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Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability

Author: Jenny Preece
Publisher: New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000
Review Published: June 2001

 REVIEW 1: Boyd Davis
 REVIEW 2: Chris Halaska
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Jenny Preece

In an online community, not everyone wants to make friends. Friends share their experiences, tell their troubles, offer comfort, make suggestions, even whisper gossip. Some people prefer watching interactions, saying little or nothing. Some want minimal interaction with others, reserving the opportunity to speak to a single person away from group interaction. Some are comfortable simply to browse and sample the information the community provides. Others want more active roles, including collaboration on tasks brought to or stimulated by a larger group. While a virtual community frequently has a central goal, purpose or set of conversational topics, it includes all sorts of people whose preferences for participation differ. To think otherwise would be na´ve; to ignore the possibility of designs that could support and sustain the varied preferences populating virtual communities would be foolhardy.

Jenny Preece's new book, Online Communities, is designed to address both naivete and foolhardiness by a careful overview of current findings in the areas mentioned in her subtitle: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability. This is a textbook offering an introduction to how these two areas can and should intersect, not a research monograph, though it rests on a good deal of research in multidisciplinary approaches to both social and human-computer interaction. The text is directed to students and enthusiasts, particularly those who are interested in the development of online communities. The book's audience, like the research that grounds it, is deliberately multidisciplinary.

Though the word "rhetoric" does not appear in the index, the text's desire is to persuade Internet site developers to include sociability as part of any development cycle. Its parallel goal for those whose focus is the virtual community is that community developers include usability as an assessment tool. "If you build it, they will come" is more likely to happen, suggests Preece, if we see sociability and usability as interconnected from the outset. Such a perspective more easily addresses how, when visitors first arrive at a site, they find the site worth revisiting because it invites them to develop or expand common ground with others and supports their developing a range of social ties with other visitors. Twelve chapters in each of the book's two sections lead readers to consider a development cycle growing out of the assessment of community needs through the design of usability and the plan for sociability to the eventual support of the community as it evolves. A brief and tempting annotated list of Further Readings follows each chapter, contextualized by remarks on their utility in expanding the chapter's theme. Accompanying Web sites, listed on the back cover, point to others who study, profess, or develop online communities.

Preece's notion of sociability is keyed to sustained interaction and persistent conversation. She has already co-edited a major text, Human-Computer Interaction (Addison-Wesley, 1994), on computer-human interaction that introduces novices to that field; here, she focuses on linking two seemingly disparate and discrete fields of inquiry. The text is a soft sell: instead of exhorting, Preece proffers case studies exhibiting her major issues and leads the reader to follow her reasoning. She braids the two fields together: the last of the introductory chapters in part 1 addresses why usability is important; just past the middle of part 2, she inserts sociability as a way to assess usability. While this linkage causes some repetition, it is incremental in nature. Whether readers elect to focus either on part 1 or part 2, planning to bypass the other, we cannot evade her linkage: embedded in discussions of sociability are usability issues; in the middle of sections on usability, we find sociability concerns. These two issues are so tightly interconnected that at book's end we wonder why we ever thought of them separately.

Part I addresses sociability, which Preece sees as the result of "planning and developing social policies . . . to support the community's purpose" (26) as it evolves. A focus on social interaction means developing policies about issues of privacy, security, etiquette, and the like; each of these issues is highlighted within a discussion of the range of definitions for online communities in Chapter 1, "Getting Acquainted with Online Communities." Chapter 2, "Community Tours," is a discussion for new developers of how software supports what the users want to do, across types of environments: Bulletin boards, email and listservers, chats, MUDs and MOOs, instant message services, immersive virtual environments, and Usenet newsgroups.

Chapter 3 moves to what Preece considers to be one half of Sociability: Purpose, People and Policies. Here, Preece examines different components of online communities, so that the novice is quietly led to consider both the kinds of interactivity presented in the preceding chapter, and the ways that interactivity is regulated in different environments. A theme running throughout the book is that of how people behave online in certain situations or environments. It is in this chapter that Preece begins to emphasize a feature which has engaged her research over a decade: the ways a virtual community's purpose can elicit, offer, or run on empathy and how the design of the site, its various policies, and especially, its codes of practice can promote empathetic interaction. For example, one site might use moderators or mediators; another could promote the use of emoticons to suggest emotional intentions. Novice designers and developers of online communities will find policy to include social gatekeeping and civility regulation, in addition to how one joins or leaves a particular community.

In each of the two parts of the text, Preece presents three introductory chapters, a fourth, which inserts key issues from the other half, and two which move into a more research-centered discussion. The necessary connections between tasks, users, and software are the core of Chapter 4, "Usability," with users viewed from the perspective of physical and cognitive abilities and software seen in terms of its functionality. Learning to assess the desired tasks implied in the different ways people send messages to each other, under specific conditions, and the different purposes they might wish to accomplish, is at the core of online education, e-commerce, or support groups. Chapter 5, "Research Speaks to Practice: Interpersonal Communication," is required reading for new Web site developers, because it reviews social presence and media richness, two concepts which ground a good bit of the research on online discourse. Preece links the chapter to the preceding one, with its emphasis on usability, by discussing ways different media support different kinds of communicative interactions. This is the chapter that allows Preece to inject issues concerning empathy, a research focus for her over the last decade. Her last chapter in Part One, "Research Speaks to Practice: Groups," moves into another way to look at community, through the perspective of social networks and network analysis, which leads her to discuss issues of boundaries and the development of trust among community members through reciprocity.

Part Two of the text begins with three introductory chapters, in which the reader finds, first, an overview of the utility for needs assessment and a two-pronged development cycle interweaving usability and sociability for Community-Centered Development in Chapter 7, which asks the site developer to reexamine the purpose for the site in view of the kind of (inter)activity desired. Next, Chapter 8, "Selecting Software," offers a review of software options, which expands the discussion in Chapter 2 of environments in which communities can develop, from listservers to chats. Chapter 9, "Guidelines," does more than include guidelines for usability and sociability; it ties these goals to the tasks for moderators and the kinds of policies a site can plan for civility in interaction.

Chapter 10, "Assessing Needs and Evaluating Communities," identifies and illustrates five approaches developers can use first to assess needs and later to evaluate the output in terms of the sociability -- usability guidelines and the ways a particular software choice supports them. The five approaches include both quantitative and qualitative techniques, from surveys and metrics for data logging to diaries, observations, and interviews. Again, Preece reviews the two major concerns of the text, this time with a focus on evaluation: where usability focuses on ways that interaction design from a particular choice of software promotes low error rates and high learning and retention, sociability focuses on "social planning and social processes" (300), particularly the kinds of social policies that reinforce the purpose for the community. For those who have little experience with the techniques mentioned, the Further Readings, coupled with those at the end of chapters 5 and 6, will be especially useful. Chapter 11 presents case studies of the development cycle and subsequent life process of two very different communities, each of which had specific problems. The final chapter fulfills its title, "Looking to the Future," with a set of issues that are designed to evoke new lines of research, several of which already engage its author.

Preece asks two core questions in Chapter 12, which are more than rhetorical: her answers should elicit even more questions: "How can we make the dream come true? How can we ensure that the Internet makes the world a better place? By using what influence we have, professionally and as citizens of the world. By understanding better how online communities affect people's lives. By becoming informed activists, effective developers, insightful researchers, and discerning users. To be sure, the Internet is an outstanding technical development, but we must recognize that some of the most significant changes that it initiates are social" (378).

Her call in this chapter is that we look more closely at the impact of cultural differences, including differences among communities, life cycles, interaction dynamics; ethical issues of access, delivery and security; and the differences in how people reveal their feelings. I think this would include looking even more closely at how people use their words to embody themselves, at how they adapt their own culturally-sanctioned conversational patterns and preferences, and at how they explain to themselves what they think they are doing online, and the metaphors they choose, whether through text, avatar, or multiple positionings of their communicative acts. That means, for example, that we could begin to tease apart distinctions such as "disclosure" vs. "display" when examining the way people extend themselves to others in a common space. Perhaps we need to redefine notions of narrative as opposed to non-narrative acts in the context of online communities, and re-examine -- as Preece suggests -- issues such as reciprocity in the context of very large groups.

What novice users bring to the territory of online communities is their expectation that they can, indeed, orient themselves and find landmarks, routes, pathways. When the user touches a text, the user can locate herself in relation to that other: the writing in the conference, like the oral conversation it adapts, is a form of touching. The novice user begins to categorize the experience and to express it in figurative language such as metaphor in order to process the experience more quickly. Perhaps when existing reciprocity (or its substitute: see Preece's work with Nonnecke on lurkers) is not enough, and participants lose their sense of the "presence" of others, they may have lost their sense of direction. That is, they have lost their alignment or affiliation or attunement (which overlaps, I think, with the way Preece sees empathy). Their metaphors for the experience may change in that they no longer see the experience or the community site as a self-sustaining whole.

WordNet's semantic-associations lexicon presents seven senses of the word "community" in the order people generally "mean" them. These senses, like those for any definition, are culturally contextualized. Community online can be a group of people taking up short-term residence in an area which is a location constrained by its being within or temporarily supported by a medium; they probably are a group of people having some set of characteristics in common, be they ethnic or cultural or religious; they may have or may learn to act as if they held common ownership; they often come to a site seeking those with common interests. The members of an online community may form a community of interests, in the sense of having an agreement as to goals; they may already be people who share a learned or specialized occupation. For however long they stay in the community, usually by returning to it over some length of time, they can consider it a residential district. The site developer who is a good citizen will be aware of all of the senses, and perhaps use these in the needs assessment. This is a large task, and Jenny Preece's Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability helps guide us.

Boyd Davis:
Boyd Davis is Cone Professor of Teaching in the English Department at University of North Carolina - Charlotte. A linguist, she sees electronic discourse and online communities from the perspective of sociohistorical approaches to narrative and discourse. She and her co-author, Jeutonne Brewer, wrote Electronic Discourse: Linguistic Individuals in Virtual Space (SUNY Press, 1997). Currently she is working on a virtual archive of community conversation and narrative  <bdavis@email.uncc.edu>

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