By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

A physical “meeting of the minds” took place at the School of Information Studies (iSchool) recently to assess how academics from far corners of the globe might work together to investigate and research virtual communities.

Faculty from various disciplines, universities, states, and countries gathered for an initial planning session to examine their interests and their ability to collaborate and conduct research regarding the measurement, evaluation, and management of online communities.

Included were 11 professionals from France, one from Spain and 10 from the United States (including Cornell University, New York University, Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Minnesota, American University, the University of Maryland and Syracuse University). Participating from SU’s Maxwell School was Assistant Professor Ines Mergel, while iSchool faculty included Michael Nilan; Derrick Cogburn; Kevin Crowston; doctoral fellow Gabriel Mugar; and spring semester visiting adjunct professor Nicholas Jullien, of the Institut Telecom Bretagne, France.

Organized by Crowston, the workshop was the first step in assessing whether the group might find ways to collaborate, locate funding to support the integration of the group, and determine the focus areas for various aspects of research. “Everyone has their own interest area but there also is a commonality. The first meeting of the group was designed to get people together to think of ways to have collaboration,” Crowston explained.  Jullien, who taught an online course in information policy during his visiting semester, echoed that perspective. He said that although the workshop was a first step, the group’s momentum to continue the exploration was apparent, even though the precise focus of research topics to be undertaken was not yet evident.

Attendees offered ideas about how they might proceed, and proposed an array of possible questions and topics that would be pertinent for study, including: 

•    Analyzing online communities from a social network point of view, using models, methods, metrics, algorithms, and software as tools;

•    Determining the specific conditions that lead to successful online knowledge communities;

•    Assessing what mix of social and technical infrastructure best supports the creation and support of globally distributed online communities;

•    Looking at whether motivation plays a role in creating an effective collaborative cyberlearning environment;

•    Examining the way rules and incentives provide solutions to manage communities and collective action;

•    Reviewing the relationship between online cooperation and geographical localization of contributors;

•    Looking at the development of metrics, theories, design frameworks, and data sets for systems of communities, networks of networks, and nested groups;

•    Assessing how commercial organizations will balance the innovative potential of open communities with the institutional imperative for control; and

•    Reviewing what role community values and behavioral norms play in shaping the outcomes of open online communities.

The group is moving ahead, having developed a budget proposal and an initial functional structure, and having identified potential sources of funding in both the United States and France, according to Crowston.