When Sigrid and I researched the organizational network orchestrated by the US non-profit Creative Commons (see our MPIfG Discussion Paper 08/8, PDF), one of the most interesting findings was the benefits of its transnationalization efforts. What initially appeared as a challenge – legal differences between jurisdictions and the perceived need to adapt its alternative copyright licenses accordingly – actually turned out to be a mobilizing and diffusion strategy. At least initially, porting the licenses to different jurisdictions provided a task for locally embedded copyright lawyers, who then became part of a transnational network of affiliate organizations helping to promote Creative Commons licenses. So, at least in this case of private regulation via standards distance between different actors became an asset.

In their most recent paper entitled “Distance as asset? Knowledge collaboration in hybrid virtual communities” (not open acces available yet), economic geographers Gernot Grabher and Oliver Ibert make a more general argument emphasizing the benefits of geographically dispersed communities. They define hybrid communities as “a specific kind of community, which encompasses on the one hand the sphere of professional expertise, and the mundane world of ordinary users, lay-persons, enthusiasts, and hobbyists, on the other” (p. 101). Empirically, the paper compares three types of communities with three cases each:

  • Firm-hosted communities (Huggies Happy Babies Forum, Kraft Food Message Boards, Dell’s Ideastorm Forum)
  • Firm-related communities (IKEA Fans, Nikonians, BMW Luxury Touring Forum)
  • Independent communities (A Swarm of Angels Forum, Sandboarder Forum, DCA Forum)

The paper is full of exemplary quotes of community members, evidencing the different kinds of knowledge shared (e.g. usage, design, procedural) and how distance between participants may be an asset (e.g. sandboarders exchanging knowledge about different characteristics of sand in their region; and if you think sand is trivial an issue, check out this chart).

In analyzing their cases, Grabher and Ibert distinguish three qualities of virtual interactions that constitute “advantages of not being there”:

  • Low multiplexity and quasi-anonymity:

“Under these conditions individual posts are primarily valued according to their contribution to the specific problem at hand. Quasi-anonymity, in this sense, implies a redistribution of influence from formal status to competence, commitment and enthusiasm.” (p. 114)

  • Cumulative learning, selection, and memory:

“Discussion threads are persistent over years due to the storage of messages, and […] explicit cross-referencing produces a collective memory and cultivates a certain sense of focus and accuracy” (pp. 115-116)

  • Asynchronicity and reflective framing:

“In general, interaction within the observed forums is characterized by long response times. On average, across all the analysed threads contributors took about 114 h for reacting on fellow peer’s suggestions.” (p. 116)

What particularly intrigues me with these findings is that the positive effects really depend on – at least to a certain degree – interaction partners being physically separated and quasi-anonymous. Emphasizing this potentially positive effects of virtual communities seems particularly worthwhile in times when most discussions of the matter – also on this blog – focus difficulties and exclusionary dynamics in digital community settings.

In the conclusions of their paper, the authors point to another but still unexplored issue in the context of the virtual hybrid communities in their sample:

“In virtual communities misunderstandings and misapprehensions might remain undetected for longer time. However, whereas ambivalence and misunderstandings usually are perceived as undesired distortions, we suggest that both can unfold creative dynamics.” (p. 118)

This unintended creative potential of constructive ambivalence brings me back to the initial case of Creative Commons. In this case, the mobilizing function of its organizational transnationalization was also not initially intended but only discovered and exploited on the way. With regard to distance, it thus might make sense to have a look at its (maybe unintended) enabling potential also beyond (merely) virtual communities.


PS: The authors themselves have also blogged about their paper at an LSE blog and give some more details on their research.