Designing Online Communities

How Designers, Developers, Community Managers, and Software Structure Discourse and Knowledge Production on the Web

by Trevor Owens (Author)
Textbook X, 139 Pages


Discussion on the Web is mediated through layers of software and protocols. As scholars increasingly study communication and learning on the Internet, it is essential to consider how site administrators, programmers, and designers create interfaces and enable functionality. The managers, administrators, and designers of online communities can turn to more than 20 years of technical books for guidance on how to design online communities toward particular objectives. Through analysis of this «how-to» literature, Designing Online Communities explores the discourse of design and configuration that partially structures online communities and later social networks. Tracking the history of notions of community in these books suggests the emergence of a logic of permission and control. Online community defies many conventional notions of community. Participants are increasingly treated as «users», or even as commodities themselves to be used. Through consideration of the particular tactics of these administrators, this book suggests how researchers should approach the study and analysis of the records of online communities.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Designing Online Communities
  • Contents
  • Foreword: Social Sciences of the Artificial
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Contribution to Understanding Learning Online
  • Records of Online Communities as Primary Sources
  • Structure of the Book
  • Chapter 1. Learning and Collective Intelligence on the Web
  • Locating Power, Control, and Autonomy in Collective Intelligence
  • Chapter 2. A Framework for Studying Online Community Software
  • Theorizing Online Community Software
  • Theorizing Software from Technology Studies
  • Cognitive Systems and Cognitive Niches
  • Collective Intelligence in Action
  • Chapter 3. Research Questions and Methods
  • Values and Ideology
  • Tactics
  • Looking for Difference
  • Research Method and Design
  • Analyzing Texts as Discourse
  • Book Selection
  • Analytic Focus
  • Analytic Process
  • Consideration of Validity Threats
  • Relationship to Actual Online Communities
  • The Stories in the Books Are Rehearsed
  • Authors of Books Aren’t Normal Designers/Developers
  • Representing Distinct Authors’ Perspectives
  • Respecting the Diversity of Divergent Perspectives
  • Why Should I Trust Your Interpretations of These Authors’ Ideas?
  • Writing Up Results and Analysis
  • Note on Technical Jargon and Vocabulary
  • Chapter 4. Community and Values: A Worked Example of Analysis
  • Chapter 5. Rhetorics of Online Community: A Brief History
  • Chapter 6. Enacting Control, Granting Permissions
  • Chapter 7. Studying the Records of Online Communities
  • Control, Empowerment, and Its Limits
  • Theories of Users as Generalized Others in Design
  • Applied Implications of Understanding Online Communities
  • Conclusion: Further Disaggregating the Internet
  • Appendix: Example Data Collection Sheet
  • References
  • Index


Kimberly Sheridan
Associate Professor of Educational Psychology,
College of Education and Human Development &
College of Visual and Performing Arts, George Mason University

Herbert Simon’s 1961 Sciences of the Artificial is generally credited with framing the contemporary conversation on how “design sciences”—such as engineering and computer science—differ from the natural sciences. Simon guided his fellow researchers into consideration of how they need to approach their work in these artificial worlds. In this book, Trevor Owens continues in this vein, exploring how researchers might think about social interaction in online forums in light of the designed software in which it occurs.

One of the tenets Simon establishes in his initial exploration of the distinction between the natural sciences and the science of the artificial is that although natural sciences are focused on what is, sciences of the artificial are focused on what should be. Bridges, cars, and computers are designed to function in certain ways, and our studies of how they function are impacted by the principles and ideals that guided their design. Delving into the unlikely source of an over 20-year span of technical “how to” books on designing online forums, Owens provides a careful account of how the designers envision and enact their work, creating the tools that have shaped discussion on the web. Trevor documents how the designers of forum software conceptualize users and how this design gets enacted in the technology of control. He demonstrates how the battles over what the Internet means are fought at the level of how ← vii | viii → and whether to include “vote up/vote down” options and the ability to “like.” Forum software designers and developers pose a vision of the kind of forum user they deem ideal (e.g., are you looking for informed, trustworthy, and civil citizens? eager consumers? loyal fans?) and then enact technical features that reinforce behavior closer to this ideal and punish deviation. Through close reading of seemingly benign practical, step-by-step technical books, Trevor shows how even the management of the minutiae on Internet forums can be fraught with ideological positions and bids for power and control. These ideologies are designed into code that is bundled into features and that gets embedded into new forum sites far removed from their origins.

It is all too easy for those of us who use online discussions as data to forget that we are social scientists of the artificial, or at least to be glib about what that means. To be sure, we think about the idiosyncrasies of the online communities we study and how they impact our findings. We—and our methodological texts—consider how anonymity impacts conversation. We are aware that the text we read is generally a vocal minority of a much larger lurking group. We aim to be appropriately circumspect about extrapolating beyond the text at hand. However, we consider less often the vast and diverse ways the technical infrastructure tweaks, prioritizes, reorganizes, deletes, and otherwise often exerts an invisible control over the conversations. In this volume, Trevor makes a compelling case for why we should consider this and provides some conceptual tools with which to begin the work. ← viii | ix →


This book, which builds on my dissertation research, would not have been possible without the significant support and insights of my dissertation committee. Each of my committee members played a significant role in the design and development of the project. For the four years I worked at the Center for History and New Media, Dan Cohen was both a great boss and a great mentor who helped me refine a lot of my ideas about online community while helping to grow the community of Zotero users. In his digital history course, I was also introduced to much of the new media studies work that, to a large extent, shapes the argument of this book.

Early in the doctoral program at George Mason University I reached out to Kimberly Sheridan about a study I wanted to do on the RPGmakerVX online community. I had seen from her CV that her dissertation involved Kantian notions of taste and film fan forums. She happily agreed to advise my project, and, under her guidance over the last five years, I have had the opportunity to deepen and refine my critical skills at research design and analytic interpretation. When I first read Joe Maxwell’s book Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach, I was hooked. It was and remains rare and refreshing to find such clear, focused, and accessible academic writing. Through ← ix | x → his writings and experiences in courses, Joe’s approach to research has stuck with me as one of my key take-aways from the doctoral program.

Aside from my dissertation committee, many others have played critical roles in refining and developing the ideas and approach in this book. Kurt Squire’s ideas about studying forums for the game Civilization sparked much of my interest in the topic. Discussions with Ben Devane about discourse analysis of online communities have been invaluable. Historian of science Richard Staley, my undergraduate thesis advisor, who spent far more time than I imagine any other undergraduate thesis advisor has before or since advising a student, was instrumental in setting me up with the habits of writing and picking apart texts that I have made ample use of here. John Levi Martin’s seminar on culture and cognition provided me with a significant part of my sociological perspective. More recently, Matthew Kirshenbaum’s approach to theorizing and studying software helped to firm up my own thinking. My colleagues working on digital preservation at the Library of Congress have been similarly instrumental in that area. Thanks to my mother, who persisted in convincing me that, despite the expense, I should go to college instead of just hanging out in Milwaukee with the band.

All of that aside, it’s most important that I acknowledge my wife and constant collaborator Marjee Chmiel. My very first foray into academic writing and the study of online communities was a conference paper we wrote together about creationist teen web forums. I believe it was Marjee who first spotted the listing for the Zotero job at CHNM and sent it to me so that I could apply. Talking with Marjee about her work on World of Warcraft forums helped spark my interest in studying the underlaying software behind online communities. When it came time to work on our PhDs, we tackled them together. ← x | 1 →

Biographical notes

Trevor Owens (Author)

Trevor Owens is a digital archivist at the Library of Congress. He holds a doctorate in social science research methods from George Mason University. His research has been published in journals such as Curator: The Museum Journal, Digital Humanities Quarterly, and Science Communication. In 2014, he received the Society for American Archivists’ Archival Innovator Award.


Title: Designing Online Communities