In this paper, we present a novel methodological approach for elucidating the relationship between the structure and dynamics of the evolving social networks that constitute topic-specific online communities, and the social organisation, activities and practices of the community participants. Our methodological approach combines longitudinal social network analysis with content analysis to afford a nuanced exposition of the micro- and meso- level structures, dynamics and practices that give rise to the emergence and persistence of the macro-level community phenomenology. The combination of these two analytical tools provides valuable insights about the communication patterns, norms, and governance structures implicated in cyber-social systems. We illustrate the utility of our approach using longitudinal data from an invitation-only online community of cigar smokers, which we created for the needs of our study and tracked from its initiation onwards for a continuous period of eighteen months. Our study identifies six distinctive types of activities entailing interactions that transcend the boundaries of the online community, demonstrating the potential for complex, multi-faceted socio-economic spaces that bridge the divide between virtual and embodied space, informational and material objects, and social and economic transactions. Our findings show how a stable macro-level network phenomenology and collective community identity can emerge from heterogeneous micro-level activities and practices of different individual participants. Our study affords both scholars and practitioners new insights on how to study online populations, identify problems or opportunities, and deliver interventions in networked forms.
|Title of host publication||36th Sunbelt conference (INSNA)|
|Publication status||Published - 2016|