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Community Building Influenced by Structure of Online Features

Janis L. Ollson
University of Winnipeg




Community Building Influenced by Structure of Online Features
In a society where the lines between a virtual world and reality are becoming increasingly
blurred, I wonder if the interactivity offered online can substitute an offline, physical community.
Warnick and Heineman (2012) state that online interactivity functions as a means of activating
user responses, thus it is functioning as a mode for reciprocity, either between system and user,
or user and user through the system. To build a community reciprocity is required argues
Franklin (1989), however she reasons that genuine community requires face-to-face interactions.
Is there nothing then, that can replace face-to-face interactions? Is it possible that online features
can be structured in a way that contributes to an artifact‟s ability to construct a sense of
community? I will explore the interactive features of the web site Maple, and analyze if the
structure of those features contributes to its ability to construct a sense of community. By
analysing Maple I will show that by simply offering online interactivity user responses are not
automatically activated, and the structure of those interactive features can limit an artifact‟s
ability to construct a sense of community.
The artifact I will be exploring is an online resource sharing web site for Manitoban
educators and other related educational professionals called Maple, or Manitoba Professional
Learning Environment. Maple is organized into group settings where members can join topic
groups based on their interests. These groups have resources attached to them for members to
view and discuss. Maple‟s goal, as stated on their home page is, “Maple is a place for creating
and sharing resources, exchanging ideas and fostering innovation in teaching and learning”.
Maple provides an effective artifact to analyze as on its home page it textually states it is a
community, and it offers both restricted and non-restricted interactive user features.



To analyze Maple I used the cluster criticism method of analysis. This method of
Kenneth Burke‟s consists of indexing key terms used in an artifact, and exploring arrangements
of words that occur together, called „clusters‟, to gain insight into the views and attitudes the
artifact is conveying, explains Goldrick-Jones in her notes on “Burkeian Criticism – Cluster
Method” (Nexus, Sept. 8, 2014). I used this method to examine the motivations behind why
Maple offers, or limits, the interactive user features that it does, and how those options affect its
ability to construct a sense of online community.
The results of my analysis lead me to focus on two terms, which confirmed Maple‟s
motivation as being a resource sharing interactive web site. Further analysis of those interactive
features would determine Maple‟s success in constructing a sense of online community. The
ultimate key term, or the most frequent and intense term (Goldrick-Jones), used on Maple was
the term „Maple‟. Two of the key terms (or terms less intense than the „ultimate‟ term, but linked
to it through association (Goldrick-Jones), that I chose to focus on for the purpose of my analysis
were the terms „resource‟ and „interactive‟.
Determining the ultimate and key terms consists of both counting how often they appear
on Maple, and analysing other rhetorical acts. For my analysis I focused on the terms „resource‟
and „interactive‟, and examined other rhetorical acts that support Maple‟s intention in using those
terms. The term „resource‟ was supported with the rhetorical act of Maple providing its users
with a library and a collection to store their resources in. The term „interactive‟ was supported
with the rhetorical act of providing access to discussion boards and blog comments for users, as
well as the ability to save and organize resources.



Although Maple states that its purpose is to be an interactive web site focused on sharing
resources, some of its features suggest otherwise. These rhetorical acts are what Burke refers to
as agons, or concepts that oppose the key terms (Goldrick-Jones). I found several agons for the
term „interactive‟. Many of Maple‟s features were restricted to the group‟s owner, which was
often Maple‟s administrator, making those features inaccessible to most members, and reducing
their interactivity. Although Maple‟s home page states users can upload and share resources,
uploading was also restricted to group owners. Each group has a blog and wiki feature, but the
majority were not enabled, and controlled by group owners. The main features that are accessible
to members, such as discussion boards and blog comments (if present), were rarely used. Of the
eight groups I studied, only one had discussion posts, all from the same member, with no replies
to his comments.
Through my exploration of the key terms and agons of Maple, I found that the way in
which the interactive features of this site were structured reduced Maple‟s ability to construct a
sense of community. Although Maple expresses textually its goal of resource sharing and
collaboration, its restrictions on content strictly limited the user‟s ability to do so. Maple has
through its exclusiveness, a members only web site, attempted to create an online community.
Community is defined by Redish (2004) as “a group of people who share common interests,
activities, and initiatives; who communicate regularly; and who derive benefit from their
association”. Based on Redish‟s definition of community, Maple has failed to established an
online community. Although members can communicate on a discussion board, they sit empty
with no regular communication. While there is a feature for blogs and wikis, they are mostly
disabled, eliminating the possibly of member communication through these features. Members
deriving benefit from their association is reduced by Maple‟s restriction of resource uploading



and sharing by members. The structure of Maple‟s interactive features has not activated a
response from its members, but limited it, and members‟ ability to engage in reciprocity resulting
in the failure of this artifact to construct a sense of community.
For interactivity of an artifact to activate a user‟s response, and thus to become a mode
for reciprocity and contribute to the formation of a community, the interactive features need to
express the rhetorical act of interactivity, not just the expression of its terms. The process of
community building needs to not only create a membership based on interests, but it needs to
enable and encourage regular communication, and promote members‟ derived benefit through
their association. An artifact‟s interactive features can be structured in such a way that
communication and derived benefit are encourage, likely contributing to a successful online
community, but they can also be structured in a way that hinders it.



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