online communities and computer-mediated communication

justine cassell - instructor // email

david huffaker - t.a. // email

Spring Quarter, 2006 Northwestern University

Here are details about each of the assignments

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 one (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 in your visualizations of the networks and prepare a 2-3 page report about the networks and what your visualizations illustrate. You may complete this assignment in teams (2 people max), if you like. Due April 11.

In order to complete this assignment, you will have to identify and map an online network, and utilize social network software. Follow these steps. Links are provided for detailed explanations. Ask your TA for help!

  1. Start Here. Read about the basics of social network analysis. Further reading is available via Everton's Guide for the Visually Perplexed.
  2. Choose a group . Choose an online community. Places like Friendster, mySpace or Facebook already show links between users in the form of "friends". You can also note links between Internet users in any other community, such as a message board or an online game. The more novel the community, the more interesting!
  3. Identify relationships. Make a list of all the members of the community. Define a measure for whether or not they are "linked" to each other. For instance, in Friendster, there is a list of connected "friends", but there are also second-degree and third-degree friends. You could also define a link between users by whether or not they "talk" to each other, as in a message board, or have "played" together, as in a game. Sometimes, these links are not easily noticable, and you will have to observe the community in order to understand the relationships.
  4. Create a network "map" (aka, a sociomatrix). In order to use this program, you will have to turn the relationships you identified into a matrix, just like a spreadsheet (in fact, EXCEL is great for this, if you map is smaller than 256 people). Your final should look something like this:

      Justine Eszter Dave Paul
    Justine   1 1 1
    Eszter 1   1 0
    Dave 1 1   1
    Paul 1 0 1  

    Notice that the matrix is a mirror, where 1 = "linked" and 0 = "not-linked". This is a simple example - read "5. Using matrices to represent social relations" for a complete description.
  5. Download UCINET. You will have to input your map into this program. The authors have provided extensive tutorials for using these programs. Instructions are available at "6. Working with network data"
  6. Downloand NetDraw. Once you have created the network in UCINET, visualizing it is pretty straightforward. Read "4. Working with NetDraw to visualize graphs" You can export the NetDraw output in JPEGs.
  7. For the advanced students only! If you want to take this a step forward, learn to add attributes to your network, such as gender, age, group membership, etc. You will have to create your own attribute files. Read more "4. Working with NetDraw to visualize graphs"

In your report, focus on the following questions:

  • What do these network visualizations tell you about the group?
  • How is the group structured? Who's in it? How well is it working? What are the communication patterns?
  • Are there cliques or subgroups?
  • Who are the important people in the group?
  • Are the 'right people' talking to or linked to one another? Who should be talking to whom?

Note: This assignment was adapted from Robert Kraut's Group and Organizational Communication class at Carnegie Mellon University.

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 community fills both a social and technological void. Proposal should be no longer than 5-7 pages. Due April 25.

Proposal for Final Paper

Your proposal only needs to be one-page long, but it should lay out (1) which community you intend to study -- it can be a community that you already studied for Assignment 1, or a brand-new community; (2) which topic you intend to research -- gender, race, age, globalization, or a brand-new topic; (3) why it's interesting to apply this topic/theoretical tools to this particular community; (4) how you are going to apply the tools to the language and behavior in this community; (5) what your initial claim is (your hypothesis). If you can't think of any ideas, ask Justine if you can work on one of her data sets (but ask in advance!). Due May 9.

Please note: The final paper can be written in teams, but you need to tell us who will do what (and you need to include a statement about who did what in the final paper). You don't need to keep the same teams for this assignment - feel free to re-organize.

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! Due May 16.

Final Paper

See instructions above concerning final paper proposal. For some good examples of papers about online communities, check out the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.

The final paper should be 12-15 pages for undergraduates and 15-20 pages for graduate students. Due May 29 @ 5pm.

The final paper 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.

General Note: You will be encouraged to carry out the community observation, analysis and design assignments in groups. You may also do your final paper in teams. 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