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The death and life of Yahoo! Groups communities - Accretions

Fata Morgana
2006-06-07 12:32
The death and life of Yahoo! Groups communities
Public
online, research
I'm very excited about my work at Yahoo! this summer. I'll be doing research on Yahoo! Groups, following up on some of the quantitative surveys being conducted by a few others in Yahoo! Research with more in-depth, mostly qualitative investigations. Though I strongly disapprove of some of their policies (and I wish I had my TV-B-Gone for the two very annoying TVs in the cafeteria!), nowhere else would I have this kind of opportunity to do open-ended research on such a large, diverse, active, and long-lived online community. There are millions of groups, and the archives go back ten years! Some Yahoo! groups are incredibly active ... even Craigslist was a Yahoo! group way back when. Where else could I get something like that?

Such opportunity is at once exhilarating and completely overwhelming. With a data set that big, where should I start? What should I focus in on? I spent a week just reading about other community research my boss threw my way and brainstorming long lists of ideas. Finally we decided that it would make sense to start with an investigation of how various groups form, grow, and, in some cases, die -- in itself a complicated question, of course, but still something around which we can focus investigations. I imagine that once we start playing around with the data, other research directions will become apparent. This seems to be the way I like to work anyway, whether in research or programming or usability: I assume that it's impossible to anticipate everything that I'll want to do, so I just jump in early, get my hands dirty, and iterate. I'll do my best to write periodic updates on what I'm learning.

Oh, and the title above is my working moniker for the project. Tipped hat to the late Jane Jacobs (one of the main inspirations for my undergrad research project on "healthy cities").
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Matthew Jones
stridera
2006-06-07 20:28 (UTC)
(no subject)
Sounds like quite the project. While I haven't been too involved in Yahoo groups, per se, I have been active in my share of online communities. Mostly it's IRC or specialized forums (2600, C++, animesuki)... In my experience, however, the biggest factor is the people. It's hard to quantify that though. I guess it's mostly seen by a elect group of individuals who post constantly. In IRC there was a small group of us that were continuously active. We kept the channel alive. There were some regulars that weren't as active that joined in, but rarely did any big conversations happen without the main group. The same thing can be seen in programming/hacking groups. Most threads were started and consisted of almost entirely an elect group of people. Random people would post questions, and the main group of us would answer them. I think the thing that would kill most groups is members of that main group going on hiatus. When I left for Iraq, two others in one of my main channels left for school. For a while there, the group was dangerously close to disappearing. Even now, it's not quite what it used to be.

So, that's my idea. I might be totally wrong since this is all from personal experience with my own groups, but I thought it might help some. I'd be interested to see how close I am. Just look at a bunch of different test cases and see if the same people are what keeps the community alive.

Good luck with it!
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2006-06-07 21:57 (UTC)
(no subject)
It's pretty common for there to be an active "core" - sometimes it's one person, sometimes it's most of the group, often it's somewhere in between. It's also interesting how proximity, (at least occasional) face-to-face contact, and "multi-threaded" connections (e.g. group members share several interests rather than just one) affect online group dynamics. So much to explore! ...
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Matthew Jones
stridera
2006-06-07 22:04 (UTC)
(no subject)
True... The two groups I'm most active in are Topgamers and NC2600. Topgamers is a group of programmers/hackers/gamers/etc that just talk. We all have simular interests. NC2600 are all 2600 members, and we try to meet up at least once a month. I guess that covers most of the aspects there. The other one is C++, where it's basically just answering questions and correcting code. No real conversations other than the occasional banter.
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Jeff
lbchewie
2006-06-07 23:37 (UTC)
(no subject)
That's pretty much been my experience with online communities. I used to be a part of a programming support group that actively coded applications, and we met in an IRC-like chatroom routinely. The "core" group was essential, although it usually just took one or two of the most active members to be there to keep the discussion moving along.

I took a hiatus from such online communities, and have only come to recently re-discover them for a new purpose. Instead of a technical group, something that Morgan might be more interested in is a purely social, friends-only networking website. The purpose? Use the Internet to make real-life friends. Now that the Internet has been demystified, and more than just computer savvy and "socially marginalised" people waste hours each day online, groups such as MEETin.org have taken hold. (It used to be a Yahoo! group, and occasionally they'll still post events and advertisements.

In a lot of ways, I think online communities mimick natural face-to-face social groups. There are its charasmatic leaders, a bunch of regular, core people, and then those on the fringes. New people may check out the group's vibe, and then disappear. Occasionally, somebody new enters the core constituency, but that's relatively rare... much like in most other cliques.

This is why I'm very interested in research like what Morgan's conducting... to discover the substantial differences between virtual and physical communication.
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Matthew Jones
stridera
2006-06-08 00:03 (UTC)
(no subject)
I'm looking forward to see the results of this research as well.

As for social groups. The topgamers group started as a hacking group. (A part of the hackquest.de hacker/challenge site circle.) #topgamers was a channel in there that didn't pertain to any real site, but was just for general chat. It has, in turn, changed into a purely social channel. It has it's benefits and drawbacks. Benefits are that you create a great group of friends. (One of my best friends from the network is the owner of a major ISP in New York. I have basically unlimited server space and other perks due to that.) A drawback is that once a group goes purely social, it's hard to get new people. As you mentioned with face-to-face groups, it becomes an almost exclusive chique.

Being a computer science major myself (starting in my masters in Software Engineering) I tend to think of how this can be used in AI software. It would be interesting to see how much 'realism' can be added to eliza like programs if you have it follow common social online rules, aside from speech/grammar/response rules. Just my thoughts.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2006-06-08 07:49 (UTC)
(no subject)
Now what's fun is to get two instances of Eliza talking to each other. ;~)
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Matthew Jones
stridera
2006-06-08 09:22 (UTC)
(no subject)
Yea.. I've done that before... also did it with many different eliza like programs. It's fun to throw words in randomly just to mess them up.

(I've done Aim Chat Bot vs smarterchild (another aim chat bot) to some fun as well. (Have to get it early since you can only do it once per name a day.)

And while they may fail the turing tests, so would many humans.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2006-06-08 07:50 (UTC)
(no subject)
Thanks for the Meetin link! I heard that someone in Yahoo! groups has been noting successful spinoffs (like Craigslist), but I haven't caught up with this person yet, so it's good to hear about them from other channels.
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cyberlyra
cyberlyra
2006-06-08 06:20 (UTC)
(no subject)
yay! study the harplist! we've been active since ... um. .. 1992? and moved to yahoo groups my goodness, ten years ago maybe? very active global community... and you have an 'in'. :)
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2006-06-08 07:48 (UTC)
(no subject)
Excellent!
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2007-01-09 04:58 (UTC)
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