Thursday, April 13, 2006

Share and enjoy: online participation

What is it about online communities? The internet was spawned a plethora of community types - lists, forums, message boards, blogs, MMORPGs, open source software - in which individuals contribute their time and knowledge to help others in their community. Yet the stereotypical internet geek is a surly, uncommunicative individual with poor hygiene practices and no human friends. So how come we're such a social bunch?

These thoughts were prompted by an online questionnaire about online participation which was posted by an IS Masters student. If you're reading this then you ought to participate by taking his survey. That would be in the spirit of his thesis, which is about the relationship between social capital and knowledge sharing in virtual communities. That is, why people share in online communities when there's no reward.

First let's examine that assumption about no reward. For some people there is an indirect pecuniary reward for their online participation. I'm sure I wasn't the only person who was motivated to buy Tom Kyte's Expert One-on-One because of the AskTom site. Not just because the site acts as an advertisement for the quality of the book but because I felt beholden to Tom because I had got useful advice from the site. Jonathan Lewis says in his DBAZine podcast that his profile within the Oracle community (due to his activism with the UKOUG as well as his website) does help him get work as a contractor. Mark Rittman's blogging won him the Oracle Magazine ACE of the Year 2005 award, which has rewards (in kind). And I'm sure I'm not the only person who's been approached by headhunters because they've come across my spoor here or in the forums.

However, it is obvious that these rewards are trivial compared to the time we all in our various ways spend in the online communities (certainly compared to our hourly rates in the day job). Furthermore most people who contribute in the various forums, lists and blogs are not authors or ACEs. So why do we do it? Everybody's reasons will be different or at least differently prioritised but here are my reasons.

Firstly, my participation, in the forums and this blog, helps me organise my thoughts. Writing things down is a useful discipline. That's why I think people who dash off blog entries casually, as they would an e-mail, are missing a trick. It's one thing to be the first with a hot scoop, another thing to present an insight into some aspect of database programming or architecture in a way that's interesting and useful to others.

Secondly, presenting information in public is a good way to get our own misunderstandings corrected and our assumptions debunked. Ideally we do this ourselves by cobbling together a test case before posting . But if not someone else will point out our bloomers. Over the years I am getting better at not asserting things that I have not tested for myself but I still occasionally slip. And then the vultures swoop.

Thirdly, questions in the forums throw up problems from out of left field. Investigating those issues can teach us new techniques or fresh understandings in areas that our work has not yet taken to. This can make us more effective in our jobs. Or more likely it just appeals to our geeky need to know.

So far this is all about me. Well, it is a blog ;) But, what about the "community"? Doesn't that matter ? Of course it is important. To a large extent our existence as individuals is defined by our interactions with other people. Game Theory teaches us that in order to interact successfully we have to approach other with a presumption of trust people and a preparedness to give openly. In return we can expect gratitude and future co-operation. That's the only way any society can work. So perhaps we contribute to ensure there is a still an active community for when we need to ask for help, even if that means answering many more questions than we pose ourselves.

I think there's more to it than just the strictures of mutual grooming and the Prisoner's Dilemma. There is a warm sense of camaraderie among the regulars in any of these arenas. Interestingly this is often reinforced by communal activities in meatspace - drinking whisky around the old oak table, Oracle-L dinners during the Hotsos symposium, Oracle bloggers' dinners at various conferences.

Finally it's fair to say that online communities are not perfect. It's very easy to lose one's rag when interacting via e-mail. And - especially when the participants don't share a common first language - it's common for insults to be perceived when none was intended. We've had to invent new words to describe anti-social activity in cyberspace. Just recently a MMORPG called Roma Victor introduced virtual crucifixion to punish cheating players. And it is possible to overshare.

In conclusion ... Well, let's close the circle of online participation: start a blog and write your own conclusion!