Designing Online Communities from Theory

Mira Dontcheva   Robert E. Kraut, Carnegie Mellon University


Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University May 29, 2009

Online communities are the fastest-growing portion of the Internet and provide members with information, social support, and entertainment. While a minority, such as Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook and the Apache Server project are highly successful, many others fail. To be successful, online communities must overcome challenges common in almost all groups, organizations and voluntary associations. They must handle the start-up paradox, when early in their lifecycle they have few members to generate content and little content to attract members. Throughout their lifecycle, they must recruit and socialize newcomers, encourage commitment and contribution from members, solve problems of coordination and encourage appropriate behavior among members and interlopers alike.

The social sciences can tell us a lot about how to create thriving online communities. Social science theories can inform choices about how to get a community started, integrate newcomers, encourage commitment, regulate behavior when there are conflicts, motivate contributions, and coordinate those contributions to maximize benefits for the community.

This talk focuses on ways to build members’ commitment to online communities, based on theories of social identity and interpersonal bonds. It provides an overview of the relevant theory, describes results of a 6-month field experiment in which an existing site was redesigned based on principles derived from social identity and interpersonal-bond theories, and describes the results of an agent-based model that examines how different approaches to moderating the content in a group influence social identity and interpersonal bonds. Finally, it illustrates a number of design claims that translate the abstract principles from the social sciences into concrete design choices.


Robert Kraut is Herbert A. Simon Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University. Dr. Kraut has broad interests in the design and social impact of computing and conducts research on everyday use of the Internet, technology and conversation, collaboration in small work groups, computing in organizations and contributions to online communities. His most recent work examines factors influencing the success of online communities and ways to apply psychology theory to their design. He received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Yale University in 1973 and has previously taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University. He was a research scientist at AT&T Bell Laboratories and Bell Communications Research for twelve years. More information is available at

View this talk on line at CS547 on Stanford OnLine or using this video link.

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