaction of the group was considerably greater than it would have been if they had been expecting something strange, different and embryonic, knowing that their role was to make sense of it and report back on their findings.
Professor Drennan goes on to say two more things regarding expectations: “Where an announcement will fall short of expectations; either improve the content until it does match expectations, or take time to reduce expectations to the level of the subsequent announcement.” and finally: “Preparing employees for unwelcome news i.e. moving expectations in a negative direction, requires time and sensitive handling.”
Had this excellent advice been followed by me, much of the initial disappointment and dissatisfaction may have been avoided or at the very least, minimised!
The first few members seemed a bit bemused although not totally hostile at that point, but one of them got the hang of things pretty quickly and had customised her page, added photos and started to go round to other members’ pages leaving comments on their comment walls. She then began to send messages to me via the private message system, which, it must be said, was rather basic and a bit difficult to master, so I was extremely impressed and asked her if she would like to help out and become an administrator in the network. I had managed to pressgang my son and other members of my family into joining the network but they did not really know any of the ‘Chiggy’ group, so it was a real bonus to have someone who both knew everyone and had quickly grasped the rudiments of the network on my side and I was very pleased when she agreed to do so. The next day, I sent out a few more invitation messages including some via Myspace.
A few months previously, a Big Brother housemate – who had been a Myspace user for some time prior to going on BB – began using Myspace ‘friend’ bulletins to communicate with her supporters and this had led to an influx of people in our ‘Chiggy’ group joining Myspace to add her as a friend. We all added each other as friends and this offered us an additional private method of communication. It was because so many of our group had joined Myspace and some had even joined Facebook, that I had been fairly confident that they would be able to cope with the Ning online social network just as well.
Throughout that first day people continued arriving in dribs and drabs and although many expressed confusion, most people managed to set up their pages and start hesitantly chatting via their comment walls. This was the only level of discussion that was taking place at that time although a main forum and some groups for the housemates and Big Brother had already been created prior to opening. Member numbers were growing satisfactorily although quite a few people merely joined without posting and I was contentedly pottering around when I was made aware of the fact that the founding members of the private forum were unhappy with the way I had selectively invited some members and not others to join the new network and a rather unseemly war of words took place culminating with those who had joined the network being accused of merely being guinea pigs in my experiment.
Unfortunately, this had a marked effect on the group. Many members felt stung, disloyal and uncomfortable at being labelled ‘guinea pigs’. This was doubly ironic, because having played down the research aspect, the Hawthorne Effect of feeling special and valued was not able to counteract this discomfort at feeling used and experimented upon.
Sadly, I had seriously underestimated the strength of loyalty felt by group members towards the leaders and had made the fatal mistake of appearing to be attempting a ‘coup’ without ensuring that I had the total backing of the ‘rebel faction’ so to speak. I had tried to steer a middle course between breaking away totally and forming a splinter group and keeping both venues operating without all group members being completely in the picture. With hindsight, this was obviously a recipe for disaster. If I had been more selective with the recipients of the message and only sent it to known dissenters, this would have no doubt proved to be more successful. We would all have quietly left the forum leaving the founders with their own loyal supporters group and the subsequent ramifications would not have taken place.
Thus, after the first rather stressful weekend in the new network, I decided to take stock, have a look around and see who was left.
There was a definite undercurrent of confusion about the new surroundings, even amongst those members who were generally favourably disposed to the new group and the move away from the forum as the following snippets from the comment walls on various pages show:
During the first week I realised that although around forty people had joined the network in the initial tranche, six of those people were members of my own family who had joined at my behest (but would probably only be occasional posters) and at least eighteen others were known ‘legitimate peripheral participants’ in other communities. It was somewhat unreasonable to assume that they would all suddenly change their ‘modus operandi’ overnight and become prolific posters. Five members who had initially been active participants stopped posting completely after the drama of the opening weekend and I assumed that they had left and returned to the forum. Six more members ceased posting after a week or so, but did not return to the forum. Their current whereabouts are still something of a mystery but they are probably posting on myspace, facebook and other private forums. I have subsequently learned that several more private forums have been created by some of these members specifically to discuss the media activities of particulasr housemates and this probably accounts for the missing members.
Therefore, if the network was going to thrive, it needed an influx of technically able, less single-focus members, preferably a little younger than the BB group, to add some dynamism and youthful enthusiasm to the proceedings. I hoped that some ‘new blood’ would breathe more life into the place by creating groups, starting forum discussions and so on. I decided to utilise my social networking skills and reach out to my student friends on Facebook. This resulted in seven more members joining in early April. I suspect that the timing of my invitation was a little unfortunate, coming as it did in the middle of exam revision, dissertations and assignment completion, which is why this trawl did not yield better results. To the credit of those who did join however, they did make an effort in joining in and contributing as these further extracts from my comment wall illustrate:
Questionnaires were sent by email to each individual member on 15th April and out of 49 questionnaires sent out, 13 were returned. As this was only designed to provide a snapshot of members’ views and wasn’t intended to form the basis of a quantitative study, a series of fairly open questions were asked about members’ attitudes to the new social network…whether they had contributed and if so in what way..(commenting, discussing, adding media, customising their pages) what they liked, didn’t like, how it could be improved upon and so on. I thought that if enough responses were received it might prove possible to undertake some statistical analysis on the data, but in the event the response rate was so low and so uniform, that this exercise would have been statistically worthless. The 13 respondents were family, students and those few members who have remained ‘Key Contributors’ to the group. All of whom responded that they liked and enjoyed using the social network and had contributed in all the ways listed. No responses were received from any members who had ceased contributing or had only ever lurked. This was of course completely unsurprising, because most people are reluctant to offer negative feedback unless under the cover of anonymity and even then, it is often a struggle to elicit sufficient response as to render the data meaningful.
It is now fairly obvious that most of the Big Brother supporters have drifted away and are probably unlikely to return. I had originally assumed that because I knew that many of the BB group members posted in more than one place on a regular basis – Myspace, Facebook, several public and private forums to name but a few, they could add the new Ning network to the list without too much difficulty. I knew that a small sub-group of members wanted to leave both the private forum and them main public forum anyway, so expected that they might spend more time in the network and had also thought that if a reasonably large number of members all spent a small amount of time in the network each day, this would keep the activity levels up and would encourage further participation by others.
Several years’ worth of experience in forums and communities should really have told me that this desirable state of affairs is quite rare in all but the busiest and most popular communities and that most are kept afloat by the sterling efforts of a few committed members or Key Contributors. When even these few stalwarts give up the ghost and move away, the forum/network/community simply falls apart.
This is now what has happened with the Ning network created for the research project. Although new blood was brought in when the BB group decided that the network wasnt for them, a combination of factors resulted in these people also drifting off and the network has all but died at the present time.
See Part 1: The Community for details of the community and the background to the research project.
The aftermath of the project and lessons learned are discussed in Part 3: Aftermath and Conclusions.
1 Drennan, David. (1991) ‘Communication and Employee Motivation’, Personnel Management.
Update June 2014: A full list of all the posts in the original social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA