2.2 Everything2 as a community
While we cannot attempt to put a community "score" on Everything2, there are
several features of the system, and site, that we feel fosters a sense of community
in its members. A synthesis of the definitions above show some common characteristics
that need to be in place to create the strong and weak social ties characteristic
of a community.
2.2.1 Ease of entry/exit
In theory, anyone with a connection to the Internet can become a member of
Everything2. On average, 70 users a day request accounts on the system. However,
a majority of users only log in briefly, and never add content to the site.
Therefore, a fairly large group of people go through the trouble of being emailed
an user account password, but choose not to remain an active member of the site.
It is unfortunately difficult to study why people decide not to participate
in this collaborative effort, but some evidence from our examination of naïve
users might suggest reasons for further review.
We tested users unfamiliar with the system mainly to examine overall usability
issues. One unanticipated result was related to the task of creating a new writeup
in the database. After the respondent finished the experiment, the researcher
went into the system to erase the writings in preparation for the next respondent.
In the few minutes it took to accomplish the task, the writeup of the new user
had been voted down 12 times, and there were 8 private messages outlining criticisms
of the writeup. New users faced with that kind of feedback might find social
barriers to entry where architectural ones are not easy to put into place.
While the data indicate that most people who leave do so without having added
anything significant to the system, there are also users who have left after
putting a considerable amount of effort into the system, and one user has been
banned. In particular, the case of the banned user was documented throughout
the Everything2 site, and caused several other users to leave on their own.
In addition, some users have left after disagreements with the power structure of Everything2 related
to deletion rights. In any case, the leaving or banishment is typically the
cause of controversy and high emotion.
Tied to the discussion of entry and exit costs is what Bender characterizes
as a "limited number of people in a somewhat restricted social space or network."
The evidence that affective ties exist between the users of Everything2 is
largely anecdotal. Of the 21 editor and god email questionnaire responses, ten
specifically mentioned using the site for emotional support. In both the editors
email interviews and the general web survey, people seemed to indicate that
the two main benefits gained from participating in Everything2 were improved
writing skills and having made friends. Several people in the web survey specifically
mention receiving emotional support from the other users.
There are not well-developed, objective measures of affective involvement that
can be applied to an online network like Everything2. Even if the self-report
of users is that they have made friends on the site, one would need to know
whether that perceived friendship accrues the same benefits as offline relationships
do. Can the users of Everything2 turn to each other for emotional support? Do
they trust the other users perceived as friends to have their best interests
at heart? We claim some anecdotal evidence that these claims could be made for
the Everything2 group. Users have reported many cases of late night conversations,
some of which move to the phone, that dealt with weighty issues, including rape,
suicide and terminal illness. Also, users often list on their "homenodes," places
where their personal information is available, a list of fellow users that they
consider to be friends. A user describing their feelings about others users
they have met said,
"I have met 22 noders IRL (sic In Real Life) so far, and the caliber of
e2's users far exceeds what I would normally expect from online addicts. Aside
from online personalities, most noders are very congenial, understanding, sensitive,
not taking themselves too seriously, having multiple talents, interests and
stimuli, and to me represent a healthy cross section of society that while having
embraced and accepted the computer age has not relented in losing its soul to
the machine of modern conveniences."
On the reverse side of emotional support that could be expected from a community
comes emotional harm that one would also expect from a community. Robert Putnam points
out in the introduction of Bowling Alone that often community can be hurtful,
that those people best able to support one emotionally are also able to harm
one emotionally. Several users reported leaving the site for a period of time
during the course of their involvement with Everything2 because another user
had "hurt their feelings." The user who was banished was not kicked out for
breaking copyright or writing conventions, but because he made personal, emotional
attacks against other users in his writing.
Users of Everything2 generally fall into two categories, those who submit only
factual information, and those likely to also include personal experiences,
some of which can be intensely emotional. Examples include several nodes dealing
with the early loss of one's parents, sexual experiences, drug abuse and others.
Users claim that they are able to get to know each other better through these
"life experience nodes" than they would be if they met in some physical location.
As one user put it,
"Interaction on Everything2 is strangely openly voyeuristic: one meets people
in the chatterbox as they would each other during a cocktail party. Then they
all go and read each other's nodes, and it's like reading each other's diaries."
A plausible argument against the effectiveness of self disclosure in these
circumstances is that the user's ability to remain anonymous removes any consequence
of that self disclosure. This argument is only true if the online interaction
itself is considered an insignificant life factor for the user. Fifty-three
percent of the editors, who seem consistent with most higher level users, report
spending more than 20 hours per week on Everything2. As a reminder, these people
are not paid for that time. From the web survey, 16.8% of respondents indicated
they spent more than 15 hours per week on the site, and 22.6% of respondents
indicated they spent between 8 and 15 hours per week on the site.
This amount of time would seem to indicate that people do spend a significant
amount of their time on the site, which could then be perceived as significant
to their lives. Obviously, this is not going to be true for all users. When
asked to describe how they interact with other users, 13.5% or respondents said
that they did not interact with other users, or did so very rarely.
"I mostly keep to myself. Of course I have strong opinions, but I've never
yet been in a big debate where anybody's minds were changed. I've got real-life
friends if I want confrontations. Of course I feel that I contribute consistently
high-quality writing, but without the wacky sense of humor or razor wit that
characterizes a popular 'E2 personality' people pretty much ignore me."
However, this effect would not be considered unusual in an offline community,
where some percentage of people would avoid aspects of closeness typically described
2.2.3 Mutual obligation
The sense of mutual obligation in a website relates in some ways to the concept
of sacrifice. A user of the website must be willing to participate even when
it goes against the specific self interest of that user to do so. In some ways,
this relates to the concept of generalized reciprocity, as outlined by Putnam
. Generalized reciprocity deals with the willingness of some community member
to help another not because they expect an immediate gain, but out of recognition
that it helps smooth the process of society to do so. One helps a stranded motorist
not because you expect that particular stranded motorist to do you a favor in
return, but because it is what you would hope someone would do for you.
How does this sense of obligation transfer to an online community like Everything2?
Some evidence indicates that the messaging system behaves in such a way. Thirty-six
percent of regular users, and all editors and gods, reported using the private
message function to alert another user about misspellings in their content,
suggestions for improving the writing or other types of advice and help. In
Perlmonks, a system of experience points and voting exists for providing this
sort of help, but not in Everything2. The messages and help go unrewarded by
the normal feedback mechanisms of the site.
Criticisms of the mutual obligation found in online networks are that most
of these groups are formed out of common interests. For instance, most listserves,
chat rooms and MUD's all have a common identifying theme. Where such a group
of common interest exists, there cannot also exist the conditions to engage
in self-sacrifice, since by definition the needs of the individual is served
by participating in the group.
However, Everything2 does not have a clear identifying theme. One of the most
common questions asked when describing the site is "Well, what is it about?"
There is some sense that online communities need to be organized around some
common interest for it to work, although it could be argued that Everything2
is an exception to the rule. One could claim that the common theme of Everything2
is creative writing, or popular culture, but this would only be pulling two
threads that have emerged from the system rather than describing the system
itself. This lack of common interest means that the users who help each other
might be doing out of a sense of mutual obligation, rather than out of self
An interesting counterpoint is the Perlmonks site, which is centered around
a mutual self interest, that being coding Perl. Still, there are multiple levels
of user abilities on the site, and the benefits of the expert programmers to
help their novice fellows cannot be explained away by the simple fact that they
all have a common interest in Perl. The reputation system might help a newer
user get involved with the site, but there is still some indication that the
experienced programmers are sacrificing their own time to answer programming
questions without a direct, clear, offsetting benefit.
2.2.4 Limited number of people
This condition is typically the hardest for online communities to resolve,
since much of the incentive of the online network is bringing together large
groups of people, rather than restricting the number of participants. However,
how can one develop the sense of other users necessary to foster community when
people are constantly coming and going, or when there are so many people one
cannot hope to get a sense of the whole. When one has season tickets to the
university football games, are they part of a community when in the stadium?
Since success on the Web is often measured by the number of people one attracts
to a site, "community" websites have often ignored the benefits of a restricted
social space. The developers of Everything are no different, and would like
to see overall usage grow. However, it is interesting to note from server patterns,
that while the site had a growth spurt following the introduction of such features
as the Chatterbox and voting, the number of registered users on the site at
any one time has remained remarkably constant, (around 55) for several months
and shows no sign of changing.
In some way that has remained invisible, the site has maintained this equilibrium
without the intervention of the developers of the actual design of the system.
It could be that server limitations have some effect, but instead it appears
to be a social limitation rather than a technological one. If the site doubled
in popularity, one could imagine a definite effect in the way the social systems
of the site currently operate.
2.2.5 Sense of common identity
As a whole, the Everything2 community is quite introspective. Many nodes exist
on Everything2 culture, arguing whether it is or is not a community, ferreting
out examples of interactions between users and otherwise examining their own
culture. Users of the site refers to themselves both as "noders", and "Everythingians".
There have been several real life gatherings of noders to help develop common
identities. These "Everything Gatherings" are typically based on rough geographic
areas, like "the E2 Midwest Bathtub Jam" which was attended by some users from
Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. These have all been organized by individual users
rather than the development company.
The real question of common identity is not whether all users can point to
a common referent with which they are familiar. While all the people who watch
"X-Files" may share common characteristics, one could not say they have a shared
identity. A persistent identification would need to effect other areas of life
outside of the identifying common interest. In other words, users of Everything2
would need to consider themselves a noder across different continuums for "noder"
to be a viable identity. There is no sense from the evidence that this is true,
beyond the effort that individual users make to come together physically after
having become familiar virtually. Besides the organized group meetings, there
are many cases where someone has flown to meet another user who was distant
One can compare this strict measure of identity against real life groups. How
many examples of collocated groups manage to create an identity in such a way?
It could be that this measure of identity is unreasonable in a society where
the transaction costs for distance communication is so low, and the presence
of unifying broadcast technologies is so pervasive.
The alternate to this strict definition of identity is instead a sense of shared
understanding, where people identify with a shared task that is less about internal
attributes and more about circumstantial practices. For instance, a family is
not the center of a community because of any attribute of relationship, but
because the act of raising children and living together creates a shared understanding
based on the work being accomplished. Since there is so much work involved in
coordinating family life, it is mistaken for, or misattributed to, internal
This relates to online communities in that while sharing a common interest
in fly fishing may not be enough to create a shared understanding, the work
of creating a vast, online database might be. Even though members of Everything2
have different ideas about what the database should be, as mentioned by one
respondent, this may not relate to whether or not this network behaves like
"I don't think we really have community values, because people's goals for
E2 are so wildly different. Some people really are in it for the XP, some for
the personal writings, some people for the community, and some as an information
However, this may be another example of misinterpreting community. In a collocated
community, one may expect the participants to have different goals, but that
the action of working together in a shared context to separately meet those
goals is what creates community.
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