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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication


Volume 9 Numbers 2, 3, 4 1999

Electronic Discussion Groups

FROM COMMUNITY TO COMMUNITY-INGS:
MAKING SENSE OF ELECTRONIC DISCUSSION GROUPS

David J. Schaefer
Franciscan University of Steubenville
Steubenville, Ohio USA
dschaefer@franuniv.edu

Abstract. In the final years of the twentieth century, a steady chorus of voices has argued that digital networks should be employed to build communities characterized by free and equal participation.  However, a survey of computer-mediated communication (CMC) and group decision support (GDS) research suggests that many theorists perpetuate transmissional/linear-flow or ritual/cultural conceptualizations of communication that may hinder theorizing about the process of online communication leading to community-building. In this paper, I argue that a more useful framework is offered by Dervin and colleague's Sense-Making Methodology, which suggests procedural techniques that can be used to mine rich data relating to user experiences within electronic discussion groups (EDGs). I first explore the relationship of community and online communication, then critique current approaches utilized in computer mediated communication (CMC) research, offering as exemplar an analysis of three online discussion groups based upon Sense-Making Methodology.

 

Introduction

In the final years of the twentieth century, the growth in popularity of computer networking has been widely recognized. In the U.S., forty percent of households now own personal computers, while at least fifteen percent subscribe to an online service (Searcher, 1997). The number of Internet users worldwide has expanded to more than thirty million and shows no sign of leveling off until well into the twenty-first century (Atwood & Parker, 1997; Kantor & Neubarth, 1996). In the past few years, telephone companies have had to meet shortages in the number of available telephone lines for modems by rapidly activating new area codes (Siskos, 1997). Further, Schuler (1996) points out that international Internet growth is occurring at almost twice the rate of that in the U.S. Simultaneously, by most accounts, corporate intranet growth has skyrocketed: a survey in 1997 found that at least fifty percent of corporations planned to install company-wide networks by the end of that year (Cyberatlas, 1997). In 1999, these businesses are now rushing to place corporate web sites online so that they can "cash in" on the newly emerging global digital marketplace. [1]

In the midst of these activities, a steady chorus of voices has continued to argue that digital networks should be employed to build communities characterized by free and equal participation. For example, Hiltz and Turoff (1993) assert that computerized conferencing systems "offer major opportunities to disadvantaged groups in the society to acquire the skills and social ties they need to become full members of the society" (p. XXV). However, despite rhetoric promoting the emancipatory potential of digital networks, a survey of current computer-mediated communication (CMC) and group decision support system (GDSS) research suggests that many theorists perpetuate transmissional/linear-flow or ritual/cultural conceptualizations of communication that may hinder theorizing about the process of online communication leading to community-building. In this paper, I argue that a more useful framework is offered by Dervin (1983, 1994, in press) and colleagues' Sense-Making Methodology, which suggests procedural techniques that can be used to mine rich data relating to user experiences within electronic discussion groups (EDGs). In the sections that follow, I first explore the relationship of community and online communication, then critique current approaches utilized in computer mediated communication (CMC) research, offering as exemplar an analysis of three online discussion groups based upon Sense-Making Methodology.

Electronic Discussion Groups (EDGs) and Online Communities

Computer-mediated communication (CMC) -- broadly defined as the use of networked computers, in synchronous or asynchronous fashion, to send and receive text, audio, and/or video messages -- was originally developed in the late 1960s. Early software packages utilized text interfaces that allowed users to type and send interactive messages, usually at quite slow baud rates; newer systems added videoconferencing and whiteboarding capabilities (Haskin, 1997). The most popular forms of computer mediated communication (CMC) to emerge were e-mail, newsgroups, and synchronous chat. Early systems included Turoff's Emergency Management Information System and Reference Index [EMISARI], EIES, and Engelbart's oNLineSystem [NLS]). By the late 1970s/early 1980s, other systems emerged, including PLANET/FORUM, CONFER, ORACLE, CONCLAVE, BITNet, and a plethora of commercial offerings: the Source (later CompuServe), GEnie, the Whole Earth 'Lectric Link (WELL), and America OnLine (AOL) . Perhaps the most popular was the Usenet newsgroup system -- developed in 1977 by programmers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina -- which enabled users to read and post messages in an "electronic bulletin board" (for historical accounts of these developments, see Hiltz & Turoff, 1993; Rheingold, 1993; Rice, 1980).

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, grass roots political organizations began to form discussion forums, spearheaded in part by the National Public Telecommunication Network (NPTN). These systems included the Santa Monica PEN (public electronic network), the Cleveland and Columbus FreeNets, the Seattle Community Network, and the Blacksburg, Virginia Electronic Network (BEN). Prominent international forums included GreenNet, NordNet, GlasNet, ComLink, GhastiNet, EcoNet, PeaceNet, ConflictNet, LaborNet, and WomenNet, among others (see Beamish, 1995; Dutton & Guthrie, 1991; Frederick, 1993; Grossman, 1995; ICG, 1997; O'Sullivan, 1995; Rheingold, 1993; and Schuler, 1996).

The notion that electronic discussion groups, EDGs, fostered online -- or virtual -- communities circulated early in the development of computer networking. Jones (1995b) quotes networking pioneers Licklider and Taylor, who, in 1968, argued that online communities would be "not of common location, but of common interest," adding that "life will be happier for the on-line [sic] individual" (p. 23). Likewise, in 1978, Hiltz and Turoff (republished in 1993) speculated that

[w]e will become the Network Nation, exchanging vast amounts of both information and social-emotional communications with colleagues, friends, and "strangers" who share similar interests, who are spread out all over the nation [emphasis added] . . . . Thus in place of thinking of a nation or a society as a collection of communities, we need to think of it as a complex set of overlapping networks of actual or potential communication and exchange . . . . (p. xxiv)

According to Williams (1976), philosophers and social scientists have long used the term community to characterize social interactions. He notes that scholars traditionally have advanced at least five different meanings for the term: a) the common people, b) a society or state, c) the members of a specific district, d) the "quality of holding something in common," and e) the "common identity and characteristics" of a group (p. 65). Further, many scholars agree that nineteenth century German sociologist Ferdinand Toennies's classic distinction between gemeinschaft/community (shared geography or interests) and gesellschaft/society (contractual relations between citizens and their nation-state) has had an important impact on current uses of the term (Fernback & Thompson, 1995, Walls, 1993; Williams, 1976).

One common research finding is that computer-mediated communication (CMC) users experience a gemeinshaft-like "sense of community" through their online participation. Phillips (1983) and Mabrito (1992) both note that users often perceived themselves as "part of a community." Likewise, in her study of PeaceNet participants, Wilkins (1991) observed that users' feelings of friendship often blossomed into a "sense of community." Baym (1995) argues that user appropriation of computer mediated communication (CMC) resources results in "emergent communities." Perhaps the most the prominent is Howard Rheingold's assertion that electronic discussion groups (EDGs) create "virtual communities . . . social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on . . . public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace" (p. 5). Harasim (1993), Jones (1995b; 1997), and Sudweeks, McLaughlin, and Rafaeli (1998) suggest that the pervasiveness of the "sense of community" in computer mediated communication (CMC) -- genuine or otherwise -- reinforces its significance as a phenomenon of study.

Given the "community focus" (Davis & Brewer, 1997, p. 63) in computer mediated communication (CMC) research, the question remains: where ought researchers look in order to identify community-building processes within online discussion groups? Dervin and Clark (1993) suggest an initial focus on micro-level communicative practices since social structures only exist via the engine of human action:

A social structure that is not reenergized with acts of communicating dies; it simply does not exist. Structures are maintained, reified, rigidified, and changed through acts of communicating. (p. 111)

Indeed, Fernback and Thompson (1995) point out that "without communication there can be no action to organize social relations" (p. 1). Baym (1995) argues that "communicative practice . . . is pivotal to this process of creating community. Social realities are created through interaction as participants draw on language and the resources available to make messages that serve their purposes" (p. 161). Thus as Dewey (1911/1993) wrote almost a century ago, it is "no accident that the terms communication and community lie so near together" (p. 13).

While acknowledging the importance of communication practice in the creation of online communities, many researchers borrow from theory that emphasizes what Dervin and Clark (1993) call the "nouns of communication" rather than the "verbs of communicating." The tendency among scholars is to see computer mediated communication (CMC) as either a process of message transmission or a site for emerging social/cultural formations. For example, Jones (1995a) suggests that the problem with many computer mediated communication (CMC) studies is that they -- quoting Carey -- emphasize communication as "message transmission" rather than "'ritual . . . the sacred ceremony that draws persons together in fellowship and commonality'" (p. 12). However, Dervin and Clark (1993) argue that both the "transmission" and "cultural" streams of communication studies "end up studying communication without studying communicating . . ." (p. 105): both

have ignored the daily struggling step-takings -- sometimes arduous, sometimes routinized, but never entirely unproblematic -- by which individuals make sense of and live in their worlds and by which structures, cultures, and institutions are introduced, maintained and changed (pp. 109-110).

Transmission or ritual/cultural theories lead to findings that online communities emerge out of user a) exchange of factual and socio-emotional content via digital channels or b) adoption of online roles, rules, or identities. At best, both conclusions emphasize communicative states rather than processes. Both approaches emphasize the nouns of communication -- messages, information, identities, social formations, netiquette, moderator roles, etc. -- rather than the verbs (step-takings) of communicating -- attending, creating ideas, expressing, finding connectedness, recalling, mediating, etc. (see Dervin, 1983 and Dervin & Clark, 1993 for extended listings). Dervin and Clark (1993) note that this tendency has operated as the primary Western communication model since the Enlightenment:

the founding fathers specified the structures they considered essential for democracy . . . . few of these specifications pertained to communication per se. Their world view found no necessity [for this specification] because for them in an open marketplace of ideas, correct ideas would by some magical process win (p. 107)

The bottom line: communication as human process usually gets short shrift.

A closer look demonstrates the pervasiveness of the communication-as-noun perspective in computer mediated communication (CMC) research. Online contributions are often characterized as "messages" (i.e., information bricks; see Dervin, 1982 for an extended critique) in "store and forward" information systems that are organized according to their "topic lines" (a short phrase that identifies a message) or the date/time that a message was created. Online communities are assumed to be denoted by "threads" -- the "main message"/"response" chains that coalesce around a specific topic, often measured by the number of "hits" a chain has accumulated (Davis & Brewer, 1997; Fang, 1995; Groper, 1997; McLaughlin, Osborne, & Ellison, 1997).

Further, two of the most popular metaphors applied to electronic discussion groups (EDGs) -- the "electronic bulletin board" and the "global public sphere" -- both emphasize a noun-view of communication. The "bulletin board" metaphor reinforces the view that postings are "things" hung up on a virtual corkboard; the "global public sphere" metaphor emphasizes the space or locale where exchanges occur (e.g., Rheingold's [1993] insistence that virtual communities should be "great good places"). The problem caused by the pervasiveness of the noun-perspective in computer mediated communication (CMC) design was acknowledged by Hiltz and Turoff (1993) in a revealing passage:

People employ different ways of assigning validity or of measuring the degree of truth in some conclusion, observation, or "fact." . . . What it amounts to is the belief by many that a great deal of the difficulty in getting a [computer mediated communication] group to come to grips with a complex problem in a collective manner is that members of the group will often take very different views on the nature of "truth" or validity for a given "fact." This is further complicated when these fundamental differences in perspective are not recognized at the conscious level. It is therefore necessary to evolve communication structures that will promote the exposure of differences that exist at fundamental levels [emphasis added] (pp. 283-284).

One research trend that emphasizes a noun-perspective is the study of electronic discussion groups in terms of "channels" and "effects." For example, a host of studies have been published comparing computer-mediated communication to face-to-face (FtF) communication. One approach emphasizes the extent to which electronic discussion groups (EDGs) contribute to feelings of social presence among participants (e.g., Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976; see Walther, 1992; Walther, Anderson, & Park, 1994). Other researchers look at how the reduction of non-verbal channels in computer mediated communication (CMC) -- the "cues filtered out" approach -- impacts computer mediated communication (CMC) effectiveness (Walther, 1992). Researchers often report that users compensate by developing alternative behaviors: typing emotional cues/"graphic accents" on the screen; using emoticons (on-screen icon expressing emotions such as smiley faces), etc. (see Davis & Brewer,1997; Rice & Love, 1987; Walther, 1992; Witmer & Katzman, 1998). Such research has led to the development of the "media richness" hypothesis: that the unique characteristics of each communications medium contribute in different ways to the effective transmission of different types of messages. For example, Walther (1992) notes that computer mediated communication (CMC) is a "lean" medium that best conveys "simple or unequivocal" (p. 57) messages; more complex messages, however, should be sent using "richer" media (e.g., face-to-face).

Other researchers focus on how the reduction in non-verbal information results in various forms of aggressive behavior, including flaming, excessive swearing, name calling, insults, threats, or even "virtual rapes" (see MacKinnon, 1997; Rheingold, 1993; Rice & Love, 1987; Walther, Anderson, & Park, 1994). Mabry (1997) notes that "[a]rgumentative exchanges among net group members are quite prevalent. The intensity and deviancy of such disembodied exchanges can become . . . heated and destructive . . ." (p. 1).

Other studies emphasizing a noun-perspective focus on computer-mediated communication diffusion, usually within organizational settings. For example, social influence theory suggests that manager or peer attitudes can greatly impact computer mediated communication (CMC) diffusion (e.g., Komsky, 1991; Olaniran, 1993; Steinfield, 1992). Steinfield (1992) reported that "information arising from the social environment frames individuals' perceptions of media and tasks and subsequently influences choices" (p. 356). Likewise, Markus's (1987) critical mass model hypothesizes that as users join networks, the utility of the network for all potential participants increases (i.e., there are more people to communicate with, so the network becomes more valuable). However, once the network reaches a saturation point, excessive traffic on the system encourages users to leave and form independent/private networks, thus, sowing the seeds for network decay.

A related set of studies have focused on the use of group decision support systems (GDSS) to facilitate group collaboration (see Schrage, 1990). One noun-oriented trend emphases the phases of group decision-making . For example, Hiltz and Turoff (1993) identified four general electronic discussion group (EDG)phases: creativity/ exploration -- when participants brainstorm to generate the maximum number of alternative proposals; evaluation/consensus -- when members debate the merits and deficiencies of the most salient proposals; model formation -- when participants determine key relationships between the proposals; and comprehension/decision -- when members reach their final decision.

Other researchers have studied how channel or demographic predictors explain group outcomes. Chidambaram, Bostrom, and Wynne (1990) report that groups using computer-mediated communication demonstrate better problem-solving skills than face-to-face (FtF) groups. Olaniran (1994) found that mixed group decision support systems/face-to-face groups produced the highest quality decisions -- although group decision support systems (GDSS) participants needed more time to complete decision tasks-- and group decision support systems (GDSS) users generated the greatest number of brainstorming alternatives. Gallupe and McKeen (1990) report that neither group decision support systems (GDSS) nor face-to-face (FtF) groups made better quality decisions, although group decision support systems (GDSS) groups took longer to reach consensus and promoted more individualized values than face-to-face (FtF) groups. Poole, Holmes, Watson, and DeSanctis (1993) reported no performance difference between group decision support systems (GDSS), manual (statistically aggregated groups), or baseline groups; group decision support systems (GDSS) groups took the longest to reach consensus, demonstrated an excessive focus on procedural (non-task) issues, and had the lowest levels of critical discussion. Olaniran (1993) found that females were less satisfied with two group decision support systems (GDSS) systems than males, and there was little evidence of more democratized participation in group decision support systems (GDSS) groups (a finding also reported in Poole & DeSanctis, 1992). Broome and Chen (1992) reported that anonymity -- often touted as a necessary precondition for groups to make non-biased evaluations -- unleashed tensions that disrupted consensus-building and decision-making.

Likewise, prominent ritual/cultural approaches emphasize the nouns of communication within electronic discussion group (EDG) environments. For example, ethnographers often focus on a) user selection of nicknames or message topics or b) adoption/abuse of socially sanctioned rules, roles, and relationships when participating in online communities. In their study of Usenet newsgroups, Aycock and Buchignani (1995) assert that online participants "rely on embodied recall and ongoing social relationships to construct and stabilize their reality" (p. 223). In studying an online fan community, Watson (1997) asserts that "tools for the maintenance of intimacy, behavioral norms, and values have been developed by Phish.netters [an online community] in a simultaneous attempt to contract and expand the community" (p. 116). Reid (1995) argues that computer mediated communication (CMC) users "promote cultural understandings through the creation of commonly understood ways of symbolizing social and emotional contexts" (p. 182). Baym (1995) points out that

Participants in [computer mediated communication] CMC develop forms of expression which enable them to communicate social information and to create and codify group-specific meanings, socially negotiate group-specific identities, form relationships . . . and create norms which serve to organize interaction and to maintain desirable social climates (pp. 160-161).

Further, she argues that those "who write only a few times each month may participate long enough that their cumulative contribution will forge them an individual role in the community" (p. 156).

Thus, it is not surprising that electronic discussion group research focuses on message threads, shared interests or feelings, identities, power relations, roles, social formations, or other noun-oriented characteristics of online communities. Left implicit is the actual process of how online participants construct the "sense of community" that is focus of so much research; actual human sense-making is often downplayed. Yet it is through sense-making moves that users ultimately constitute the sense of community. Thus, what is needed is the explicit choice of a communication theory that acknowledges human sense-making in the study of computer-mediated communication-based communities. Such an approach would explore dialogic rather than transmissional/cultural aspects of online communication -- focusing on the verbs of communicative processes, the iterative step-takings of online participants as they "create, maintain, reify, destroy and reinvent structures" (Dervin et. al. , 1993, p. 58) .

Following Dervin (1982, 1983, 1992, in press), I propose that the Sense-Making Methodology provides an opportunity to address this oversight. Sense-Making utilizes a "verbing" approach, focusing on communication as verb (process) rather than noun (product): "communicate-ings" rather than "communication"; "dialogue-ings" instead of "dialogue," and -- most importantly -- "community-ings," not "communities." Below, I outline the basic tenets of Sense-Making, then offer as exemplar findings from an ongoing research project that is using this framework to explore human community-ings within electronic discussion groups.

Sense-Making Methodology and Dialogic Processes

Sense-Making Methodology provides a framework for explicating the process of community-building in online discussion groups. Drawing on the work of Carter, Dewey, Buber, Bruner, McGuire, Freire, Bourdieu, Foucault, and others, Dervin (1983; 1994; in press) argues that a fundamental condition of human existence is a universal mandate to bridge gaps. Gaps exist within individuals (e.g., between head and heart, heart and hand), between and among people, between people and material objects, and between objects across time and space -- assuming an epistemology and ontology that are in part both gappy and complete. As humans move through time and space, they continually build conceptual, emotional, or spiritual bridges (e.g, knowledge, understanding, sense, feelings) over the gaps they face. Humans are conceptualized as social theorists, self-reflexively enlarging their repertoire of practices, behaviors, and thoughts as they bridge gaps. Since no two meaning-making moves can be exactly the same -- time and/or space has shifted between one observation and the next -- humans rely upon internal and external dialogues in order to triangulate their observations and make sense of their experiences. As Dervin et al. (1993) note, this dialogic process is central to human sense-making:

Dialogue involves iterative step-takings, an on-going never-ending bridging of order and chaos. Participants in communication are separated by gaps. Gaps are bridged through behavior. Some form of energy bridges these gaps. This bridging is done through the processes that these verbs of communicating represent--thinkings, listenings, observings, speakings, etc. (p. 58).

Applied to the study of online communities, Sense-Making Methodology suggests that any sense of community that emerges within online discussion groups would be the result of the sense-making moves made by humans continuously bridging gaps; attempts to label/identify/study online communities from the perspective of authority (e.g., the academic discourse surrounding computer mediated communication (CMC)) should be tempered/humbled by the voice of users struggling to make sense out of their online experiencings.

Typically, Sense-Making studies employ an analytical triangle focusing on human situations, gaps, and uses (helps/hurts; see Dervin, 1983; in press). Situations are defined as the situation movement state that has led a human to a particular gap; to study this, the researcher asks the respondent to describe the situation that has led him to a time-space-bound episode. For example, a respondent might point out that after having lost his job and home, he was forced to live on the street. Then, the respondent is asked to describe any questions he may have had in this situation: these questions help the researcher to identify the dimensions of the gaps faced. Finally, the respondent describes the uses (helps or hurts) he received by way of answers to his questions; these help the researcher to examine the person's conceptual bridgings -- the sense made or unmade -- within the specified situation. A respondent might report finding a church-run mission, where he was given a meal, shower, and a place to spend the night (helps).

The data collected -- the respondent's verbal reports of situation-gap-use episodes -- are then analyzed according to coding schemes developed by Dervin (1983; 1991). The goal is to inductively identify verbing practices that explain the respondent's sense-making moves within the specified times-space bound contexts. Once identified, the researcher examines these practices for patterns of structural production/reproduction. It is these patterns -- identified inductively by examining human sense-making moves -- that may best explain how humans make/unmake sense in online environments.

Although an in-depth analysis of human sense-making moves within online communities is beyond the scope of this paper, I now report preliminary findings from an ongoing research project being conducted at two mid-western universities. In order to identify verbing practices within computer mediated communication (CMC)s, students in three communication classes were asked to take part in online discussion groups designed to supplement face-to-face class meetings. A total of 90 students -- mostly undergraduate communication majors -- participated in the electronic discussion groups (EDGs), each lasting from six to ten weeks. The students were asked to contribute at least two posts each week -- using a self-chosen pen name or their real name -- on topics related to class discussions and readings.

To tap the human situations-gaps-uses of online sense-making, students were asked to describe the circumstances that led to each posting. The unit of analysis was the student's self-report associated with the posting. User reports were coded for verbings according to a content analysis scheme suggested by Dervin (1983; 1991) and Dervin and Clark (1993). As part of this analysis, each verbing was also examined according to relational "situation defining strategies" suggested by Dervin and Clark (1993): individuals relating to self, individuals relating to other individuals, or individuals relating to collectivities.

As shown in Figure 1, a total of 980 messages were entered into the electronic discussion groups (EDGs) by the students over a twenty-four week period (approximately forty-one messages each week).

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Figure 1. A message verbings analysis of the 980 messages posted in the electronic discussion groups over a 24-week period.

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The majority of postings -- thirty one percent -- related to human sharing of insight or pleasure. Of the rest, sixteen percent involved users praising others; fourteen percent related to students making connections between course or electronic discussion group (EDG) material; another thirteen percent involved users sharing their struggles with the group. An additional eleven percent of the verbings involved students relating similar experiences to those discussed in class or other entries, while the remaining fifteen percent involved users asking a question or asking for help, seeing contests between ideas, connecting with others, pointing out the cause of some phenomenon, or expressing a need for support.

Preliminary findings have uncovered an interesting pattern in the data: many of the messages were not responded to by others. In traditional computer mediated communication (CMC) analyses -- where thread length is the operational definition for online communities, such postings would be coded as non-dialogic, not contributing to community formation. However, by examining these "solo" postings for verbing processes, sense-making tactics are uncovered showing users actively engaged in moments of community-constructings, or community-ings. For example, in message #5-702, coded as an example of sharing an insight or pleasure, "Chucklesworth" constructs an idea about a popular radio program while relating to other individuals in the electronic discussion group (EDG):

Class discussion in the last session was rewarding. We discussed a popular radio "shock jock" who offends women and minorities. I had thought it was just comedy and that people shouldn't take him so seriously. Some people in the class explained how those words could hurt, even in jest. This has made me think alot [sic] more about what I think is funny and what that says about me. (penname Chucklesworth)

Further, in posting #5-156, "Sallydrew" shares an insight she gained from reading another's posting:

After reading Mishy's self interview, I had the realization that although I don't remember ever being a direct target of racism, I was affected and took part in racially motivated thoughts and conversations when I previously felt that I was not going to be able to relate to this class due to the fact that I was not involved with racism. I quickly discovered that I was wrong . (penname Sallydrew)

In posting #5-439, "Strawberry" shares a struggle, barrier over a course requirement which she relates to others:

I see in the class many people are unwilling to interview there [sic] parent's because they are extremely racist. I feel the same way [emphasis added]. I know that some of my family is but I can't bring myself to ask them about it. They don't express it in front of me anymore. I am not afraid to say anything I am just afraid to hear the extent of it. I don't want to be around people that are ignorant, so if I don't ask I can still be around my family members. (penname Strawberry)

Finally, in message #5-218 -- coded as making a connection -- "Lucy" relates her thoughts to those of her classmates:

We are almost through the first half of this quarter, and it seems that a lot of us are feeling many of the same emotions and feelings. It seems that each of us has recognized that a problem does still exist and that it is up to us to make the problem start to turn around [emphasis added]. It seems that each of us has experienced some type of racism, but we don't know how to get out of the continuous circle of placing the blame. (penname Lucy)

Although each of these postings was a "main message" that did not generate a "response" from another user, a focus on verbings has uncovered user sense-makings that actively related each author to others within the electronic discussion groups (EDGs) -- in essence, building community.

Further, as suggested by Dervin and Clark (1993), a focus on verbings in which users relate self to self helps to identify sense-making moments that may also contribute to community-ing. Such moments seem to represent situations when users need to be listened to, whether or not someone else responds -- suggesting the application of the talking cure (a term Dervin [in press] borrows from psychoanalytic discourse). For example, In #5-373, "Corban" explicitly makes a connection between his own life and his progress on an assignment:

Since beginning my self interview, I have noticed several connections between stages in my life, stemming from experiences with racism. One that stands out is when I first began to stand up to people who made racist remarks or who I thought were being derogatory to other people. I noticed that this was a time in my life when I was turning a corner and becoming more of a man. I was becoming less and less fearful of things, and standing up to racial remarks was one of those turning points. (penname Corban)

Likewise, in posting #4-366, "nTd" shares by relating his own struggles with course work:

I am having a heck of a time trying to get going on these self-interviews [emphasis added]. I have tried to sit down and pre-write situations and experiences but I can not seem to get any ideas. I have completed three self interviews as of now and I have to admit that none of them were easy to get started. (penname nTd)

Thus, coding these discussion entries in terms of verbing behavior helps us identify and analyze the sense-making activity happening within the electronic discussion group (EDG). Rather than categorizing postings as "main topics" or "responses" arranged in subject-driven "threads," they are examined for evidence of human sense-making activity -- the verbs of communicative processes. As these examples have shown, postings that might otherwise be coded as not contributing to community-building can be reexamined under a much wider, more human lens, shedding light on communicative activity through which users actively make sense of their experiences as part of an online community.

Conclusion: Community-ing, Human Verbing, and Online Environments

Research examining the form and function of online communities has exploded during the past two decades. Typically, computer mediated communication (CMC)-oriented research adopts either a transmission or ritual/cultural theoretical perspective that emphasizes the nouns of communication rather than the verbs of communicating. In this paper, I have demonstrated the utility of Sense-Making Methodology for the study of communicative processes within online communities.

Although findings reported in this paper are preliminary, they suggest important implications for further research. First, by shifting the focus from the nouns of communication to the verbs of communicatings, researchers can begin to better understand how to reconceptualize the design of online environments to better assist human gap bridging. The goal would be to develop truly responsive systems that assist users in making sense of their online experiences rather than privileging designer motives and agendas. As Dervin (1994) asserts, such systems

would be recursive and responsive at their core. Incorporating users would not be an afterthought, a focus of feedback and accountability studies, or even of formative evaluation studies. Users and all relevant constituencies would be defined into the heart of the system (p. 383).

In practical terms, this means re-thinking system-based or designer-based categories -- threads, topic lines, hits, roles, etc. -- in favor of those derived from actual human sense-making tactics -- sharing ideas or pleasure, praising others, seeing connections, sharing struggles, etc.

Second, an emphasis on communication as verb may lead to the development of more useful theory for explicating online dialogue and community-building than has been the case so far. The verbing approach encourages study of communication as human process that changes from moment to moment and space to space. Rather than suggesting that such processes are too numerous and complex to research, this study has begun to show how the application of Sense-Making Methodology can lead to the development of theoretical taxonomies -- even at this preliminary stage -- that can advance understanding about communicative processes that lie at the heart of online community-building.

Thus, although much more work needs to be done in the application of Sense-Making Methodology to research of online communities, the benefit of this approach is that it allows researchers to interrogate the received wisdom about the nature, form, and transmissional processes of online communities by highlighting user sense-making tactics within electronic discussion groups (EDGs). By explicitly examining user verbings, one can isolate and examine sense-making movements that contribute to the construction of online communities, allowing us to move from the study of communities to community-ings.

Notes

[1] This article is based in part on preliminary results from the author's dissertation project in process at Ohio State University.

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