Online technical support forums build social capital

Mar 17, 2008

Consumers in search of product related information and technical support often turn to virtual communities for help. A forthcoming examination in the April 2008 Journal of Consumer Research of virtual P3 communities – peer-to-peer problem solving communities – presents evidence that social capital, widely described as declining in face-to-face neighborhood communities, has migrated online.

“Social capital not only exists online, it strengthens over time, serving as the foundation for the development of community assets including archived technical assistance and broad social connections,” explain Charla Mathwick (Portland State University), Caroline Wiertz (City University London), and Ko de Ruyter (Maastricht University, the Netherlands).

“With time, the community members come to think of each other as ‘extended family,’ available to serve as a sounding board, offering moral support and valuable advice as they work through the technical complexities of the products or services they consume,” they add.

A collectively owned, intangible reserve of support, social capital has been described as the combination of resources that individuals and groups gain from their connections to one another. As the researchers explain, the value of social capital is based on the perception of its mutual benefits arising from social investments.

Mathwick, Wiertz, and de Ruyter observe a moral code of behavior in online social forums among the established volunteer experts of virtual P3 communities – known as “wikis” – who routinely come to the aid of floundering “newbies.”

“Virtual communities are maintained by the normative influences that impose a moral responsibility to volunteer, to reciprocate, and to act in a trustworthy manner,” the researchers write.

Newbies initially click into the community seeking answers to very specific technical problems. Wikis, a small but vital subgroup of the community, rise to their coveted status through demonstrated expertise and a level of civic engagement that translates into months and even years of personal commitment to the needs of their peers.

“As newbies mature into wikis, the social capital that accumulates heightens the perceived value of community interaction and cements their commitment to the group,” the researchers write.

P3 communities are also characterized by shared rituals that include a specific language that is only meaningful to informed members. In addition, members of virtual P3 communities often combine forces to achieve broader community goals.

“As time passes, the strength of the social connections these individuals build comes to define their community experience, turning what begins as a technical user group interaction into a social experience they cherish and are willing to work to maintain,” the researchers conclude.

Source: University of Chicago

Explore further: Best of Last Week – First map of hidden universe, pursuit of compact fusion and new clues about the causes of depression

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Recommended for you

US company sells out of Ebola toys

Oct 17, 2014

They might look tasteless, but satisfied customers dub them cute and adorable. Ebola-themed toys have proved such a hit that one US-based company has sold out.

Social trust eroded in Chinese product-tampering incident

Oct 14, 2014

For about a decade, Chinese consumers weren't getting what they paid for when they purchased Wuchang, a special brand of gourmet rice that has a peculiar scent. The quality was being diluted when less expensive rice was aromatized, ...

The 2014 Nobel Prizes at a glance

Oct 13, 2014

(AP)—All winners of the 2014 Nobel Prizes have now been announced, starting with the medicine award a week ago and ending with the economics prize on Monday.

User comments : 0