Changes to Online Communities: Mobile Use and Cross-Site Ecosystems
I’ve taught my class Design of Online Communities since 1998. (The first couple offerings were called “Design of Virtual Communities.”) The class is structured around having students do a qualitative study of an online site, using participant observation and interviews. The students did fantastic work this year as always–with studies of Something Awful, LifeKraze, Board Game Geek, Lord of the Rings Online, and more. As things are wrapping up for this year, I am taking notes for next time, and realize I need to make two changes to the assignment.
Mobile: I need to explicitly ask students, does your site have a mobile app? What is the relationship between mobile and desktop use? Is all the functionality of desktop available on mobile? Are mobile and desktop user behavior different? This wasn’t even a blip on the radar in 1998 or even 2008, but today it’s essential to understanding many sites.
New Project Option: a Cross-Site Phenomenon. In some ways it’s increasingly an anachronism to ask students to study a single site. This became particularly clear in a great project my students did this year on “bronies,” grown men who are fans of the television show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. My students focused their study on the site Equestria Daily, but it became increasingly apparent in their work that there are a set of sites that form a kind of ecosystem, with activity on any one of them affecting the others. It’s impossible to understand Equestria Daily without understanding the adult site Equestria After Dark. And did you know that bronydom’s early history is tied to 4chan, and led to the creation of PonyChan? Amazing stuff. So next year, students will optionally be allowed to pick a focus site plus surrounding online ecosystem to study (with a warning that this is harder!)
Thanks to my awesome students for a great semester. Looking forward to next year!