Developing, Testing, and Designing from a Computational Theory of Online Communities

This interdisciplinary research project will build and test a computational theory describing the factors and processes that influence the success of online communities. The investigators will develop and test new theories during the course of this project in order to better predict community success at multiple levels of analysis, including members' support, community maintenance, production, and key stakeholder benefits. The computational theory produced in this research will provide new scientific insights to explain variations in success in existing online communities and new engineering insights that can be applied to improve design choices.

Start date: 9/1/2016
End date:8/31/2019

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UMSI Professor of Information Yan Chen and Associate Professor of Information Qiaozhu Mei are co-investigators on a National Science Foundation grant titled “Developing, Testing, and Designing from a Computational Theory of Online Communities.” This $298,358 award is part of a larger grant awarded to Carnegie Mellon University’s Robert Kraut, principal investigator, in the amount of $919,979.

The team will examine why some newly created online communities sputter and fail whereas others thrive with dynamic member groups and content. Today virtual communities serve a variety of purposes from education to information sharing to social interaction. The work on this grant will focus particularly on communities geared toward crowd-lending teams, health support groups, and peer support forums within STEM classes.

On this project, the UMSI researchers will be responsible for the analysis of text data, empirical analysis of archival data, and the design, implementation and analysis of field experiments. 

Until now there have been few attempts to construct a theory that explains how the attributes of a virtual community determine whether it succeeds. Therefore, the goal of the project is to test varying theories that will measure the success of these communities in regards to member support, maintenance and benefits. Once the researches have determined how and why communities succeed, they want to extrapolate those results. With that information they hope to predict how changes in group size and diversity, content and design can improve these online communities and the experiences of their members. 


Developing, Testing, and Designing from a Computational Theory of Online Communities, NSF, $298,358

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…"