online communities and computer-mediated communication

justine cassell - instructor // email

david huffaker - t.a. // email

Spring Quarter, 2006 Northwestern University

Click here for CTECs

Course Number: Comm. Studies 395 ( 28); CS 395(28)
Term: Winter 2006
Class: Tuesday 2pm - 4:50pm
Room: Searle 2-370

In the 21st century the Internet has become a central focus for communication - business meetings that rely on collaborative software, distance learning, and personal exchanges that involve email, instant messenger, chat rooms and online communities. In this course we will examine several different types of online communication - both business-, education- and recreation-oriented, that engage several different communities -- young and old people, monolingual and multilingual, mononational and international. In doing so, we will analyze very closely the types of computer-mediated interactions and collaborations that occur among people who share common (or perhaps uncommon) interests, and the language that they use to express themselves.


This course will involve readings, analysis of primary on-line behavior data, and simple implementations of on-line projects. No programming experience is necessary. There will be occasional labs to explain technical content. In terms of conceptual learning, by the end of the class you should have an good understanding of community on- and off-line, behavior on- and off-line, and language use on- and off-line. In terms of technical and design learning, by the end of the class you should have the ability to analyze, design and implement effective online communities.


All other readings will be made available online.

Course Requirements

Class participation
This is not a lecture class and so your participation is expected. But note the definition of class participation: being willing and able to speak intelligently in class about the topics under discussion. Clearly, in order to be able to speak intelligently about a topic, you will need to have done the readings for that topic. You will also need to be physically present and alert...

Interpretive questions
Before each class meeting students are required to post at least two interpretive and motivated questions for the readings assigned for that class. Since the point of the questions is (a) to demonstrate that you have done the readings, and (b) to give the instructor a roadmap for class discussion, your questions cannot be both about the same reading. You can write one question for each of two different texts, or one question that compares two texts, and one question on a third text, or two questions that compare three texts, and so forth.

Questions must be posted to the class blog on Monday by noon (24 hours before the class meets), so that the instructor can base her discussion of the readings on the questions submitted. Questions that are posted after Monday at noon will be marked down. Occasionally I may cancel the question requirement in favor of another equally straightforward and non time-consuming assignment. Due each class period.

Blog Comments
Blogs are most interesting when each post launches a conversation. Just to make sure you get to experience that phenomenon, you are required to comment on one of your classmate's posts once per week. So, when you are online posting your own questions, take a moment to post a response to a classmate's question. Due each class period.

Class Presentation of Assigned Reading
Each student is required to present 1 assigned reading during the course of the quarter, and to work with the other students presenting readings for that class to make a coherent presentation. The presentation should feature the highlights of the assigned reading (presentations that go over the reading will receive a zero grade), and a novel application of the theory presented in the reading to some online community. Students will be asked to sign the roster for class presentations during the first week of class. Class presentations will be posted on the Wiki. Due once during the quarter.

Social Network Analysis
You will analyze an online community by making a visualization of the communication patterns of that community. For this assignment you will not need to write a paper. Instead, please turn inyour visualizations of the networks and prepare a short report about the networks and what your visualizations illustrate. You may complete this assignment in teams, if you like Click here for details

Proposed Design of an Online Community
You will submit a proposal for the design of a new online community (it can be as simple or complex as you like. You will be working in teams with at least one tech-savvy person on each team). Refer to the guidelines presented in Kollock and in Preece for your proposal. Make sure that you describe target audience, purpose, design principles, technological tools, and how this online ocmmunity fills both a social and technological void. Proposal should be no longer than 5-7 pages. Click here for details

Implement an Online Community
Carry out your proposal. You will show the community to the class, so try to convince some people to use it! Click here for details

Final Paper
Apply one of the topics discussed in class, or some other topic, to some particular online community (slashdot, ActiveWorlds, Friendster, etc.). Details for the paper proposal is here. Click here for details on the final paper.

Grading Policy

Your grade is based on completion of the following responsibilities:

  1. Class participation (10%)
  2. Interpretive questions & responses to other people's posts (10%)
  3. Class presentation of assigned readings and application to an existing online community (10%)
  4. Social network analysis (15%)
  5. Proposed design of an online community (15%)
  6. Successful implementation of an online community (15%)
  7. Final paper (25%)

Interpretive questions and class participation will be graded with a check mark for each class meeting, to indicate that the requirement was met. Late interpretive questions will be accepted once during the semester, no questions asked, provided they are turned in before the following class meeting.

This class depends vitally on participation, and really suffers from absences and lateness.  And, because we only meet once per week, and the quarter is so so short, every absence or late arrival really makes a difference in how much you will each take away from the class.  However, we understand that sometimes things happen that are beyond your control.  That is why we have instituted the following attendance policy: If you are late to two classes, I won't bat an eye.  However, starting with the third time, each late arrival lowers your grade by one half grade. Likewise, for absences, you may be absent twice without consequences.  However, starting with the third absence (regardless of the reason), your grade will be lowered by one half grade for each absence.  This year we have also instituted a reward for full participation: if you have no absences and no late arrivals, then we will bump up the grade of your lowest assignment by one half grade.

Other than this, please note that all work must be turned in on time, no late work will be accepted. Do not even think of asking for an extension in the following cases: 1) you have a lot of tests or papers in other classes that week; 2) you will be away on the day the assignment is due, 3) a last-minute emergency. Assignments are given well in advance, and just because you planned to write the paper the night before but got food poisoning is not an excuse for not turning in your paper on time!

The critical essay will be graded on both content and form. Content means the originality and interest of the research question, nature of the methodology used to investigate the question, plausibility of your interpretations. Form means the organization, clarity and quality of the writing, and the scholarly use of conventions such as citations and footnotes. An 'A' quality term paper finds an interesting research question, makes use of primary and secondary sources to address the question, and adds interesting and original interpretations of the author's own. It is well-organized and clearly and professionally written.

You will be encouraged to carry out the social network analysis and design assignments in groups. However, if you write a paper together, you must include a paragraph stating which part of the work was done by each member of the team. In order to make sure that your collaboration falls within the Northwestern guidelines of academic integrity, you must read : and