The design of complex social systems, such as online communities, requires the consideration of many parameters, a practice at odds with social science research that focuses on the effects of a small set of variables. In this article, we show how synthesizing insights from multiple, narrowly focused social science theories in an agent-based model helps us understand factors that lead to the success of online communities. The agent-based model combines insights from theories related to collective effort, information overload, social identity, and interpersonal attraction to predict motivations for online community participation. We conducted virtual experiments to develop hypotheses around three design decisions about how to orchestrate an online community - topical breadth, message volume, and discussion moderation - and the trade-offs involved in making these decisions. The simulation experiments suggest that broad topics and high message volume can lead to higher member commitment. Personalized moderation outperforms other types of moderation in increasing members' commitment and contribution, especially in topically broad communities and those with high message volume. In comparison, community-level moderation increases commitment but not contribution, and only in topically narrow communities. These simulation results suggest a critical trade-off between informational and relational benefits. This research illustrates that there are many interactions among the design decisions that are important to consider; the particulars of the community's goals often determine the effectiveness of some decisions. It also demonstrates the value of agent-based modeling in synthesizing simple social science theories to describe and prescribe behaviors in a complex system, generating novel insights that inform the design of online communities.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
Funding. This work was supported by Carlson School of Management Dean’s Small Research Grant, National Science Foundation Grant IIS-0325049 (Designing Online Communities to Enhance Participation), IIS-0729286 (Solving Critical Problems in Online Groups), and IIS-0808692 (Understanding Online Volunteer Communities). The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the official policies of the National Science Foundation.