TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Through studying groups on the website Reddit, researchers at The University of Alabama found as online groups grow and age, discussion concentrates among fewer contributors and retention of new contributors becomes harder.
“Online communities are easy enough to create, but the question is, ‘Are they going to be here in six months?’ For the vast majority, the answer is no,” said Dr. Elliot Panek, who studies the sociological and psychological implications of digital media as a UA assistant professor of journalism and creative media.
“Our research suggests that the creators of online communities need to be more proactive in incentivizing and encouraging widespread participation to motivate group members to stick around and be more active in the conversation,” he said.
In work outlined in the journal Social Media + Society, Panek and his team of UA students analyzed millions of comments on Reddit to understand why some online communities fail while others flourish. A popular website that hosts large-group discussions on thousands of different topics, Reddit organizes its discussions into groups, called sub-reddits.
The team examined six years of data within 30 popular sub-reddits, analyzing the influence of group size and the passage of time on the dispersion of participation in discussion and the active member turnover per month, two characteristics of online communities.
“Some people dabble in online communities just to get a question answered,” Panek said. “For other people, online communities are central to their lives. What we’re trying to understand is when online community life becomes central to people.”
This data provides answers to fundamental questions about establishing and growing online communities, as well as how to keep existing group contributors active. The findings are useful for communication professionals in areas such as social media account management, application development, marketing, online education and organizational communication with the public.
In addition to Panek, the research team included students Connor Hollenbach, a native of Prosper, Texas, who graduated from UA in 2018 with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in economics; Jinjie Yang, a doctoral student studying communications from China; and Tyler Rhodes, a mechanical engineering student from High Ridge, Missouri. They are co-authors with Panek on the paper, “The Effects of Group Size and Time on the Formation of Online Communities: Evidence From Reddit.”
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.