Tag Archives: communication

Case Study: Moving to Web 2.0: Part 1: The Community

Update June 2010 :
This is Part 1 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).
Julia Ault

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…

When I was deciding upon a suitable topic for my dissertation, (extracts from which can be read in other posts on this blog) I decided that a rewarding area of research would be to investigate the social side of the web and to attempt to prove my theory that social communication online mirrors social communication offline and has done so from the very early days of online communities right up to the latest revolution in online social networks. That the internet has in effect come full circle with the new emphasis on people, user generated content and social communication but that online communities have remained the same, it is merely the platforms they operate in that have changed.

Online Communities may be defined as follows:

  • Communities of Purpose – members are trying to achieve a similar objective.
  • Communities of Circumstance – generally more personally focused.
  • Communities of Interest – united by a common theme or interest but whose members may know very little about each other outside this shared interest.
  • Communities of Users – beginning to be developed by some of the more innovative business networks to engage with their customers in a more informal, interactive way than had hitherto been the case.
  • Communities of Practice – perhaps the most well-known and researched in academic circles – these are communities of people who are engaged in the same profession, vocation or ‘practice’ – they facilitate professional exchanges which may also add value to offline networks.

The initial motivation for undertaking this particular project was the desire to move a splinter group of an existing online community of interest from a Web 1.0 forum to a newly created online social network. The decision to move to a social network on the new Web 2.0 platform rather than another Web 1.0 forum, was made because it was instinctively felt that the members of the current forum who were principally interested in the social science of observation and analysis of behavioural patterns, albeit through the 24/7 observation of the housemates in the television show Big Brother via the TV or Internet Live Feed, would also be interested in and embrace the enhanced social aspects of the Web 2.0 software. It was expected that change management issues would be of great significance at all stages of the move and it was decided that this would be a rewarding subject for in-depth study.

The Case Study.

The story ostensibly began in the summer of 2007 with the launch of the reality TV program Big Brother UK, but had its roots back in 2003 when I first joined a Big Brother forum on a large public website.

Initially, I contented myself with what has been described as ‘Legitimate Peripheral Participation’ (Lave and Wenger)1 which, in the world of online communities, is more colloquially termed ‘lurking’.

I watched the programs on the TV, subscribed to the 24/7 Internet Live Feed from the Big Brother House and read the threads in the forums where members discussed and analysed the housemates’ actions and behaviour. After a little while, I felt sufficiently confident and knowledgeable to begin to join in these discussions and moved from a ‘lurker’ to a ‘newbie’ – literally a new poster in the forums. Over the years, I increased my level of participation through every series of BB, until I had become something of an expert on the subject and had raised myself to the level of ‘practitioner’ in the community where I was able to help and guide other, newer members of the forums and became a ‘Key Contributor’.

The diagram below that was designed for the Lurker Project, illustrates the three types of people who may be found in an online community.

When I was not absorbed in Big Brother, I was developing a keen interest in the Internet and the web and set about increasing my knowledge by creating, designing and developing websites, whilst also becoming fairly proficient in the creation of web graphics. This interest in web graphics led me to open my own graphics website and I began to write tutorials and build up a large collection of resources on the subject. Gradually, the resources and the tutorials broadened their scope to include more general topics related to web development and the Internet in general. In this way, I became particularly fascinated by the new Web 2.0 social media that was beginning to make its appearance on the internet and had already begun to dabble in some of these areas by the summer of 2007 when Big Brother was launched.

Many members of the BB forums were absorbed by the turbulent relationship of two of the housemates in that season – and a number of us began posting regularly in the ‘XXXX’ thread throughout the summer and autumn as we continued to follow their media activities outside of the BB House. In the ‘post-XXXX’ era (after the relationship between the two housemates had ended acrimoniously with a ‘Kiss and Tell’ story in the Sunday newspapers), followers of the relationship split into two camps. This led to a war of words ensuing in the BB forums (dubbed the ‘XXXX Wars’) and in an attempt to restore harmony to the general BB forums, moderators eventually forcibly split the two groups into separate Appreciation Threads, where supporters could converse and share information. Those members who had supported both parties continued posting in the joint appreciation thread. Unfortunately however, this thread was continuously ‘invaded’ by supporters of each individual housemate and was eventually closed.

The small nucleus of remaining ‘XXXX’ supporters thus found themselves metaphorically ‘homeless’ and I started a new ‘refugee’ thread in a general forum to allow us to chat quietly amongst ourselves, away from the warring factions. After a short time though, we were ‘discovered’ and the previous discordant atmosphere was replicated in the ‘refugee’ thread. The moderators had no choice but to close this thread as well and we were advised against creating any more similar threads for obvious reasons.

At this point one of our group members contacted us all via private message to tell us that a new private forum away from the public website had been created for us to use. Membership of the forum was by invitation only and this was to be limited to our small ‘XXXX’ refugee group.

However, it very quickly became apparent that invitations were being passed on to virtually everyone who had ever posted in the Big Brother forums about either housemate.
Naturally, this soon resulted in the disharmony that had been such a problem in the BB forums being transferred to the new private forum. There were some major differences however, because the public forums are very heavily and anonymously moderated with miscreants being summarily banned from the forums, either temporarily or permanently.

The new private forum consisted of several different boards catering for a variety of entertainment interests as well as just ‘XXXX’. Individual boards for both halves of ‘XXXX’ were created to ensure that members would not squabble amongst themselves as had been the case in the public BB forum. Unfortunately, the ‘one size fits all’ mentality of only posting in one single ‘on-topic’ thread on one board that the group had become accustomed to on the public BB forum remained ingrained into the psyche of most members of the new forum and they all clustered into the one joint thread and refused to move out.

The idea of posting in the one thread would have been perfectly fine if membership had been restricted as originally envisaged. The fact that a more diverse group of people had joined caused problems from the outset. I likened it at the time to a large family wedding when a number of family members who do not really get on with each other are herded together into a crowded room and forced to co-exist. One is fortunate if several fights have not broken out by the end of the evening!

Anarchy was threatening to take over due to this ‘family wedding’ atmosphere, so I offered to help out. I had operated several similar forums on my own websites in the past and thought that I could easily take some of the pressure off by running the administration control panel and undertaking some moderating duties in the forum. What I failed to realise and this only became clear to me much later on, was that my general approach to the group as a whole was completely at odds with that of the founding members and that my offer of assistance was only accepted out of desperation. With the benefit of hindsight, my intervention, far from being the cavalry turning up to save the day as I had rather naively and optimistically hoped, merely placed a sticking plaster on a deep wound that actually required major surgery to allow the healing process to take place.

The group that formed over the shared bonding experience of following the fortunes of ‘XXXX’ was a somewhat idiosyncratic, extremely diverse collection of people although the majority of members were females between the ages of 35 and 65. Many of these people were highly opinionated and became incredibly passionate in their devotion to and defence of one or other of these housemates. Perhaps because two of the housemates remained in the public eye for longer than is normally the case, the supporters group also stayed together longer, and deeper friendships were formed.

This goes some way to explain why so many of us moved across to this forum and why so many of the members continued to squabble and attempt to settle old scores when they got there. They had been restricted from doing so in the public BB forum under the threat of a lifetime posting ban – the management style there was very authoritarian, with members being treated in a similar manner as employees on a production line having no say whatsoever in the process. Threads were summarily closed, posts removed and entire chunks of conversation deleted if they became contentious. Forum moderation is anonymous and autocratic with little or no right of appeal.

On reflection, I can now see that most people moved to the new forum with a sense of release and a feeling that they would be afforded ‘freedom of expression’ as one member succinctly put it, without the draconian moderation of the public forums. They did not want to be moderated, organised and controlled and revelled in the new freedoms. However, with freedom comes responsibility and I think it was widely expected that people would use these new freedoms sensibly and responsibly, without any real need for management or supervision. Unfortunately, some members took full advantage of this relaxed atmosphere and this was when anarchy began to take over. I set about attempting to impose some rules and regulations and this had the sticking plaster effect as described above, for a short time.

Meanwhile, some people continued to flout the terms and conditions on other public forums to the point where they were banned for life from posting in public forums. A few members got round this by creating new online personas, but others did not and were forced to decamp permanently to the new private forum.

One fascinating fact about online personas is that they are often (but not always) quite different from the person’s real offline personality. It has been observed that extrovert personality types are less comfortable in an online persona than introverts, perhaps because they need to be seen and heard and are used to being the centre of attention. Introverts by contrast, find it easier to hide behind a computer screen and develop a much more aggressive, lively or passionate persona online than the one that they exhibit in the real world. I can only conclude that this must be the case with some members of the XXXX group, because if they exhibited the same aggression and combativeness offline as they did online, they would all either be high-powered CEOs running multi-national companies or part of a criminal underworld! The fact that most have ordinary jobs and families and are probably nice, mild-mannered folk generally, lends a certain credence to the above argument about on and offline personas.

As the atmosphere in the forum worsened, my role amounted to little more than a daily routine of fire-fighting with no back-up. Finally, things became so bad that I decided that it was ridiculous to spend all my free time doing something that was supposed to be enjoyable, but had become unpleasant and was making me unhappy. It slowly dawned on me that I was being over-worked, under-valued and used for my technical ability, but that I was not really wanted in the role I was performing. I knew then that it was time for me to leave, but had got so used to spending all my time with some people that I had grown quite fond of, that I wondered if there was some way that this friendship could be continued in surroundings that were more conducive to fun and enjoyment.

This is when I had the idea that I might be able to combine leisure and research in the form of a new online social network.

See also Part 2: The Online Social Network for details of the move and Part 3: Aftermath and Conclusions.

1 Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Update June 2010: A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA

Applying Change Management Techniques Online

Update June 2010:
This post was part of a research project into social media and online communication that I undertook in 2008 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).
Julia Ault

A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA

This is an article that was featured as a guest post on SheGeeks as part of the She Geeks in Tech Week in June 2008.

A recent case study that I undertook as part of my social media research project, provided evidence to back up the suggestion that resistance to change is by no means confined to employees within business organisations. Although much of the literature related to change and the successful management thereof, is primarily focused upon organisational change, many of the lessons and implications can be equally well applied to changes in all aspects of life including that of online communication.

The case study examined in detail the issues faced by members of an online community when attempting to move from Web 1.0 forums where they were comfortable and were used to posting in one single forum thread, to a Web 2.0 online social network offering a much wider range of facilities, but also what appeared to many members to be a bewildering array of choices that they found confusing and threatening.

Because change can be rewarding for some people and an unpleasant experience for others, perceptions can differ greatly, depending on your standpoint. Those who propose change not unnaturally tend to view it in positive terms, but in most cases these are people leading a group, community or organisation who are likely to either remain relatively untouched by the change or to actually benefit from it. Those lower down often see matters in a different light, particularly if they think that those who advocate the change will not be affected. For these reasons there is a widespread assumption that resistance to change is inevitable, and this has led to a strong interest in studying this phenomenon in the change process.

In the case study, the proposer of the change thought that the extra features available in online networks would considerably enhance the community and therefore viewed the change as a predominantly positive and exciting experience. Unfortunately, the members who had not been sufficiently prepared for the degree of change that they were about to undertake did not share this sense of excitement and were more inclined to dwell upon the negative aspects.

The Management Theorists, Kotter and Schlesinger (1979), quantified four generic reasons why individuals resist change:

Parochial self-interest: People have often invested a great deal of time, energy and commitment into a project and this is a ’sunk cost’ that cannot be recovered unless things stay the same. This creates a force for maintaining the status quo and engenders a degree of resistance. Members of the group in the study had already registered with two online forums, had become conversant with the software and were stuck in a fairly comfortable rut.

Misunderstandings and Lack of Trust: The less a person knows about the reasons for change and how it will impact upon them, the more likely it is that they will resist the change and if there is an inherent suspicion about the proposer of change and their motivation, this will result in selective perceptions about the proposal. Some members were wholeheartedly behind the move away from the old forum and were more likely to try to get to grips with the new platform but others who saw less need to move found the new surroundings irritatingly complicated.

Contradictory Assessments of The Change: People differ in their personal assessments of the costs and benefits of a change. The proposer tends to see only the positive outcomes and often forgets that what they perceive to be a benefit, others may see as a threat. If this happens, evidence suggests that there will continue to be resistance to changes long after their initial implementation.

Low Tolerance to Change: There are often wide variations in the capacity of people to absorb change. To some extent this depends on their ability to tolerate ambiguity and to those persons with a low tolerance, changes with unknown consequences can be highly threatening.

It is so widely assumed that resistance is inevitable that successfully overcoming resistance to change is taken as being an outcome in itself. However, because resistance can occur for such a wide range of reasons, it is doubtful if there is a single method that can deal with them all. Thus, a contingency approach, in which the method used is centred on the reason for resistance, is likely to be more appropriate.

This is addressed by Kotter et al. (1986) who set out seven ways of overcoming resistance. These can be used singly or in combination and Kotter et al. stress the need to choose a tactic that is most appropriate to the circumstances. Their advice on this matter, together with the strengths and weaknesses of the tactics, is summarised in the graphic below:

The most immediately obvious method to employ in an online situation would appear to be that of education and communication. It is of crucial importance to educate members of the original community about the positive benefits that will ensue from the change.

People generally fear what they do not understand and this is nowhere more apparent than in resistance to new technology. During the 1990s, many older employees strenuously resisted the introduction of computers into the workplace because they were not familiar with them, did not understand them and did not consider themselves to be sufficiently technically knowledgeable to be able to operate them. Gradually, over time and with sufficient employee training sessions, they came to be accepted as the norm and it is now extremely rare, if not impossible, to find a workplace that doesn’t use computers in some form or another.

As has been discussed in previous articles on this blog, people became quite comfortable using the web for shopping and socialising in places such as MSN Communities, Yahoo Groups and various online forums. MSN and Yahoo allowed a degree of autonomy to the community owner to create custom pages, change some colours and so on, but very little freedom was afforded to the ordinary member/user.

Large public forums (such as those provided on the Digital Spy website in the UK for example), were constrained by high hosting and bandwidth costs, so users were not allowed any personalising at all and simply joined and posted messages. Some people branched out and hosted their own private forums which enabled them to be more creative by installing themes and allowing users to display avatars and perhaps upload images. Again, hosting and bandwidth costs were always a factor for the webmaster to consider and the ordinary member was still quite restrained in what they could do on these forums and websites.

Therefore, the vast majority of forum and community users in the Web 1.0 era were not given many opportunities to express themselves creatively, but equally, not much was expected of them either. Once one had mastered the rudiments of joining and posting in a forum or community there was nothing more to learn and no major changes took place for some time allowing these users to settle into a comfortable, if fairly boring routine. At the same time, webmasters became used to managing their own websites with no user input and enjoyed total autonomy over their small patch of the web.

Suddenly, along came Web 2.0 with all this talk of ‘user generated content’, ‘taking back control of the web’ and ‘online social networking’.

Kanter et al. identified three different roles in the change process – change strategists or initiators who initiate and set the direction of change, change implementers who are responsible for the co-ordination and implementation of the change and change recipients who are strongly affected by the change and its implementation.

The Web 2.0 evangelists and creators of the social software are change strategists who are striding forth enthusiastically, embracing the new media and getting involved in all aspects – blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, social networks, Twitter, Friendfeed and so on. These are the early adopters who are always in the vanguard of anything new, because such people embrace change, seeing it as a challenge and an opportunity.

Change implementers are people rather like myself perhaps, who, whilst not totally at the forefront of change and could not be classified as pioneers in that sense, are always on the lookout for something new and stimulating to try out and are keen to encourage others to come along and experiment with them. This usually involves some form of evangelism and persuasion and a degree of organisation during the implementation phase.

The majority of web users however, fall into the third category of change recipients and the measure of how successful change is for them is highly dependant on the skills and abilities of the change implementers.

Returning to Kotter et al’s tactics for dealing with change; participation is another measure that may be used successfully to facilitate the change to Web 2.0. If change implementers can involve the recipients in the change process – in effect getting them to take ‘ownership of the changes’, this will considerably reduce dissatisfaction and resentment at having to make the changes at all and allow for more enthusiasm and excitement to surface. Facilitation and support tend to go hand in hand with this approach because the change implementers are also guiding and helping the users along the way.

The social web is not an employer and thus more stringent tactics are not really appropriate because if all other efforts fail, such persons must simply be left behind on the Web 1.0 platforms.

One other area that doesn’t necessarily always apply in an organisational setting, but most certainly does in the context of the social web, is that of freedom and choice.
As explained above, most of the Web 1.0 platforms offered little of either which although restrictive, can also afford security and a type of ‘comfort zone’. The Web 2.0 social media abounds with freedom and choice for the user and this can initially be somewhat bewildering and even disconcerting.

Users don’t always know what to do with such a choice of rich media and will either run towards it and begin filling their pages with every last bit of media content imaginable because no one is stopping them, or run away in fear back to the security of the plain old forums that they know and understand. It is at this point that facilitators and enablers are needed to give some guidance on the new media and how to use it sensibly and get the best out of it.

Perhaps unfortunately in terms of style and good taste, because the social networks are still so very new in real terms, many users are still in the ‘child in a sweetshop’ phase and have discovered the large networks like myspace which afford them the opportunity to express their creativity in a very loud and discordant way with large graphics, flashing images, music, videos and much else besides all jostling for space on one very crowded page. Nonetheless, at least such users have successfully made the change from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 and no doubt good taste will eventually return, once the novelty has worn off.

Kurt Lewin developed both a method of analysis of whether change is appropriate and a method of handling change if it is decided that it is.

Force field analysis is a simple tool for measuring driving forces for change and restraining forces against change with equilibrium being the stable state in the middle. Equilibrium may be destabilised:
• by increasing the strength of the forces pushing for change;
• by reducing the strength of the restraining forces;
• by changing the direction of a force so that a restraint becomes a push factor.

If it is felt that change is desirable, then a three step process would be initiated.

Unfreeze: The aim here is to establish a motive for change which is done by destabilising the status quo and freeing up attitudes to change. The advantages of the new system (social networks) are extolled at the same time as the disadvantages of the current system (forums) are emphasised.

Move: The change from the old ways (Web 1.0) to the new (Web 2.0) takes place.

Refreeze: The new behaviour is consolidated or refrozen as the new norm, thus discouraging regression to the old methods. Peer pressure can be a very powerful method of reinforcement, so that if most of the members of the old group have settled into the new surroundings quite happily, the more recalcitrant members will then do the same, albeit more slowly and reluctantly. The tricky part is trying to prevent the group leaders from regressing (going back to the old forums) because the others are very likely to follow out of a sense of loyalty or solidarity.

I will be discussing the case study in future articles and will endeavour to pinpoint those areas where the work of the afore-mentioned theorists could have been more effectively applied and that if changes are managed well, the outcomes in terms of user participation and retention are likely to be more successful.

Update 2010: A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA

Which Online Social Network?

Update June 2010:
This post was part of a research project into social media and online communication that I undertook in 2008 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).
Julia Ault

A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA

An online social network or social networking site, as they are sometimes called, is the Web 2.0 version of the “virtual community,” a group of people who use the Internet to communicate with each other about anything and everything.

Such networks require users to join and become members before participating in the community. Members can communicate with each other by way of comment walls, forum postings, chat, instant messaging, bulletins and blogs, and these services usually provide a way for members to contact friends of other members.

Facebook and Myspace are the big names in online social networking but other, smaller social networking sites are now beginning to make an appearance.

This is a very new area of social media – even in web terms – Facebook was initially created in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg to enable students in Harvard University to connect with each other online. The term ‘Facebook’ incidentally, although initially unfamiliar to British ears, refers to the book of ‘faces’ (photos) of all members of a campus community given out by some American colleges and schools to enable new students to instantly recognise college staff.

This was expanded to include all student networks by the end of 2005 and finally it was opened to all in 2006.
It remains very popular among university and college networks and offers a simple method of almost internal communication between students themselves, their lecturers and student unions. Each educational establishment has its own network which only registered students and staff are permitted to join. Privacy options may be set so that this is kept very private or may be open to all.

All non-student users are required to join one geographical network only. This is generally the area in which one resides, allowing for social and business networking within a local area. Students may join their local geographical network as well as their education network. Users are encouraged to make contact with and become ‘friends’ of, other users in any network however, thus facilitating both local, national and international communication.

Facebook has the standard set of features of a modern social network; comment walls, videos, photos, friends, RSS activity feed, interest groups and so on, but also allows third party developers to create their own ‘apps’ or applications which integrate within the Facebook API (application programming interface). This is another example of user generated content, albeit of a more technical nature than most. These applications were originally rather facile and tended to merely offer amusement value to bored students, but they are now maturing into quite useful sophisticated additions to one’s profile and of course, the fun content is still widely available.

Additionally, developers are now creating applications (sometimes known as widgets or gadgets) to integrate other social media within Facebook and begin the process of meshing all one’s social media outlets together in a similar way to that discussed in my post Exploring Social Media – Facebook is included in the social aggregation graphic in that article for that very reason.
As noted at the end of an earlier article, Evolution to the Web, Myspace, Google and Yahoo are all now collaborating in the OpenSocial project to create similar third party applications which may be integrated into a wide range of social network sites, and Facebook is now getting in on the act with its own Facebook Open Platform.

Myspace was started in 2003 by a group of eUniverse employees who wanted to compete with the first social networking site (Friendster) launched in 2002. eUniverse was renamed Intermix Media and became the parent company of Myspace. Intermix Media was an internet marketing company which used its own employees and resources to set up Myspace and its 20 million users and email subscribers to attract users. Intermix Media (including Myspace) was sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in 2005 for $580m, to become a part of Fox Interactive Media, which also owns Photobucket, (online image storage and hosting).

Friendster is still functioning as a social network but, due to a catalogue of business and management difficulties has fallen to 13th place in the list of social networks in the US and has a market share of just 0.3 percent.

Myspace feels much more commercial in tone and nature than Facebook, perhaps due to its more business-like origins and uses fairly obtrusive advertising on all its pages as its main revenue stream. This has not deterred the majority of its 110 million users from becoming enthusiastic participants in the site however.
In fact the majority of users have taken their cue from the very busy and lively tone of the myspace home pages and have delighted in filling their own pages with as many videos, slideshows and glittery animated graphics as possible.
The sheer size of such graphics has often resulted in bandwidth problems with ‘technical error pages’ occurring at certain busy times of day, but to date Myspace has not set any limits to the amount of content a user may add to their pages, in order to counteract this issue.

Myspace promotes itself as being a ‘place for friends’ and asserts that ‘myspace is for everyone’. Users have their own myspace page to which they can add music, videos, images, themes and more recently, third party applications similar to Facebook. Myspace contacts are also Friends but do not belong to networks in the way that Facebook users do.
Myspace users can join groups and forums, send private messages, write comments, blogs and bulletins and use MyspaceIM, (Myspace Instant Messenger) Chat Rooms, Myspace Mobile and text to keep in touch with friends.
Additionally, there is a large and growing entertainment section comprising music, TV, films, showbiz and games to occupy and entertain users.

Due to its extreme popularity and high profile amongst young people in particular, many up and coming bands and embryonic celebrities are using myspace as a form of free advertising and publicity to very good effect. Users enjoy having the opportunity to befriend and send messages to well-known and famous people, knowing that their comments could appear on the celebrity’s pages and that they might even receive a personal message in response. Bands can send out bulletins detailing latest tour dates and upload selected music tracks that users can add to their own pages thus offering the chance to sample new releases prior to purchase or download.

Interestingly, one can note the rise in popularity of social networking sites by looking at the Alexa.com Top Global 500 Websites list – ranked by website traffic or visits. Yahoo, Google and Youtube are the top three respectively, whilst Myspace is now the 6th ranking website with Facebook and Blogger coming in at a very respectable 7th and 8th position.

Blogger.com is presumably the most visited blogging site due to an obvious name and ease of use for newcomers to blogging. Live Journal by contrast, although still fairly popular (ranked in 56th position) is considerably more complicated to learn and although much loved by its regular users is not recommended for those new to the web. The theme of ease of use and relative popularity of the new social media sites will be explored in greater detail in forthcoming articles.

There are other social networking sites of course, but a trawl through the entire Alexa Global 500 reveals very few with such reach and popularity.

Whilst researching for these articles, several targeted networks were identified and examined, including:

TBD.com (To Be Determined) is an American-based network for persons aged 40+, (traffic rank on Alexa of 81,185 on 5th May 2008). It was noted that the policy of the network’s founder was to lightly moderate and allow discussions on all topics…religion and politics seemed to be topics that occasioned a certain amount of volatility and caused some of the more sensitive members to feel bullied and just quietly leave. It is perhaps understandable that such topics are often considered taboo on other general networks and communities where there are likely to be members with a range of different views and opinions.

At the other end of the scale there are ‘teen networks’ such as Bebo.com (traffic rank on Alexa of 108 on 5th May 2008). (popular with British schoolchildren) and Tagged.com (traffic rank on Alexa of 236 on 5th May 2008). (whose members now seem to have a broader age range than was perhaps envisaged at its start-up in 2006). This may be due to the fact that at this time, corporate buyers and venture capitalists were keen to invest money in any online social project that would be likely to attract the elusive, (but potentially highly profitable to advertisers) demographic of the under-25s. Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of Myspace, which is very popular with this age group, appeared to precipitate this trend.

MOLI.com promotes itself as a ‘next generation’ social networking site that offers members the chance to manage multiple profiles under one account. The proposed advantage of this is to be able to keep one’s business, social and family contacts separate, but easily accessible in one portal. The network is open to adults over the age of 18 only (although there is a MOLI Kids spin-off for children aged 5 and over, aimed at creating “Kidpreneurs’’ – teaching children about business in a fun and relevant way) and the specific market segment they are targeting is ‘enterprising individuals and small businesses’. Along with all the usual Web 2.0 social network features as detailed above, users have the opportunity to add ecommerce facilities for £2 per month. At present this is still a rather embryonic network, (ranked at 26,851 on Alexa on 5th May 2008), but as with all new enterprises, it could become the next myspace or disappear into oblivion.

The online social network that was chosen for a case study on social online change management – which will be discussed in future articles – is Ning.com, (ranked at 566 on Alexa on 5th May 2008).

Ning is one of the newer networks – opened to all in February 2007 after a lengthy period of testing from 2006 – but has impeccable web credentials. The company CEO and founder is Marc Andreessen – discussed in earlier articles as the creator of the Mosaic and Netscape browsers and whose blog is linked on my blogroll.

Ning has been in the tech news recently after raising $60m net on a $500 million pre-money valuation.

This has brought some criticism from various commentators and has occasioned an interesting debate about the probable ‘over-valuation’, longevity and sustainability of many of the newer social media sites and whether a second ‘dot com’ bubble is likely to burst in the near future.

Ning CEO Marc Andreessen was interviewed by the magazine Fast Company for the May 2008 issue and explained that the growth rate of Ning is based on a ‘viral expansion loop’ which is apparently what is used in all the social networking sites and may explain the phenomenal explosion of members in some of the most popular networks. The following image illustrates graphically what is meant by this concept. It is basically that of friends inviting their friends who invite their friends who invite their friends….and on and on it goes.

In the case of the Ning diagram, in some networks most members are invited by the creator (the one in the case study falls into this category). When users subsequently invite new members to join, new clusters are formed in the viral chain. Each white dot represents one user in a single network. Each starburst represents the extent and pattern of that user’s invitations to new users across all networks throughout Ning. This viral effect means that each member is equal to two new users compounded daily. In this way Ning has grown from 60,000 networks in June 2007 to 130,000 networks in May 2008, and this growth rate continues apace.

Ning operates in a slightly different manner from Facebook and Myspace in that the Ning Network itself provides the infrastructure or framework for a multitude of self-contained, individual social networks – ‘nets’ as they are rather affectionately called by Ning themselves – to be created within this framework. Each individual net has its own identity, members, groups, forums, photo albums and so on, which are quite separate from any other ‘nets’ hosted on the Ning Network. Initially an individual net or community is joined by providing a username and password and creating a ‘login’. This login also serves as a ‘Ning ID’ which can then be used to join any number of other individual communities as desired. Ning also operates the ‘Friends’ system and this is where it converges with other social networks in that Friends are held by the Ning ID and can be friends across all Ning ‘nets’.

A side-note about the online ID system is that a new OpenID is now being promoted by a number of providers in which a single secure ’sign-in’ allows access to a wide range of different social media, thus increasing security and convenience for users for whom creating and remembering multiple logins is becoming an increasing nuisance. Already, OpenID has been adopted by over 10,000 websites and this figure is increasing all the time.

An earlier example of such an ID is that of an MSN passport which could be used to sign up for a number of different MSN communities which were very similar in tone and nature to that of Ning networks, but without the ‘Friends’ aspect, which does seem to be a very ‘web 2.0’ concept. The only real difference is that the technology has moved on, but the fundamental principle of belonging to a community, whether of ‘interest’ or of ‘practice’ remains the same.

Thus far, this series of articles has focussed on the changing technologies that have enabled people to communicate with others electronically, irrespective of geographical location. However, online communication isn’t just about the media used, of course.

In fact – particularly in this latest era when the focus is very much upon ‘social media’ and ‘user generated content’ – it is more about the people who are actually using these technologies than ever before and what is sometimes forgotten, is the fact that not everyone embraces change with as much enthusiasm as the ‘early adopters’ those ‘technologically able’ users who are often referred to as the ‘movers and shakers’ on the web. Maybe one or two of you are actually reading this article now!

This area particularly interests me personally and will be specifically addressed in future articles when change management as it relates to the online environment is explored in the case study referred to above.

Update June 2010: A full list of all the posts in the social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA