Administrating social media: The significance of managers
First Monday

Administrating social media: The significance of managers by Azi Lev-On



Abstract
As social media and online communities of practice are becoming significant organizational arenas in the public service, it is important to study content uploaded to these communities, the dynamics of conversations that they host, and their perceived effect. Much literature about such communities describes them as environments based on user-generated content, while the role of their management is frequently overlooked. This study shifts the focus from community members to managers, and demonstrates the centrality of managers in terms of content production, initiation of and contribution to discussions, requesting and providing information and assistance. The discussion justifies a novel and more nuanced view of communities of practice not as arenas of user-generated content, but rather as environments based on interplay and interactions between members and managers.

Contents

Theoretical background
Hypotheses
Methodology
Findings
Discussion and conclusions

 


 

Theoretical background

Governance systems are characterized by “horizontal” and “vertical” dimensions (Sartori, 1987). Communities, online and off-line, attract public and scholarly attention due to their emphasis on the “horizontal” dimension manifest by peer production, collective monitoring and punishment and more (Lev-On, 2013; Baym, 2010; Fallah, 2011; Kim, 2000; Marwick, 2013; Preece, 2000). The focus on membership rather than on hierarchy and management as the locus of social media is evident, for example, in Marwick’s (2013) account of the culture of Web 2.0, portraying social media as “intrinsically focused on individuals ... who produce and consume content”, and arguing that the “Web 2.0 narrative also frequently assumes that simply introducing social technology to a community will result in greater participation and democracy” (see also Fallah, 2011).

But there is also a “vertical” dimension to communities, which may be prominent online even more than off-line. Online communities may have owners, technical and content managers, designers and moderators that perform activities essential to the creation and maintenance of the framework around which the community evolves (Butler, et al., 2007; Kim, 2000; Preece, 2000; Young, 2013). However, despite the importance of the “vertical” dimension of communities, the majority of research focuses on their “horizontal” dimension (Fallah, 2011). This study helps filling the void by comparing patterns of interactions in which managers are involved, to those with ‘ordinary’ members.

The use of online platforms to create and maintain a community poses considerable challenges to community managers. Unlike leaders of groups that meet face-to-face, online community managers are not physically present and cues emphasizing their authority are often dimmed (Kayworth and Leidner, 2002; Tarmizi, et al., 2007). Still, the literature demonstrates that community managers and the functions they typically perform may have a major impact on the discourse within the community, on the realization of community goals, and on its success in terms of:

  • Member management: recruiting members, removing users if necessary, encouraging members to perform certain activities for the community (Bateman, 2008; Butler, et al., 2007; Roby, et al., 2013; Young, 2013).

  • Content management: supervising the agenda of the community, encouraging discussions while avoiding information overload, preventing “flaming” and removing inappropriate posts, and initiating special events (Ehrlich and Cataldo, 2014; Kim, 2000; Meier, 1998; Roby, et al., 2013; Young, 2013).

  • Establishing and maintaining rules and norms: Clarifying group norms to new and existing members, including expected conducts and sanctions, resolving disputes (Ehrlich and Cataldo, 2014; Kim, 2000; Preece, 2000; Roby, et al., 2013; Young, 2013).

Since the early years of online communities are formative in terms of the ability to recruit members and generate content, managers’ involvement would be particularly salient in the first year after the community was established (Iriberri and Leroy, 2009; Kim, 2000; Preece, 2000).

From the perspective of community members, Gray (2004) demonstrates that managers’ function is perceived as critical to the success of a given community. Their actions are perceived to contribute to the transformation of a platform for exchange of information, to a community of practice- a space where knowledge is built through shared learning (cf., Roby, et al., 2013).

The limited academic literature about the functioning and perceived influence of managers in online communities is largely based on interviews or small group experiments. This is the first empirical study, to our knowledge, that focuses on community managers and does so through content analysis of a large dataset.

 

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Hypotheses

Since the early years of online communities are formative in terms of the ability to recruit members and generate content, we expect that managers’ involvement would be particularly salient in the first year of a community (Iriberri and Leroy, 2009; Kim, 2000; Preece, 2000). Hence, the hypotheses referring to the activity in the first year of the community are:

  • H1: The share of posts initiating new discussions in the first year of the community is higher for managers than for members.

  • H2: The share of discussions in which managers participate in the first year of the community, is higher than for members.

Second, and based on the literature which refers to the significance of managers in content creation and engagement (Gray, 2004; Kim, 2000; Meier, 1998), it was hypothesized that they have a central role in opening discussions and generating engagement. The hypotheses referring to the opening discussions, generating engagement and attracting participants are:

  • H3: Relative to the overall volume of content they produce, managers initiate more discussions while members respond more.

  • H4: Discussions opened by managers include more posts than discussions opened by members.

  • H5: Posts by managers have more responses than posts by members.

  • H6: Discussions opened by managers involve more participants than discussion opened by members.

In the case studied here, the managers belong to the organization (Fein, 2011; Sabah, 2010), therefore, content they generate may be expected to be more organizational in character (for example, addressing procedures and forms) and less practical (addressing, for example, methods of intervention and professional tips) (see also Bishop, et al., 2008; Bourhis, et al., 2005). Hence, the hypotheses referring to the types of content posted by managers and members are:

  • H7: First posts (opening new discussions) by managers address different themes than posts by members. Managers address organizational issues, while members focus on practical issues.

  • H8: In a more general analysis of all posts, managers address organizational issues, while members address practical issues.

  • H9: Discussions following first posts by managers also address more organizational issues. Member-initiated discussions address more practical issues.

 

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Methodology

The arena of the current study is the communities of practice of the Israeli Ministry of Social Services which were initiated in 2006. The goals of the communities are to promote learning among social workers in different organizations, and explore the penetration of ICT technologies for cross-organizational learning (Fein, 2011; Sabah, 2010). At the time of study, the communities included more than 7,000 members. Everyday a digest e-mail summarizing the new items uploaded to the community is sent to all members. This allows community members to be updated quickly and easily about what is happening in the community without having to enter the site (Fein, 2011).

The communities were established to improve knowledge circulation among social workers. According to their constitutive document (Sabah, 2005), they are based on a number of propositions: that due to their busy routine and heavy workload, consulting with peers would allow employees of the social services better performance under time constraints; that social workers constantly need to make decisions, together with clients, and the accumulated knowledge can improve their decisions and the service offered by the ministry; that oftentimes the treatments that social workers provide require a great deal of creativity and the communities of practice enable employees to learn from precedents; and finally, that spaces for interaction between social workers are scarce, and establishing online communities of practice would address this need.

This study analyzes the content of 11 communities of practice: Intellectual Disability, Community Work, Children at Risk, Immigrants and Inter-Cultural Issues, Policy and Performance, Blind and the Visually Impaired, Domestic Violence, Welfare Management in Municipalities, Foster Care, Organizational Learning and Juvenile Delinquency. All posts available at the time of data collection were analyzed. A total of 7,248 posts were coded using a coding sheet developed for the study.

This study involves two units of analysis: single posts, and threaded discussions (a first post and at least one additional comment related to it). Posts were coded by 13 coders after an intensive training and a reliability test, which repeated until an agreement of 90 percent between the coder and the leading researcher was obtained in each of the categories. In addition, the first set of posts by each coder (including 50–120 posts) was examined by the lead researcher, to ensure that reliability is maintained. The coding sheet comprised 24 quantitative categories, including:

  • Practical advice, directly related to daily work with clients, for example: what is the impact of certain kinds of interventions?
  • Organizational advice, related to employees’ daily work unrelated to working with clients, for example concerning forms, procedures and courses;
  • Statements about the community’s theme, for example: How to improve the status of blind people?
  • Emotional support: addressing members’ manifestations of charged emotions (anger, frustration, fear, etc.) related to their work.
  • Additional categories were: academic advice (references to academic literature); informing on an event or conference; greetings and gratitude.

The dataset includes 308 first posts (opening a new discussion) by managers, and 1,201 first posts by ‘ordinary’ members who are not managers. In addition to the analysis of all posts, first posts were analyzed separately. Underlying this decision was the assumption that if community managers behave differently than the rest of the members. This may be reflected especially in messages opening discussions, where a new topic is introduced, rather than in posts that continue an existing discussion.

 

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Findings

Overview

The literature review demonstrates the importance attributed to managers in online communities of practice. Some general statistics demonstrate this may apply to the communities studied here as well, as 17.9 percent of the messages in the corpus were posted by managers, while 51.3 percent of posts belong to discussions which involved community managers as well as ‘ordinary’ members.

Activity during the first year of the community

Data supports hypotheses H1 and H2, demonstrating how managers are relatively more active in the first year of the community. As Table 1 demonstrates, 29.2 percent of all posts by managers were posted during the first year, compared to only 18.4 percent of posts by members. This changes during the second (24.7 percent vs. 30.1 percent) and third (17.9 percent vs. 20.8 percent) years of the community. The relation between the role of the author (manager/member) and percentage of posts in the years since the community was established is significant (χ2= 86.73, p<0.01), and the effect size is weak (r=0.11).

 

Table 1: Posts by managers and members in various years since community establishment.
Role of authorPublished in the first half of the first yearPublished in the second half of the first yearPublished in the second yearPublished in the third yearPublished in the fourth yearPublished more than four years from community’s establishment
Managers14%15.2%24.7%17.9%16.8%11.4%
Members7.5%10.8%30.1%20.8%19.3%11.5%

 

Next, the authorship of first posts was examined. As noted earlier, underlying this decision was the assumption that if community managers behave differently than ‘ordinary’ members this may be reflected especially in messages opening discussions.

The relationship between author identity (manager/member) and percentage of posts in the various years since the community was established is significant (χ2= 23.67, p<0.01), and the effect size is weak (r=0.13). Table 2 summarizes the distribution of first posts by author (manager/member) and year of publication.

 

Table 2: First posts by managers and members in various years since community establishment.
Role of author of first postsPublished in the first yearPublished in the second yearPublished in the third yearPublished in the fourth yearPublished more than four years from community’s establishment
Managers24.6%24.7%14.9%24.4%11.4%
Community members17.1%28.2%19.7%17.7%17.3%

 

Content: Opening discussions vs. responding

Table 3 shows the distribution of the first posts, first-order responses and higher-order responses (responses to responses, responses to responses to responses etc.) among managers and members. 23.8 percent of the posts by managers (and 20.2 percent by members) are first posts, 26.6 percent of the posts by managers and 35.7 percent by members are first-order responses, while 49.6 percent of the posts by managers and 44.2 percent by members are higher-order responses. The relationship between author identity (manager/member) and type of post is significant (χ2=38.98, p<0.01), and the effect size is weak (r=0.07). This finding supports hypothesis H3, i.e., managers are more dominant in opening discussions, while members are more dominant in responding to first posts.

 

Table 3: Posts by managers and members (first posts, first-order responses and higher-order responses).
AuthorFirst postsFirst-order responsesHigher-order responses
Managers23.8%26.6%49.6%
Members20.2%35.7%44.2%

 

Generating engagement

To test whether discussions opened by managers include more comments than discussions opened by ‘ordinary’ members, a t-test for independent samples was conducted. The test found significant differences (t(358.30)=3.25, p<0.01) between the number of responses in discussions opened by managers (mean=5.31, SD=9.78), and by members (mean=3.43, SD=5.5). This finding supports H4.

To test whether posts by managers receive more responses than posts by other members of the community, another t-test for independent samples was conducted. The test found significant differences (t(1493.20)=5.09, p<0.01) between the number of responses to posts by managers (mean=2.62, SD=5.81), and by ‘ordinary’ members (mean=1.77, SD=3.41). This finding supports H5.

Table 4 demonstrates that posts by managers typically saw more responses than posts by members. While 47.9 percent of posts by members received no responses, only 43.2 percent of the posts by managers received no response. Furthermore, only 15.5 percent of the messages posts by members received at least four responses, while 20.6 percent of the posts by managers had at least four responses. The relationship between the author identity (manager/member) and number of responses was significant (χ2=38, p<0.01), and the effect size was weak (r=0.07).

 

Table 4: Distribution of responses topPosts by managers and members.
AuthorReceived no responsesReceived 1–3 responsesReceived 4–6 responsesReceived 7–10 responsesReceived 11 or more responses
Managers43.2%36.2%10.1%5.3%5.2%
Members47.9%36.7%8.9%4.2%2.4%

 

Attracting participants

Do discussions opened by managers involve more unique participants than discussion opened by members? To address this question, a t-test for independent samples was conducted. No significant differences were found (t(1507)=0.73, p=ns) between the number of participants in discussions opened by managers (mean=3.42, SD=3.67) and by members (mean=3.28, SD=2.88). Hence, hypothesis H6 was not supported.

Moreover, it seems that posts by managers are typically included in discussions involving less participants than posts by members. Table 5 demonstrates that author identity (manager/member) is correlated with the number of participants in the discussion in which it is included. According to the chi-square test, the relationship between these variables was significant (χ2=205.46, p<0.01). The effect size is weak (r=0.17).

 

Table 5: Distribution of posts by managers and members according to number of participants in the discussions in which the posts were included.
AuthorPercentage of single posts or posts in discussions that included one participantPercentage of posts in discussions that included 2–3 participantsPercentage of posts in discussions that included 4–6 participantsPercentage of posts in discussions that included 7–10 participantsPercentage of posts in discussions that included 11–19 participantsPercentage of posts in discussions that included 20 or more participants
Managers17.1%28.9%20.4%15.7%15.2%2.5%
Members7%21.7%24.3%24.5%16.2%3.4%

 

Content posted by managers and members

Are there differences between content contributed by managers and members? Table 6 presents the contents of first posts, all posts and discussions initiated by members and managers.

 

Table 6: Topics of first posts, posts in general and posts in discussions initiated by managers and members.
Note: *p<0.05, ***p<0.01.
 First postsAll postsDiscussions initiated
Topic of post% by manager% by members% by manager% by members% by manager% by members
Practical advice20.1%***39%***28.3%***41.7%***32.7%***43.6%***
Organizational advice26.6%25.9%29.1%***25%***27.9%*25.2%*
Academic advice9.7%10.6%9%***5.8%***4.5%***6.6%***
Emotional support4.5%3.2%3.8%3.3%3.5%3.6%
Informing on an event or conference17.5%***11.1%***10.5%***7.6%***9.9%***6.4%***
Greetings and gratitude3.9%3.7%8.9%***11.4%***11%11.6%
Publication of a project or organization23.4%*** 15.1%***12.1%***7.7%***8.5%*6.9%*
Providing contact details6.2%*10.1%*2.9%***8.6%***1.5%***8.8%***
Statements about the community’s main theme21.1%***10.3%***21.5%23.3%27.4%***22.9%***
Other topics10.4%*6.2%*14.8%***7.3%***13.9%*** 6.9%***

 

This table demonstrates that the leading content categories for managers and members alike are practical advice, organizational advice and statements about the community’s main theme. The findings support hypotheses H7H9:

  • First posts: First posts by members include a significantly higher rate of practical advice, while posts by managers have a higher percentage of statements about the community’s main theme and publication of events and projects. No significant differences were found in terms of organizational advice, academic advice or emotional support.

  • All posts: First posts by members include a significantly higher rate of practical advice, while: The three popular categories (practical advice, organizational advice and statements about the community’s theme) are identical for managers and members. This makes sense, given that managers and members respond to each other and therefore engage in the same issues. However, differences exist: members prefer to discuss practical issues related to their day-to-day work significantly more than managers (41.7 percent vs. 28.3 percent), while managers prefer providing information of various kinds, and especially organizational assistance- related to formal training, courses, forms, etc. Interestingly, emotional support is rare in both managers’ and members’ posts (3.8 percent of managers’ posts, 3.3 percent of members’ posts).

  • Discussion: 1,897 posts were included in discussions following first posts by managers, while 5,340 posts were included in discussions following first posts by members. Messages in discussions initiated by members include a higher rate of practical and academic advice, while messages by managers have a higher rate of organizational advice, statements about the community’s main theme and publications of events or projects. No significant differences between managers and members were found in terms of emotional support.

 

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Discussion and conclusions

The findings demonstrate significant differences in the behaviors of managers and members of communities of practice in terms of content creation, generating engagement and the topics discussed. All hypotheses (with the exception of H6) were supported.

The results present communities of practice as environments where user-generated content is indeed prevalent, but nonetheless managers have a predominant role in setting agendas and generating discussion. This allows us to sharpen our conceptualization of communities of practice as environments of content creation and interaction between members and managers, and to further specify the functions of managers within communities of practice:

  • Managers as catalysts of content and engagement: managers play an important role in generating content, especially in opening discussions. A significant percentage of first posts are written by managers, which could indicate active attempts to foster discussion among community members. Discussions opened by managers, as well as their posts, get on average more responses than posts by members.

    Note that managers post more in the first year compared to ‘ordinary’ members. The first year of the lifecycle of a community of practice is a year of consolidation in which its character is shaped. This requires more effort, involvement and investment by managers (Iriberri and Leroy, 2009).

  • Manager as parts of the organizational hierarchy: despite their involvement and content contribution, managers behave as a part of the organizational hierarchy. Managers share less personal experiences, provide less criticism and mention projects by the communities of practice more often.

  • Mangers as organizational mentors: The three most common conversation topics among both managers and members are practical assistance, organizational assistance and statements about the community’s theme. Still, managers prefer providing information of various kinds, especially related to formal training, courses and forms. Organizational assistance is much more prevalent than practical assistance, which is essential for the daily work with clients.

Future work should continue to explore the functioning of managers within communities of practice as discussion moderators, exploring the managerial role in answering or raising questions or in handling conflicts and crises, and studying the effects of managerial interventions on the conversations that take place in the communities. End of article

 

About the author

Dr. Azi Lev-On is a faculty member in the School of Communication in Ariel University. His research focuses on the uses and perceived effects of social media, public participation and deliberation online, online communities, collective action and campaigns, and behaviors in computer-mediated environments, employing a variety of methods such as content and link analysis, surveys and laboratory experiments.
E-mail: azilevon [at] gmail [dot] com

 

Acknowledgments

The study was supported by the Center for the Study of New Media, Society and Politics at Ariel University. The author thanks Keren Sereno and Nili Steinfeld for their assistance in analyzing the data and finalizing the manuscript.

 

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Editorial history

Received 27 January 2017; accepted 24 September 2017.


Creative Commons License
This paper is in the Public Domain.

Administrating social media: The significance of managers
by Azi Lev-On.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 10 - 2 October 2017
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/7413/6552
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i110.7413





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