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Modeling the Ecological Dynamics of Online Organizations

PI: Benjamin Mako Hill
Sponsor: Modeling the Ecological Dynamics of Online Organizations
Project Period: -
Amount: $279,966.00


This project will advance scientific understanding of large scale virtual organizations through the elaboration and empirical validation of a theory of ecological dynamics of online communities. The work will build on recent research in social computing on interdependence between online communities that suggests that ecological analyses can provide not only novel scientific understandings, but also viable strategies for managing online communities. It will contribute knowledge of the environmental preconditions of successful collaboration to the study of social computing systems. It will also contribute to organizational sociology and complex systems science by adapting and applying theories and models from these areas into a novel domain that is rich in detailed communication and behavioral data. The theory and empirical analyses developed in this research will provide system designers, voluntary organizations, movements, and community leaders with practical knowledge of how they can account for environmental conditions in their decision making processes.

The research will be structured around three linked projects answering fundamental ecological questions: How is the growth and survival of individual online communities shaped by activity within their environments? How do communities interact with each other in ways that are beneficial or harmful to their success? How can communities strategically build and discover opportunities for growth and productivity in their environments? This approach will be applied to three popular online platforms for voluntary organization and open collaboration: Wikia, Reddit, and Stack Exchange. For each platform, predictions will be derived from ecological theory about how communities' success relates to the presence, absence, and behavior of other communities and to variation in external resources in the form of users and underlying interest in topics. These predictions will be tested empirically using large scale statistical analyses of longitudinal digital trace data drawn from the platforms. Finally, these results will be synthesized into a cohesive theory of ecology for online communities. In the course of this work, the team will also design, build, and publish software and unique research datasets for other researchers to use.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.