Social computing can be broadly defined as a branch of HCI or social informatics concerned with social behavior and the desire to create systems to support social behavior in Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. This definition came from the readings 1, 2, 3, and 5. My own experiences that helped shape this definition came from my involvement of communities under the Offbeat Empire umbrella: Offbeat Families, Offbeat Home and Life, and the open-blog, closed community Offbeat Bride. The closed-community (the Tribe, in which members call themselves Tribesmaids) is a narrow-focused SNS community with membership concentrated on brides and grooms that don’t see themselves falling into the traditional WIC (Wedding Industry Complex) confines of marriage. It includes LGBT, BDSM, couples getting weddinged, Offbeat Lite members who want to spice up tradition, gamers, nerdy and geeky Tribesmaids, and many other types of people who feel isolated when confronted with traditional elements of the WIC. The Tribe is the only traditional SNS site with the features laid out by boyd and Ellison, but that doesn’t mean the other sites do not fall under the definition of social computing. Offbeat Empire is a blog concerned with creating and maintaining a niche community. Please feel free to check out these blogs. If you are engaged and think of yourself as different, please feel free to apply to the Tribe for a welcoming, supportive, and diverse wedding community experience.
The specific community I want to focus on is Offbeat Home and Life. This niche community does not seek to build and maintain connections, but it is a site for sharing stories and pictures, asking for advice, and other aspects that still build a sense of community and belonging that many may be missing from their real world lives. Offbeat Empire releases an annual survey for their membership. There are comment sections and threads for every posting, many of which are reader-contributed. Offbeat Home and Life encompasses the readership and community of all four sites and seeks user-directed input for improvement of the community aspect as a whole. Maintaining a niche site is driven by the membership’s feeling of connection to one another, but readers of Offbeat Home felt they didn’t necessarily belong to any community. In fact, an overwhelming number of readers felt they didn’t belong in any community created by the Offbeat Empire because they had gotten married but don’t own homes or are nowhere near ready to start a family. This feeling of isolation is the opposite of what Ariel Meadow Stallings- vetted blogger and niche community entrepreneur- had intended. Hence, the mass-overhaul of site content and the name change to Offbeat Home & Life occurred.
User-generated content and consideration of user feedback drove these changes to create a feeling of community. The community environment experienced by many Tribesmaids-turned-Homies similar to the Living Room of the MUD Dibbell described. It seems the reader survey of 2012 could be likened to the Bungle Affair in the sense that there was a fundamental disconnect between what was intended by the environment, what the users felt, and how the leadership were going to deal with it. This is a community of fully-developed pseudonyms that needed to be taken seriously. While we don’t come close to having any formal governance and nothing serious occurred that caused the membership to question the blended boundaries of the real and virtual world, we were questioning what it meant to be a community as well as the criteria that defined the type of community to which we felt we belonged. These elements make Offbeat Home & Life fit the definition of social computing.
I was an active Tribesmaid who moderated the Offbeat Academics group on the Tribe for almost a year. When the site migrated from Ning, our group did not make the cut. After our elopement in March, I became less involved with the Tribe. I still find support there as a bride who is considering getting weddinged, but my interests have taken me to the other Offbeat sites. I took the 2012 survey for all the sites, and I felt that same isolated feeling of other Homies. I felt like Offbeat Home was for people who owned their homes. I enjoyed reading birthing stories and stories of non-traditional families on Offbeat Mama, but my person and I have no aspirations to grow our family any time soon. I felt like the Tribe had abandoned me 😦 Because I had developed my pseudonym in that community, I felt I could be honest and my opinion would be taken seriously. Turned out, I wasn’t alone. I am truly happy with the changes that have occurred across the Empire, and I not contribute more where I felt I had nothing to offer before. When my guest post goes live on Offbeat Families, I’ll post a link here.
There are challenges to gathering data from any of the Offbeat sites. Like any search feature, tagging creates issues. Clicking on keywords helps pull content, but it is based on how editors classify them. It might not actually pull what the reader is looking for. Another challenge with looking at the Offbeat Empire is identifying the structure of the network and interactions readers have with each other because there is no profile or friend feature in three of the four communities. It would be an interesting project, though, to map out the connections on each of the sites and see how they overlap. Another challenge is that, upon each login on each post, one can choose a different handle if he or she does not want to use their handle.
In Carol Tenopir’s article “Online Databases—Web 2.0: Our Cultural Downfall?” The author analyzes and relays concepts in a book by Keen called The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture. There are some meaningful points about authenticity and believing what you read\see\hear on the internet at face value. One of the best satirical representations of this idea is the State Farm commercial State of Disbelief in which a girl (total stereotypical blonde girl…) believes everything on the internet is true. Tenopir argues that, at the core, “buyer beware” is a good message to remember when looking at content on the internet. While the sites of the Offbeat Empire are mostly comprised of user-generated content, the content is moderated. It is also vetted by the editors of the sites, who are vetted by WordPress, Ning, MSN, and other major players in the blogosphere and realm of community management. The Empire employs interns and staff that manage key words. Members become vetted in the community by their peers. In many cases, amateurs create or share life hacks or ideas with the community that can enrich members’ real world lives. We are moving beyond 2.0, in which everyone has a say and believes their voice has merit because they are speaking, to 3.0. Web 3.0 is a different level of engagement that seems like it will emerge to be community-centered instead of “I”-centered. This is merely speculation, and nothing will be confirmed until we are moving on to Web 4.0…but I think that the communities of the Offbeat Empire are 3.0. I guess what I’m saying is that we might have learned from Keen’s concerns, and each community is taking vetting and contribution seriously.