- Designing Online Communities: How Designers, Developers, Community Managers, and Software Structure Discourse and Knowledge Production on the Web by Trevor Owens
For those whose research centers on online communities, there is a bounty of publicly posted and easily accessible data in the form of user-created content. In light of this, it seems as though conducting traditional qualitative research on online communities should be unequivocally assisted by this largesse of information. In Designing Online Communities, however, Trevor Owens addresses and makes visible a gap in the existing methodologies currently utilized to assess the digital content produced by online communities. He argues that existing work in digital methodologies as it stands is lacking an effective understanding of the design context in which this content is produced. He proposes that researchers who study online communities should be familiar with the design protocols through which they are coded, presented, and moderated. He further expands this into his final suggestion that the input and knowledge of those engaged in such research would be a valuable asset for designers who are currently working on new and emerging platforms for online congregation and communication.
Throughout the book, Owens’s perspective as a prominent digital archivist—employed at the time of the book’s writing at the Library of Congress—with a doctoral focus on social science research methods is apparent. His archivist’s eye encourages researchers of online communities to look not only at the digital materials that are created by the users of these communities, but also the context within which these materials came into being. Owens defines context not only as a matter of physical and temporal space, but also as a matter of positionality within a technological landscape comprised of rules, moderation, and methods of display. To this end, his book functions as an analysis of twenty-eight previous works in the field, with a focus on determining whether and how they discuss particular technological aspects of online communities. As well, there is a focus on how those aspects are incorporated into the socio-cognitive framework that the authors use in order to explain online communities and their users (pp. 38–39). This analysis situates him strongly among existing work in the field as it highlights his own technologically mindful approach to qualitative analysis. His discussion of these works is then extended into a history of online communities, segueing eventually into an investigation of the ways in which online systems of control and content management affect both the ways in which online communities develop and the type of content that those communities produce.
The conclusions that Owens comes to through this analysis possess strong implications for those who wish to engage in meaningful research [End Page 302] involving online communities. His line of argument makes the strong case that the virtual contents produced by online communities are in and of themselves an incomplete data set for analysis. He establishes that there is significant insight to be had in understanding that which is absent from the records due to the exercise of technological modes of control, and therefore in understanding what, exactly, comprises those modes of control. His discussion and analysis of these technological aspects, and his discussion of how they have or haven’t been treated by existing work in the field is the book’s strongest feature. His suggestion that the designers of online communities and those who study those communities should be engaged in conversation surrounding both the design and social scientific analysis of these communities is also especially well-supported and important.
More attention, however, could have been paid to the willful manipulation of technological systems by users. His discussion of reputation systems touches briefly on this phenomenon, but does not fully engage with it. A more thorough look at user-moderated content could bolster his discussion of the methodological limitations of existing research on online communities. Overall, however, the book’s analysis and conclusions are well-supported, and the text as a whole is...