Tales from the Borderlands: Dynamics of Creativity and Play on Online Communities

Spyros Angelopoulos, Yasmin Merali

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionScientificpeer-review


The aim of this paper is to advance understandings of creativity and play in the contexts of an everyday life cultural setting, and, at the same time, study the emergence and evolution of novel organizational phenomena such as the playful organization (Pors & Andersen, 2014; Sørensen & Spoelstra, 2011). We present the findings of an exploratory research on the ways in which the participants of a nascent online organizational environment engage in interactions entailing creativity and play that transcend the online boundaries and give rise to covert informal gifting economies, demonstrating in this way 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. The potentially anarchic nature of the internet, affording a space that nobody controls and nobody regulates, furnishes unprecedented opportunities for communication across geographic, political and economic divides, enables people to reach across barriers of distance, time and culture, whilst giving rise to forms of creativity and play (Warren, 2008). Creativity and play go hand-in-hand in and around organizational settings, and foster collaboration on online settings (Utz, 2003). Concurrently, creativity and play on such settings inspires a sense of ‘community’ (Slater et al., 2000), enabling people to come closer and become friends (Ginsburg & Weisband, 2006), giving in this way rise to evolving and reciprocal social networks. Our study focuses on an invitation-only online community of elite cigar smokers, and traces the emergence and evolution of behaviors related to creativity and play, and the emergence and evolution of a covert informal gifting economy among the participants. Research on the role of covert informal gifting economies on online organizational settings is still in its infancy, and a reason for the lack of empirical studies seems to be the tendency to treat it as a realisation of archaic customs (Cheal, 1988). The literature stresses the need to explore the emergence and evolution of informal economies on online communities (e.g. Kollock, 1999), to identify the social context in which such informal economies get their social meaning on the internet (e.g. Bergquist & Ljungberg, 2001), the model of exchange that guides the interactions of online community participants, and how such interactions contribute to the maintenance of on-going exchange relationships amongst participants (e.g. Hemetsberger & Reinhardt, 2009). We, thus, study the dynamics of creativity and play amongst the participants of the community and how they enable the fostering of collaboration over time, as well as how creativity and play on online communities give rise to evolving social networks. In order to do this, we employ a novel methodological approach that combines longitudinal social network analysis (LSNA) with content analysis in a research design that seamlessly incorporates both qualitative and quantitative research methods. In contrast to studies that have focused primarily on the structural properties of evolving social network, our methodological approach entails an examination of the content of the communications, and is designed to explicitly capture the dynamics of emergence and evolution. We do this by analyzing the interactions of the participants and the content of their communications to trace the emergence of the network, the core social principles and the evolution of collective practices and norms over a continues period of eighteen months, starting from the inception of the invitation-only online community. Our exploratory study identifies a number of distinctive technology-enabled social trends that entail the exchange of material objects amongst participants, and gives rise to covert informal gifting economies, where the exchange of material objects can become the artifact of on-going reciprocal relationships. Our work ultimately stresses the importance of considering the ‘knowing-in-practice’ (Gherardi & Strati, 2012) that characterize the dynamics between creativity and play on the intersection of online and offline space; grounded on and embodied in the materiality of the tacit, relational and aesthetic nature of everyday life (Strati, 1999). Our study responds to calls for more studies to make sense of the relationship between the social and material, and to elucidate the ways in which the macro-level collective community phenomenology emerges from micro- and meso-level interactions amongst community participants. For practitioners, our study provides new insights on how to study online populations, identify problems or opportunities, and deliver interventions in networked forms.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication10th Organization Studies Summer Workshop (OSW)
Publication statusPublished - 2015
Externally publishedYes


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