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«Accepted for publication in Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (JASIST) You Scratch Someone’s Back and We’ll ...»

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Accepted for publication in Journal of the American Society for Information Science and

Technology (JASIST)

You Scratch Someone’s Back and We’ll Scratch Yours:

Collective Reciprocity in Social Q&A Communities

Philip Fei Wu, Surrey Business School, University of Surrey, Guildford, United Kingdom.

Email: f.wu@surrey.ac.uk

Nikolaos Korfiatis, Institute for Informatics and Mathematics, Goethe University Frankfurt,

Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Email: korfiatis@em.uni-frankfurt.de Abstract Taking a structuration perspective while integrating reciprocity research in economics, this study examines the dynamics of reciprocal interactions in social Q&A communities. We postulate that individual users of social Q&A constantly adjust their kindness into the direction of the observed benefit and effort of others. Collective reciprocity emerges from this pattern of conditional strategy of reciprocation and helps form a structure that guides the very interactions that give birth to the structure. Based on a large sample of data from Yahoo! Answers, our empirical analysis supports the collective reciprocity premise, showing that the more effort (relative to benefit) an asker contributes to the community, the more likely the community will return the favor. On the other hand, the more benefit (relative to effort) the asker takes from the community, the less likely the community will cooperate in terms of providing answers. We conclude that a structuration view of reciprocity sheds light on the duality of social norms in online communities.

Introduction The increasing popularity of online knowledge-sharing websites has attracted much academic interest in recent years. Past research has looked at general knowledge-sharing sites such as Wikipedia (Nov, 2007) and Answerbag (Gazan, 2010), as well as specialized professional electronic networks (e.g., Chiu, Hsu, & Wang, 2006; Wasko, Teigland, & Faraj, 2009). One of the baffling questions to researchers is the motivation for voluntary contribution in these online spaces, for it seems irrational to contribute time and effort to help strangers online (Wasko & Faraj, 2005). Among many proposed motivational accounts, reciprocity is one that has been frequently mentioned in online community studies (Constant, Sproull, & Kiesler, 1996;

Kankanhalli, Tan, & Wei, 2005; Kollock, 1999; Wasko & Faraj, 2005). Nevertheless, there is surprisingly little empirical evidence of reciprocity as an established norm of behavior at the community level in the online spaces. In other words, the existence of reciprocity (or lack thereof) has been researched mostly from the perspective of individual psychology (typically through a small sample of research participants), while the macro-level, collective patterns of reciprocation in online communities are largely unexamined. The aim of this research is to define and understand collective reciprocity by examining interaction patterns in social question and answer (SQA) communities – a prominent type of online knowledge-sharing community.

Drawing on structuration theory in sociology and game theory in economics, we propose that members of SQA communities follow a “virtual order” (Giddens, 1984) of conditional cooperation that governs the reciprocal interactions in these online spaces. Empirical analyses based on a large sample of questions and answers in Yahoo! Answers largely support our theoretical claims.

This paper is organized as follows: We first discuss the characteristics of SQA within the intellectual context of communities of practice (CoPs) research. Then we propose collective reciprocity as a conceptual cornerstone for understanding reciprocal interactions in SQA. Next, we present data collected from Yahoo! Answers and test hypotheses based on the collective reciprocity premise. Finally, we discuss how this work contributes to scholarly understanding of reciprocal behavior in large-scale social networks.

Are SQA Websites Communities of Practice?

With more and more people turn to the Web for information, opinion, and advice, SQA websites have been thriving in the past decade. Popular SQA sites such as Yahoo! Answers and WikiAnswers each attracts tens of millions of unique monthly visitors (comScore, 2012). There also exist many specialized SQA sites such as Avvo (for asking legal and health questions of lawyers and doctors) and MathOverflow (for mathematicians). These SQA websites may differ in design and user demographics, but they all provide an online space where users express their information need in the form of natural language in anticipating public response (Shah, Oh, & Oh, 2009). In addition, most SQA sites provide facilitating features that allow a user to create an online profile and to rate the quality of answers.

Are SQA sites online CoPs? Decades of academic debate in community studies has shown the difficulty of determining what is a community, and this task becomes even more daunting now as Internet-based communication technologies afford ubiquitous and large-scale social interactions.

Indeed, some online social networking services have millions of users who are geographically dispersed and may never meet face-to-face. It is therefore difficult for those people to develop a “sense of community” in its traditional sense (McMillan & Chavis, 1986; Reich, 2010). Wellman et al. (2003) go even further to claim that greater online access and interactions lead to networked individualism rather than community solidarities. A more recent stream of research, however, has been using the term “community” to describe the large online spaces such as MySpace (boyd, 2006), Youtube (Rotman & Preece, 2010), and Yahoo! Answers (Rosenbaum & Shachaf, 2010).

A similar discrepancy arises when we look closely at the concept of CoPs. The term was coined by Lave and Wenger (1991) to refer to sets of professionals within a well-bounded community who have similar responsibilities. Most studies in the knowledge management field use the term in its original meaning (Cox, 2005; Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002). However, Murillo (2008) applied Wenger’s core constructs to assessing whether Usenet groups are CoPs and concluded that “true communities of practice” can emerge spontaneously in the online social spaces without face-to-face interaction. Hara, Shachaf, and Stoerger (2009) also try to extend the CoPs framework from organizational settings to open online communities that are not constrained by any organizational context. Brown and Duguid (2001) draw a distinction between “network of practice” and “community of practice”: Networks of practice form from informal and emergent social relations in which individuals interact for practice-related reasons, while CoPs is a specialized subset of networks of practice in which co-located individuals build strong, communal ties. In a similar vein, Wasko and Faraj (2005) differentiate a CoP from an electronic network of practice, arguing that the former requires strong interpersonal ties and direct reciprocity while the latter consists of loosely knit members with little direct interaction.

For the purpose of this study, we adopt Bruckman’s (2006) proposition of conceptualizing community as a prototype category in which some social groups are prototypical examples of the category whereas others are less typical examples. Just like a robin is a better example of a bird than a penguin, an online health support group (e.g., Bob’s Kneeboard studied by MaloneyKrichmar & Preece, 2005) may have a higher “degree of prototypicality” (Rosch, 1978) in the community category than a general purpose SQA group such as Yahoo! Answers. This nuanced view of the community category helps us to step back from heated debate about the connotations of the term “community” and focus on mechanisms of online social interactions. Once we accept the notion that there are various degrees of membership in a category rather than a clear-cut inclusion–exclusion boundary, we may begin to examine the characteristics of SQA sites in the theoretical lens of CoPs and identify their resemblance to CoPs.

Collective Reciprocity In SQA communities, an asker seeks knowledge from “kind strangers” (Constant et al., 1996) who answer the question without anticipating the asker to return the favor. In fact, a large number of questions posted on SQA sites are answered by a small army of “answer persons” (Turner, Smith, Fisher, & Welser, 2005) whose main goal seems to only help others, whereas the majority of users are one-time askers who have never contributed any answers (Adamic, Zhang, Bakshy, & Ackerman, 2008). Prior literature suggests that the asymmetry of contribution is a common phenomenon across various types of online communities (Nonnecke & Preece, 2000;

Shachaf, 2009; Whittaker, 1998).

The voluntary contribution in online communities seems irrational from the economic perspective, as the contributors receive little immediate rewards. Some early Internet studies attempted to understand the motivations for voluntary contribution through the lens of gift economy (Barbrook, 1998; Raymond, 1998; Rheingold, 1993). For example, Rheingold (1993) suggests that virtual communities operate by the norms of gift economy, in which “people do things for one another out of a spirit of building something between them, rather than a spreadsheet-calculated quid pro quo” (p. 59). But Kollock (1999) argues that the acts of information sharing and knowledge contributing online are different from traditional gift exchange, as information is a special type of gift which can be given to more than one recipient without added cost. A gift of information is usually not from one individual to another but from one to many anonymous recipients in an open network. Thus, from the recipients’ point of view, they may tap into the gifts when in need, without bearing an obligation of repaying the gift givers. Furthermore, as an individual can join or leave an online community at any time, the obligation of reciprocity is almost impossible to enforce.

Some sociologists have also argued that information sharing in online spaces is likely to form networked individualism rather than communal reciprocity (Wellman, 2001; Reich, 2010).

Unlike symmetric social networks such as Facebook in which friendship is always directly reciprocal, the question–answer relationship in large-scale SQA communities is usually onedirectional and non-reciprocal. The lack of direct reciprocity means that there is no assurance that an asker gets a good answer, nor does an answerer know if her favor will ever be returned.

As a result, Wasko and Faraj (2005) and other researchers (e.g., Chiu et al., 2006; Lampel & Bhalla, 2007) turn to social capital elements such as reputation and status for explaining the voluntary contributions in online social spaces.

Yet, there seems to be some kind of equilibrium in information giving and taking that keeps the online SQA communities healthy and sustainable. Indeed, if everyone consumes knowledge contributed by others without giving back, SQA sites such as Yahoo! Answers would not have thrived for many years. Kollock (1999) contends that a balanced reciprocity with each individual participant is not possible, but there should be a rough balance with a community as a whole over time. Similarly, Constant et al. (1996) and Kankanhalli et al. (2005) argue that while a contributor provides a gift of information without anticipating immediate reciprocation, a future reciprocation is somewhat expected. Wasko et al. (2009) hypothesize that the creation of knowledge in electronic networks is characterized by a pattern of generalized exchange, in which a giving is reciprocated by a third party rather than the recipient.

We conceptualize the generalized exchange observed in Wasko et al. (2009) as collective reciprocity. In line with recent economic literature, we view reciprocity as a behavioral response to perceived kind or unkind intentions in bilateral interactions (Falk & Fischbacher, 2006;

Stanca, 2010). Collective reciprocity, therefore, is a collective patterning in responding to kind or unkind intentions in multilateral interactions in a social network. Just as in bilateral interactions, fairness is desirable in multilateral interactions where kind intentions are rewarded and unkind intentions are punished (Cox, Friedman, & Gjerstad, 2007; Falk, Fehr, & Fischbacher, 2008;

Fehr & Gächter, 2000).

While “collective reciprocity” and “generalized exchange” both refer to the social exchange in an n-person network, we prefer the former term for the following reasons. First, generalized exchange is a core concept in social exchange theory (Ekeh, 1974) that focuses on explaining social dilemma puzzles under the assumption of rational choice (e.g., Yamagishi & Kiyonari’s (2000) study of in-group favoritism in a Prisoner’s Dilemma game and Takahashi’s (2000) model of “pure-generalized exchange” in computer simulations). By contrast, we emphasize the emergent social norm of collective reciprocity on which generalized exchange can be based.

Second, although we share Takahashi’s (2000) view that generalized exchange results from individual actors’ “fairness-based selective giving”, we are more interested in the collective nature of such giving at the community-level rather than the chain-like indirect reciprocity among actors (Bearman, 1997; Nowak & Sigmund, 2005). Third, in online SQA communities a question often receives more than one answer from multiple users, so the term “collective reciprocity” better captures the collectiveness of the reciprocation effort.

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