BITlab: Behavior Information Technology

404 Wilson Rd. Room 251
Communication Arts & Sciences
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824

Shaping the Success of Online Communities

As new computing and communication technologies become mainstream, online communities are transforming journalism and other industries to support more interactive, community-driven work. This project will study how mental models of online communities are formed, how they shape expectations about the future of the community, how they co-evolve with the community over time, and how they aggregate to form a critical mass that is essential for successful work and community survival. In many such online communities, participation is voluntary: each person must look at the community, develop a mental model of what that community is, how it works, and what it means for them to join, and then make a decision about whether they want to participate. And then, as the community evolves and changes, they need to continually decide whether and how to participate.

This research will triangulate three research methods to understand how individuals form mental models of online communities, and how mental models of multiple individuals interact and aggregate to form a larger community. First, it will use qualitative interviews to understand how individuals make sense of a new online community and how they make continuing participation decisions in communities they are already part of. Second, it will use a series of human subjects lab experiments to characterize how people form mental models of both the content available in an online community, and the other users of an online community. These experiments will also help to understand how a user’s mental model helps her interpret the community’s reactions to her participation. Finally, this project will use statistical analysis and formal mathematical modeling of existing online communities to understand how online communities grow over time and when people choose to leave online communities.

Results of this research will be of general value in designing, managing, and participating in many kinds of online communities, as well as contributing to education in the information, cognitive, and social sciences. A unique, cross-disciplinary education program will be created that trains students to use this research to build special-purpose online communities. This program will include a joint class linking a School of Journalism with a department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media. This class will form cross-disciplinary teams who spend the semester creating and growing an online community. This partnership will teach students to apply social science and computer science research for real-world applications, and work on collaborative, cross-disciplinary teams that include technical people, creative people, and topic experts. It represents a new type of education in journalism that will bring students into new, community-driven methods of doing journalism, based more on curating content and facilitating discussion than on original, unidirectional reporting.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. IIS-1350253. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recomendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Funded by NSF Award IIS-1350253.

PI: Rick Wash


Nina CapuzziNina Capuzzi


  • Jacob Solomon and Rick Wash. “Critical Mass of What? Exploring Community Growth in WikiProjectsProceedings of the International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM). Ann Arbor, MI. June 2014. ( Abstract, PDF )

  • Jacob Solomon and Rick Wash. “Bootstrapping Wikis: Developing Critical Mass in an Fledgling Community by Seeding ContentProceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW). Seattle, WA. February 2012. ( Abstract, PDF, ACM DL )


  • MSU Today wrote an article about Rick’s CAREER award

  • Rick received a $489,000 early CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation to study online communities.