Members of online communities take on a variety of formal and informal roles, some of which are listed under A Broad Spectrum of Roles below. Giving individual members unique, defined roles—or providing pathways to these roles—has proved to facilitate knowledge, sharing, and participation (Beenen et al., 2004; Lin, Lin, Huang, 2008).
In many education communities today, there are only three roles: reader, writer, and moderator. Educators who aren’t comfortable writing or policing/managing others often are left on the sidelines. And treating writers or moderators as undifferentiated roles can leave opportunities for greater participation by the wayside as well. At the same time, it is important for communities to understand the needs of their readers, not just their most active users—even as they make every effort to encourage deeper forms of participation, roles, and responsibilities to which educators can aspire.
Indeed, group members’ roles often evolve over time. Preece Schneiderman (2009) identify a typical progression from “reader” to “contributor” to “collaborator” to “leader.” This progression often involves a significant narrowing of participation at each step (Porter, 2008), and users can take on supported, multiple roles, or move into and out of many roles, depending on their motivation and interest (Preece Schneiderman, 2009). However, it is entirely appropriate for many, if not most, community members to be readers only in many communities.
Factors that influence crossing the key threshold from reader to contributor include “a sense of belonging, a welcoming environment, safety, support for newcomers, and contacts to ask questions” as well as “ease of making small contributions, visibility for their contributions, recognition of quality and quantity of contributions, [and] rewards” (Preece Schneiderman, 2009).
As communities move from isolation to connection, new roles likely will emerge and current roles will change, each requiring more rigorous identification and classification and further study and support.
A Broad Spectrum of Roles
Healthy online communities welcome and recognize abroad spectrum of nuanced roles (see, e.g., Booth, 2011; Bourhis et al., 2005; Forrester Research, 2010; Grunwald Associates LLC, 2003, 2007). Potential roles include:
- Cybrarians and collectors help manage and add to the community’s content collections by organizing, tagging, finding and uploading files, bookmarks, and other resources.
- (Sub-) domain expertsestablish themselves or are anointed as “go-to” or “last word” experts on particular topics.
- Thought leaders lend big-picture perspectives and visions throughout the community; pot stirrers are relied on to deliberately provoke and extend discussions.
- Critics, evaluators, and ratersregularly rate content and other participants and avidly participate in beta tests and site surveys. Some also write product reviews or comment on blog posts and official content.
- Event coordinatorsand hostsset up and run real-time (online and offline) activities for the community.
- Mentors, support providers, and greetersprimarily help new members of the community and, in the case of mentors, new members of the field. Support providers and greeters (who welcome new users) become more important as the community grows in size and complexity.
- Village eldersand griotsare storytellers and keepers of their community’s institutional memory. Communities often turn to these members to help resolve difficult community issues.
- Evangelistsspread the word about the community by a variety of means. Networkers create connections between community members, often initially through their efforts to build their own networks, sometimes recruiting new community members in the process.
- Copsreport and/or call members on inappropriate behavior. Peacekeeperssense when discussions are growing problematic and try to steer them to safer ground, often mediating behind the scenes as well. Both groups support moderators in these functions.
- Membersor citizenspotentially include all community members in sites that regularly use poll, surveys, or other mechanisms that allow community members to help determine new community directions or official positions and actions.