You are on page 1of 26

 

Hocoblogs  
Fostering  Civic  Engagement  through  Online  Network  Formation  

Summer  2011  LLC  647 Anne Gonnella 8/19/2011

Abstract  
The importance of civic engagement within a local community is being recognized more among local governments and civic organizations in recent years, and success factors for engaging citizens are being studied. The purpose of this project is to investigate the effect of online social network expansion in increasing an individual’s engagement in local civic action. The subject of this research is a community of bloggers and their readers in Howard County, MD, known as Hocoblogs. I took a qualitative and ethnographic approach to this research, using interviews with members of the community, as well as my own observations from immersing myself in the community, to investigate how the online network may lead to increased civic engagement in individuals. This is an entry point into research on this community, which may lead to further research on factors that interest governments and community associations, as well as deeper insight into why people decide to take action and how online communities may reverse the trend that some see as an overall decline in civic engagement.

Introduction  
The subject of this study is a geographically specific community known as Hocoblogs. The main online presence of the community is the Hocoblogs.com website, which is an aggregator of blogs written by people in Howard County, Maryland. The community also makes use of Twitter and Facebook, geo-location services such as Foursquare, and multiple individual blogging platforms such as Blogger and Wordpress. The community started online, through the then small collection of blogs in the area, but quickly evolved into a mixed-mode community. There are regular happy hours and other in-person gatherings organized by members of the community, for the purposes of meeting people in person, socializing, and networking. There are over 125 blogs listed on 1

Hocoblogs; 275 people 'Like' Hocoblogs on Facebook. It is unknown exactly how many people regularly read the blogs. Hocoblogs is not a formal community, in the sense that it does not have a self-contained place for all community activity online or require a membership application or even a username and password. The technology used is ubiquitous and the online portions of the community are not centrally organized. While the blog aggregator serves as a central focus for the community, it is in fact a loosely defined community of people that uses a variety of tools to communicate and it overlaps with other communities, both online and offline. Howard County itself can be considered a community, while the cities, such as Columbia and Ellicott City, are also communities as are the neighborhoods within them. Columbia has a community association governing many aspects of that city’s community. There are other online communities, such as HoCoMoJo and the commenters at Explore Howard’s online site. I have specifically chosen to investigate Hocoblogs as a community because it has a distinct social identity of its own, and because it was started intentionally for the purposes of forming local community, through mixed-mode interactions.

Hypothesis  
There are many ideas I’d like to explore with regard to this community. My initial foray into this research focuses on the following hypothesis: The act of expanding one’s network online, even if the ties are initially weak or limited to social topics, increases the chance of an individual engaging in local civic action. The question of whether the Internet affords people more opportunities to connect with individuals and organizations, or if it isolates people from community involvement

2

is not new (Putnam, 2000; Wellman & Haythornthwaite, 2002). I expected to find ample evidence to support this hypothesis, but hoped that through my investigation I would explore concepts and issues concerning why this is true. Through this initial research, I discover patterns in how people join the community, how they identify with it, and how they are influenced by it. In addition, I explore some of the factors that influence the community’s success, such as how social capital is built and leveraged, and whether or not the mixed-mode aspect of the community is important. I believe that Hocoblogs is relatively unique in its form and function, and is a good source for studying how to build successful local communities of engaged citizens in the modern age.

Literature  Review  
My hypothesis is informed by research into communities and concepts related to social networks and communication. Among the many relevant concepts, I find the following areas of study to be especially relevant to this initial investigation into Hocoblogs. Civic  Engagement   Robert Putnam attributed a general decline in civic engagement to factors such as the privatization of leisure time and urban sprawl (Smith, 2001, 2007). This leads me to questions on how to define civic engagement, and how to measure it. Park (2006) highlights the importance of civic engagement in facilitating good governance and points out that there is a broad range of activities that constitute civic engagement. Lombardo, Zakus, and Skinner (2002) discovered in their studies with youth that at the most basic level, interpersonal connection itself constitutes a form of civic action. While we might seek to measure participation by looking at more traditional forms of civic engagement

3

such as petition writing, the scale of engagement ranges much more widely. The people they interviewed cited the importance of making connections in raising awareness and mutual empowerment. Making a personal connection is valuable in and of itself. Yang and Kang (2009) defined blog engagement as “the likelihood and outcomes of interactive blog communication that encompasses cognitive, attitudinal and behavioral attachment” and created a four-dimensional scale to measure it. This technique might be applicable in measuring civic engagement, through blog readership in this community. Van Laer (2010) looked at network embeddedness and how it relates to social action, finding that people are more likely to be asked to participate in some form of action when they are deeply embedded in a network of interpersonal relationships. Morris, Teevan and Panovich (2010) looked at what questions people pose to their social networks and what motivates people in their network to respond. They looked at one mode: asking questions through status messages on a social networking service. This provides one piece of insight into the question of how to generate civic action through asking someone to participate. Teevan found factors such as altruism, the nature of the relationship, and social capital were of high importance. The question that can be expanded to include Hocoblogs, is how asking through the vehicle of a blog post can inspire a person to respond or to act. Van Laer and Van Aelst (2010) distinguish between low and high threshold forms of action. There is evidence that people who engage in high threshold forms of activism started with lower threshold activities. The Internet offers some of the lowest threshold activities there are, and therefore could potentially draw more people into higher forms of action.

4

Social  Network  and  Community  Formation   Robert Putnam claims that ease of entry is not enough to form a strong community (Smith, 2001, 2007). There must be something that draws people in, which may have nothing to do with the overarching purpose of the community. There has to be regular activity to keep people engaged. Finally, there has to be an emotional bond created to cement commitment. Hocoblogs meets all of the criteria that Putnam describes as a honeycomb structure, and I hope to learn more about what draws people to join a community, keeps people involved, and leads them to greater participation and engagement. Research suggests that people tend to form relationships online more easily with people who are local to them geographically despite the fact that online communication can bridge distances, and that virtual communities are often just extensions of geographically situated online communities (Papacharissi, 2010). There is some research into social matching systems, which are a form of recommender systems for people. Terveen and McDonald (2005) assert their potential for increasing social networks and fostering collaboration. My hypothesis is based on network expansion; social matching systems could potentially be used to expand these networks more rapidly or to better effect. In another study, McDonald (2003) found recommended social networks do not tend to match individuals’ perceptions of their personal social network, which suggest that organic social network growth may still be more effective. Binder, Howes and Sutcliffe (2009) assert the need for individuals to maintain separate social spheres, and note that social networking sites can cause these spheres to overlap and thereby create social tension. This may have a limiting effect on the expansion of networks, causing diminishing returns in technology-facilitated networking. This is related to social brain hypothesis (SBH), and the so-called Dunbar 5

number, which theorizes that people can only effectively manage a certain number of stable social relationships. However, the Dunbar number can be considered to refer only to strong ties, and the tension Binder speaks of is most likely an effect felt most strongly among strong ties as well. Granovetter (1973) points out that it is the weak ties that are important for building bridges between groups, expanding one’s network, and creating the opportunities for individuals to integrate into a community. Ribak, Jacovi and Soroka (2002) explain how posing questions in a public forum leads to better creation and use of organizational knowledge, and through this, builds cohesion within the community. The affordance of being able to comment on a public blog post could lead to the same kind of growth in knowledge within the community. Chang, Jungnickel, Orloff and Shklovski (2005) expand on this idea and look deeply into how to make the interfaces to public forums more effective for this kind of community discourse, from a human-computer interaction (HCI) perspective. They focus on the areas of discussion and public authoring, access, and audience, which are all relevant to a community of bloggers. Does a community built on the concept of blogging stand a good chance of succeeding in self-sustained community engagement? After a study of online participation in local government, Kavanaugh, Isenhour, Pérez-Quiñones and Dunlap (2005) note an emergent pattern of small groups of citizens writing and distributing information on issues online, sharing amongst themselves and impacting public policy through this discourse. Hocoblogs is an example of this pattern. Social  Identity   Lombardo, Zakus, and Skinner (2002) found that making interpersonal connections allows people to feel part of a bigger whole. Connections let people find

6

common ground with others and let them draw on a larger pool of real experiences that can be shared. The ability to draw on this bigger pool of resources and gain wisdom from others’ experiences, or experiential knowledge, was found to be the most valuable resource a community can offer. When Sung, Hipworth and Ragsdell (2011) investigated the successful elements of community engagement, one thing their research suggested was that a sense of belonging and commitment were very important and strongly affected the outcome of community engagement. Bacon (2009) in his new book The Art of Community, boldly emphasizes the importance of a sense of belonging with the statement “If there is no belonging, there is no community.” The importance of belonging brings into focus the relevance of a community’s social identity, how well individuals are able to identify with the community and whether or not they feel included or excluded. Jiang and Carroll (2009) make a connection between social identity, social ties through networks, and social capital. They assert that the three are interrelated and may have mediating effects on one another. They also note some interesting aspects of social identity, such as the fact that it may not be actively perceived and that it can be contextual. This certainly comes into play with a loosely defined community such as Hocoblogs. The relationship between shared social identity and social capital is both complicated and likely a vital aspect of how social networking impacts civic engagement. Mixed-­‐Mode  Interaction   The low barrier to entry of an online community may help in creating the honeycomb structure that forms the basis for large community engagement that Putnam describes, but I believe for the community to succeed at civic engagement or political activism, it will need to be a mixed-mode community, with offline activities to reinforce

7

commitment and build the social relationships and emotional attachment. Lombardo, et al. (2002) list a number of communication technologies, such as email, telephone, and postal mail, and compare their strengths and weaknesses to those of face-to-face communication. Each communication mode serves a different purpose, in that some are better at affording some kinds of connections than others. Taken together, they are stronger than taken individually. The study participants stressed that a variety of communication types serve to help more people in more circumstances make valuable connections. Koh, Kim, Butler, and Bock (2007) advise community managers to strengthen the shared social identity of the group by linking online and offline activities, leading us to the mixed mode issue. According to social presence theory, offline interaction can increase participation in an online community by reinforcing awareness of others’ presence online (Koh et al. 2007). As Baym (2010) points out, people who communicate online are more likely to communicate offline as well.

Research  
I used two methods in my research. I began with an ethnographic approach, since I had already immersed myself in the community and can speak as a member about the things I have observed and experienced first hand. Then, I interviewed seven members of the community, including the founder, to get perspectives on my hypothesis. The interviews were approached qualitatively, because I was not interested in statistics, but rather in finding patterns and issues that would lead to further explorations of the community. This research is meant to be an entry point for further investigations into what I believe is a unique and vibrant example of a new form of local community engagement.

8

To solicit feedback, I wrote a blog post asking for volunteers to be interviewed, and cross-posted that request to both Facebook and Twitter using the Hocoblogs hash tag (#hocoblogs) in order to achieve maximum visibility, despite the fact that my own blog is not widely read. My plea was seen and rebroadcast on Twitter by several other community members. Because I hoped to interview people who represented a broad spectrum of participation, from frequent blog poster and recognized community activist, to the occasional blog reader, I also tagged some specific individuals whose perspectives I wanted to include. In the end I received willing responses from nine people, seven of whom were able to meet with me in person. In the interviews I asked the following questions: • • • • • • • • How did you initially become aware of and involved in the community? How long have you been part of the community? How did you participate at the beginning? How do you participate now? What is your perception of the group’s membership and culture? What is your perception of the social identity of the community? How does it compare to other local online or offline groups you aware of? Have you observed examples of people becoming more engaged as a direct result of participation in Hocoblogs? • • Whose blogs do you regularly read and what topics do they cover? Who are some key members of the community?

9

Analysis  
I expected, based on my experiences in the community, to validate some of my own perspectives on things such as the importance of mixed-mode communication, and the direct correlation between network expansion and increasing levels of civic engagement. Indeed, I did find these to be true. But the research also brought other ideas into focus. While interviewing community members, several patterns became evident. Entry  into  the  Community   The entry point into the community for all individuals I spoke with was not political or even community-oriented in natured. Several people first became aware of the community by searching online for local interests. Several noted food specifically as an interest, which led them to the prolific food blogger in Howard County, HowChow. From there, through comments and links to other blogs, these individuals became aware of other people's blogs, and issues of note in the community. This led them to read more blogs, comment on those blogs, and in essence, participate in community discussion. Somewhere along the path to more participation, they also attended one or more Hocoblogs happy hours, where they met people in person. This is the point where they typically noted that they felt they were part of the community. Even people who describe themselves as 'joiners' or have strong inclinations toward politics or participation in local governance, entered via more general interest and social channels. This is a significant point worth exploring because it speaks to possible inadequacies of online communities that are purely political in nature. A mixed-interest community, or one that is bound, as Hocoblogs is, to a geographical location and not a particular topic, may lead to a more engaged and participatory populace. Community organizers may find more success by

10

drawing people in through social connections or entertainment avenues. Mixed-­‐Mode  Communication   Another pattern that emerged in the interviews was the importance of the inperson events for making the community feel real to them, and in giving it a social identity. While most had not considered the idea of whether or not Hocoblogs had a real social identity before, upon reflection, several people answered the question based on the community they observed while at the happy hours, rather than what they experienced online. One person noted that the mixed-mode aspect of the community increased the level of trust she felt, allowing her to participate more freely and feel included. Several bloggers described their entry into the community as beginning online, then becoming mixed-mode with the inclusion of offline activities. One described her path as just the opposite; she became involved through her offline, personal relationship with another community member. She attended parties and other events initially, but eventually started her own blog. Nobody I interviewed participated exclusively offline or online. Knowledge  as  Engagement   One of the most gratifying patterns was in people's agreement with what constitutes civic engagement. Some noted a scale, ranging from awareness to holding offices or board positions. But nearly everyone pointed out that engagement started with knowledge. One person called knowledge a 'door' that opened up opportunities to participate more. Reading blogs is this community's vehicle for knowing both the people in the community and the issues within the county. The idea that knowledge and awareness constitute engagement echoes the concept that connection itself is a form of engagement (Lombardo, et al. 2002). This concept of engagement reveals one difficulty

11

in measuring civic engagement. People like Putnam who note a decline in civic engagement may simply be running into the problem of how to measure engagement when the means by which people participate have changed so much in the past few decades, and may have more to do with one’s perception than in any criteria detectable by an observer. One interviewee noted that while it seemed passive, simply reading blogs felt more active to her than reading the local newspaper. The ability to comment on a post and the relative ease of participating in a discussion as a result, even if she doesn't take advantage of that, makes her feel more engaged just because she knows she could jump in if she wanted to. A newspaper, which is inherently one-way communication, doesn't present the same opportunity and therefore does not promote the same feeling of engagement. Social  Identity  and  Social  Capital   The blogs that people tended to associate with Hocoblogs, as key players or notable personalities, had strong overlap; each person interviewed mentioned the same few blogs. The bloggers identified were all people who posted regularly and wrote about Howard County topics, businesses, and events. One person made an explicit distinction between the bloggers most strongly associated with the social identity of the community, such as Hocorising, from those who are well-known international bloggers who happen to live in this area, such as Strobist. The latter are well celebrated and appreciated, but are not necessarily considered defining figures in the local community. Another person stated that these notable bloggers are the thought leaders in the community, and they are the ones who drive the conversation through their posting about local issues. He also observed that the conversation changes when new thought leaders emerge, which had

12

recently happened with the rise in posting and popularity of Hocorising, displacing somewhat the previous thought leader, Wordbones. Through the discussion driven by the thought leaders, he observed shifts in the community climate and actionable change as a result of such discussions. This is a good demonstration of social capital at work. My own experiences are similar to many of the ones shared in interviews. When I initially moved to Howard County in 1999, I felt no connection to the people or the place beyond my zip code and local amenities. Several years later, I made a conscious decision to take root in the area, and began searching online for local events, blogs, and people with the intention of becoming more aware and involved, and hopefully to meet local people. Like others, I found HowChow, the local notable food blogger, as well as the Hocoblogs founder through her personal blog and her web page on the community time banking system. I arranged to meet her in person to discuss time banking, at what was then the preferred co-working space for many local writers and technologists. I was introduced to several other people at that meeting, and invited to a networking party later that month where I met more local people. Here I met one woman who was very active in her local village. Through her, I became involved in organizing some local events, which I would never have done had I not been asked by a strong social connection. Later I attended a Hocoblogs happy hour, and began writing more on my own blog as well as reading and commenting on others. I later hosted one of the happy hours, and began working with the Hocoblogs founder on ideas for making online social capital into a tangible local currency. I used the Hocoblogs network to arrange for a group of people to participate in the county’s backyard cleanup day, and joined up with a few other community members to advertise and encourage attendance at the free summer movie

13

nights at the Columbia lakefront. All of these activities are things that I would not have done on my own, that I attribute to the personal connections made through Hocoblogs and my gradually increased network embeddedness within the community. Some issues arose in the interviews that are worth noting, as they may be topics for future study. One issue was that of how individuals influence the community’s identity and membership, for better or worse. For example, some find that the founder’s personality gives the community an authentic and modern vibe, while another pointed out that the founder has the power to decide who is included and who isn’t which discriminates against some people. One person described Hocoblogs as a collection of layered sub-cultures, with the top tier consisting of thought leaders, followed by less influential bloggers, commenters, and then lurkers. When asked to contrast Hocoblogs with other communities in the area, he declared that Hocoblogs was more civil, but at the same time proud and “high-falutin”. Another blogger expressed feelings of exclusion for being a renter, based on her perception that Hocoblogs members are all homeowners with inherently different concerns than her. I echoed this feeling of exclusion, which I sometimes feel for living in Ellicott City, when so much of the focus of discussion is often centered in Columbia. Feelings of exclusion based on factors such as homeownership and neighborhood suggest another kind of digital divide within the participatory class. Research into how the membership of Hocoblogs defines its social identity and what kind of selection effect that has on discourse and civic engagement would be another interesting subject of study. Another issue that the community struggles with and causes some tension is the evolution of community vocabulary, as social tagging evolves into formal categorization

14

schemes. An example of this is the use of hash tags that refer to Howard County. Many people refer to Howard County with the colloquialism “HoCo”, and when tagging was introduced to Twitter, this was a natural hash tag choice. It is not, however, unique, and a search reveals posts not relevant to Howard County, MD. The Hocoblogs founder, recognizing the need for unique tags for categorical integrity, worked with a few bloggers to invent the tag #theHoco, and proceeded to endorse its use. This met with some resistance. At around the same time, another community introduced its version of a local hash tag, #HoCoMoJo. The resulting increase in tag choices diluted the searches further, and the debate still rages over which tag people should use, for what purpose. Other tensions arise when individuals who do not understand the use of tagging make frequent posts with haphazard choices in tags, essentially spamming the community channels with irrelevant information. One extreme case of this led to arguments that eventually ended in one member being excommunicated from Hocoblogs by removing her blog from the aggregator. While guidance and facilitation in areas of etiquette and effective use of technology are important in facilitating communication, this example illustrates how a clash of opinions can lead to rifts within the community. The founder offered her perspective on the evolution of Hocoblogs, which she began in response to a statement made to her: "You can't create community." Taking that as a challenge, since she herself was frustrated with not finding community, she sought to create it herself. She started a blog, then found other local bloggers and had a party. She then worked with a software developer to create a blog aggregator and started linking local blogs, and over time inviting new bloggers to join. Today, the happy hours have grown from a half dozen bloggers to highly publicized events attended by community

15

officials and business leaders, and Hocoblogs.com lists over 125 blogs representing local voices. She emphasized the importance of being connected to a physical place and people’s desire to connect with real people within that geographical area, reinforcing the finding that people tend to form relationships online more easily with people who are local to them geographically (Papacharissi, 2010). In addition, she identified several key points in the evolution of Hocoblogs that facilitated an increase in engagement: 1. The voice of the community became more civil when more female bloggers joined the public conversation. This made the community more accessible and raised the level of conversation within the county. 2. Prominent bloggers stopped allowing anonymous commenters, which as she puts it, were poisoning the atmosphere and lowering both the civility and accountability of discourse. 3. The volume of blogs eventually became high enough for individual bloggers to maintain their own lists of local blogs, creating micro-communities and lenses of different perspective into the broader community. 4. Tagging became more widely used, allowing information to be filtered more by topic than by blog or individual, making it easier for individuals to find information of interest to them. 5. The happy hours grew and evolved into networking events, facilitating more personal connections and expanding individual networks with the mixed-mode interactions that were afforded by the parties. 6. Personal blogs grew in number, when at the beginning only people with community-specific blogs felt compelled to be listed. With more personal blogs,

16

the barrier to entry lowered further for new members who could be drawn in by general interests and create more personal connections to strengthen their networks.

Conclusion  
I investigated my hypothesis on civic engagement and found support for the idea that an individual’s participation in civic action increases with the expansion of their online network. Evidence of this is best illustrated by an example: On June 1st, 2011, urban redevelopment expert Chris Leinberger gave a presentation on Walkable Urbanism. The talk was sponsored by the Columbia Association and the Howard Hughes Corporation and was open to everyone. While not a Columbia resident myself, I heard about the event through both my personal connections made through Hocoblogs, and in reading blog posts that advertised it. Embedded in the community as I was, and being interested in the subject, I responded to the event announcement and attended the talk. I knew many of the people there, as a result of my interactions with bloggers at the happy hours, and recognized many more from other community events that I had attended as a result of my network connections. The Hocoblogs founder, recently hired by the Columbia Association, was there fulfilling her hostess functions of introducing people and facilitating connections, as well as informing people about relevant hash tags to use in reference to the event. After the presentation, a flurry of blog posts, (at least fifteen posts were written, by eleven different authors) recapped the event and added the authors’ own thoughts, spurring even more posts in addition to comments. A search on the walkable urbanism hash tag (#walkableurbanism) yielded even more comments and links back to the various blog posts discussing it.

17

Several of the authors and commenters work for the Columbia Association or have positions on one of Columbia’s village boards and will have direct influence on future plans for the reinvention of downtown Columbia. These plans are also circulating through Hocoblogs, and people who were drawn to attend Chris Leinberger’s talk and subsequently participated in the online discussion, are now more informed and engaged with some of the issues regarding the revitalization plans. The following comment appeared on one blog post, in which the author provided links to all other known posts about the subject at that time (Singleton, T. 2011, June 13): "To the Columbia Blogosphere and your readers, I have spoken in hundreds of cities and towns across the country but I never seen a place that engages in civilized, thorough and in depth debate more than Columbia. You are to be commended and held up as a model for the country...a model we so desperately need today. Thank you for the discussion, which I have followed and learned from, and will hold your community out as a model to emulate as I travel across our country discussing the future of the built environment. It is obvious that Jim Rouse would have been very proud. Chris Leinberger" Mr. Leinberger’s comment highlights what I found through the interviews, my own experience within the community, and the founder’s perspective on its evolution. Hocoblogs exemplifies how expanding one’s online network can lead one to be more informed and civically engaged. It also suggests that Hocoblogs is not only a model for local civic engagement through online discourse, but that it could be a hotbed for future research in this area.

18

Future  Research  Agendas  
Engagement  via  entertainment   Robert Putnam (Smith, 2001, 2007) suggested a variety of factors that may lead to a decline in civic engagement. Among these are suburban sprawl and commuting times, changes to family structures such that more people are living alone, and the privatization of leisure activities, with the increase in television and other electronic entertainment in the home. One of the factors that helped Hocoblogs grow as a community was the regular happy hours where people could meet face-to-face in an informal setting. As I note in my own experiences, my connections increased both in number and strength through social gatherings, both planned and spontaneous, as a result of the online connections. Based on this, I suggest that entertainment may be an effective avenue for strengthening social networks, and thereby, increasing civic engagement. To reverse the trend that Putnam cites, entertainment, in whatever form it now takes for people of today’s generations, is a vehicle to inspire engagement. The question worth investigating is this: could civic engagement be increased by capitalizing on this leisure time trend and finding avenues to connect with a community through entertainment? Successfully  Asking  People  to  Participate   Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995) said that people engage in political action because they can, because they want to, and because they are asked. Today, the method by which a person is asked varies widely, from a personal invitation during a face-to-face encounter, to a general call to action sent to a thousand people in an email list. As I found myself, a general call for volunteers to be interviewed for this project on my blog elicited

19

very few responses. I received more positive responses from those that I asked specifically, via a public tagging on Twitter. The internet gives more opportunities to some people by lowering the threshold to participation. What could be studied more is whether or not the Internet affords any extra motivation to participate, and how. I suspect that it allows for more networks to form with both strong and weak ties, and network embeddedness is one of the things Van Laer (2010) looked at when he found that both formal and informal network ties are a good predictor of protest participation. I suspect these predictors may extend to other forms of political participation. Van Laer (2010) points out that the internet helps produce and sustain social and political networks. Also, it helps reinforce existing networks in which people are already embedded, strengthening them with mixed mode communication. And, the internet helps expand new networks. All of these factors increase the chances that someone will be asked to participate. Lowering  the  barrier  to  entry  even  further   People I interviewed mostly noted that their point of entry into the Hocoblogs community was through a personal or food-related blog, not a political or communityspecific one. It was from the more general interest topics and personal subjects that they were led to finding and reading about community and political topics that eventually led them to participate in discussions, learn about issues, and feel as part of the larger community. While there are studies showing that the internet can lower the barrier to entry for political action (Paparachissi, 2010), a further inquiry could be made into other ways that threshold can be lowered besides the technical affordances of the internet. If people begin to engage through more broad-interest or personal topics, like

20

entertainment, this could become a useful tool for gradually drawing individuals into a community where they will eventually be active participants. Hubs  and  Thought  Leaders   A theme I am particular interested in and find regularly running through other research is that it is always all about the people, not the technology. The success of Hocoblogs as a vibrant community certainly hinges on the enabling power of the internet. But the more powerful element is the curation and facilitation of its founder and selfproclaimed hostess. Not only is her care in planning events, finding and linking blogs, and reposting content across many channels important in growing and maintaining this community, but I see her position as a social networking hub to play a vital role in her ability to foster Hocoblogs. An avenue for future research would be to look at how important hubs are to a community, both in their initial creation and their continued health and social identity. Some of the people interviewed were careful to note that the Hocoblogs identity is closely linked to its founder, both for good and bad, since the strength of one person’s personality and vision played such a large role in this particular community. Does the health of a community depend on its hubs, and how many of them there are? Can someone who is not a hub be successful at creating or fostering a community? Specifically, how do thought leaders influence the identity of the community, and facilitate social action? An avenue for research is the distinction between hubs, thought leaders, and community managers and how each of these roles contributes to the health of a community. Social  Capital   There is work being done to redefine and expand on the concept of social capital

21

in an online world. For example, Ali-Hassan, Nevo and Nevo (2010) introduce the concept of mobile social capital, adapting social capital concepts to nomadic workers. Their studies suggest that social mobility may in fact have a negative impact on social capital. The fact that mobile collaboration may affect social capital suggests that there is a lot of research still to be done on how social capital is created and sustained and the factors that influence it. In the Hocoblogs community, there has been some emphasis on using one’s social capital to influence the community, through writing reviews, check-ins on location-based services, and using the social network and social networking services to make some aspects of social capital into a tangible form of currency. This project doesn’t go into this explicitly, but it is an exciting area for future research.

 

22

References  
Ali-Hassan, H., Nevo, D. and Nevo, S. (2010). Mobile collaboration: exploring the role of social capital. SIGMIS Database 41, 2 (May 2010), 9-24. Bacon, J. (2009). The art of community: building the new age of participation. O'Reilly Media. Baym, N. K. (2010). Personal connections in the digital age. Polity Pr. Binder, J., Howes, A. and Sutcliffe, A. (2009). The problem of conflicting social spheres: effects of network structure on experienced tension in social network sites. In Proceedings of the 27th international conference on Human factors in computing systems (CHI '09). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 965-974. Chang, M., Jungnickel, K., Orloff, C. and Shklovski, I. (2005). Engaging the city: public interfaces as civic intermediary. In CHI '05 extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems (CHI EA '05). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 2109-2110. Dunbar, R. I. M. The social brain hypothesis. Evolutionary Anthropology, 6 (1998), 178190. Granovetter, M. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6): 1360--1380. Jiang, H. and Carroll, J. M. (2009). Social capital, social network and identity bonds: a reconceptualization. In Proceedings of the fourth international conference on Communities and technologies (C&T '09). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 51-60. Kavanaugh, A., Isenhour, P., Pérez-Quiñones, M. A. and Dunlap, D. (2005). Modeling online participation in local governance. In Proceedings of the 2005 national conference on Digital government research (dg.o '05). Digital Government Society of North America 63-64. *** Koh, J., Kim, Y., Butler, B., and Bock, G. (2007). Encouraging participation in virtual communities. Commun. ACM 50, 2 (Feb. 2007), 68-73. Lombardo, C., Zakus, D., & Skinner, H. (2002). Youth social action: building a global latticework through information and communication technologies. Health Promotion International, 17(4), 363-371. McDonald, D. W. (2003). Recommending collaboration with social networks: a comparative evaluation. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (CHI '03). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 593-600.

23

Millen, D. R. and Patterson, J. F. (2003). Identity disclosure and the creation of social capital. In CHI '03 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA, April 05 - 10). CHI '03. ACM, New York, NY, 720-721. Morris, M. R., Teevan, J. and Panovich, K. (2010). What do people ask their social networks, and why?: a survey study of status message Q&A behavior. In Proceedings of the 28th international conference on Human factors in computing systems (CHI '10). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1739-1748. Papacharissi, Z. (2010). A networked self: identity, community and culture on social network sites. Park, H.M. (2006). The impacts of digital government on civic engagement: a typology of information technology use. In Proceedings of the 2006 international conference on Digital government research (dg.o '06). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 440-441. Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community. Ribak, A., Jacovi, M. and Soroka, V. (2002). "Ask before you search": peer support and community building with reachout. In Proceedings of the 2002 ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work (CSCW '02). 126-135. Ryan, S. (2004). Initial Trust Formation in an Online Social Action Network. Retrieved from http://www.istr.org/conferences/toronto/workingpapers/ryan.sherida.pdf Singleton, T. (2011, June 13). Talk of the town: walkable urbanism. Retrieved from http://www.columbiamd.com/2011/06/talk-of-the-town-walkable-urbanism/ Smith, M. K. (2001, 2007) 'Robert Putnam', the encyclopaedia of informal education, www.infed.org/thinkers/putnam.htm. Last update: October 14, 2009. Sung, H., Hepworth, M., and Ragsdell, G. (2011). Community engagement in public libraries. In Proceedings of the 2011 iConference (iConference '11). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 823-824. Terveen, L. and McDonald, D. W. (2005). Social matching: A framework and research agenda. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 12, 3 (September 2005), 401-434. Van Laer, J. (2010). ACTIVISTS ONLINE AND OFFLINE: THE INTERNET AS AN INFORMATION CHANNEL FOR PROTEST DEMONSTRATIONS. Mobilization, 15(3), 347-366. Van Laer, J., & Van Aelst, P. (2010). Internet and social movement action repertoires: Opportunities and limitations. Information, Communication & Society, 13(8), 1146-1171.

24

Wellman, B. and Haythornthwaite, C. (2002). The internet in everyday life. WileyBlackwell. Yang, S., & Kang, M. (2009). Measuring blog engagement: Testing a four-dimensional scale. Public Relations Review, 35(3), 323-324.

25