A web community is a web site (or group of web sites) where specific content or links are only available to its members. A web community may take the form of a social network service, an Internet forum, a group of blogs, or another kind of social software web application. The rise in popularity of Web 2.0 websites has allowed for easier real-time communication and ability to connect to others as well as producing new ways for information to be exchanged.
Web communities provide a platform for a range of services to users. They allow for social interaction across the world between people of different cultures who might not otherwise have met with offline meetings also becoming more common. Another key use of web communities is access to and the exchange of information. With communities for even very small niches it is possible to find people also interested in a topic and to seek and share information on a subject where there are not such people available in the immediate area offline. This has led to a range of popular sites based on areas such as health, employment, finances and education.
Unexpected and innovative uses of web communities have also emerged with Social networks being used in conflicts to alert citizens of impending attacks, the UN sees the web and specifically social networks as an important tool in conflicts and emergencies.
Blogging involves a website or webpage that is updated in a reverse chronological order on either a topic or a person's life. There are different types of blogs including Microblogging where the amount of information in a single element is smaller as on the popular social network site Twitter and Liveblogging when an ongoing event is blogged upon in real time, this has been used to live update important worldwide stories including a Twitter user inadvertently live blogging the raid which killed Osama bin Laden.
The ease and convenience of blogging has allowed for its growth with platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr combining social media and blogging alongside other solutions such as WordPress which allow content to be hosted on their own servers or for users to download and install the software on their own servers where user made modifications can be added. This has become so popular that as of October 2014 23.1% of the top 10 million websites are either hosted on or run WordPress.
Bulletin boards or Internet forums are websites which allow users to post topics also known as threads for discussion with other users able to reply creating a conversation. Forums follow a categorised structure with many popular forum software solutions categorising forums depending on their purpose with multiple forums that can potentially contain sub-forums that within contain threads. With time more advanced features have been added into forums with the ability to attach files, embed YouTube videos and private messaging now common place. Currently the largest forum Gaia Online contains over 2 billion posts.
Members are commonly assigned into user groups which control their access rights and permissions with two popular levels of staff access:
- User: A standard account with the ability to create topics and reply
- Moderator: Moderators are typically tasked with the daily administration tasks such as answering user queries, dealing with rule breaking posts and the moving, editing or deletion of topics or posts.
- Administrator: Administrators deal with the forum strategy including the implementation of new features alongside more technical tasks such as server maintenance.
Social networks are platforms allowing users to set up their own profile and build connections with like minded people who pursue similar interests through interaction. The first traceable example of such a site is SixDegrees.com set up in 1997 which included a friends list and the ability to send messages to members linked to friends and see other users associations. For over a decade the popularity of such networks has been growing with Friendster the first social network to gain mass media attention however by 2004 it had been overtaken in popularity by Myspace which was later overtaken by Facebook, by far the most popular social network currently attracting 1.23 billion monthly users in 2013, a rapid increase from 145 million in 2008. This does appear to show a birth and death cycle with new social networks rapidly growing and overtaking their predecessors and sending older networks into decline.
Current trends focus around the increased use of mobile devices when using social networks, statistics from Statista show in 2013 97.9 million users accessed social networks from a mobile device in the US with this projected to increase to 160.5 million by 2017.
Web communities have grown in popularity with 6 of the current top 20 websites by traffic being community based sites. The amount of traffic to such websites is expected to increase as by the end of 2015 it is estimated 42% of the worlds population will have internet access compared to 17.6% in 2006 according to the European Travel Commission  with current chairman of Google Eric Schmidt stating his belief that by 2020 the entire world will have internet access.
Reliability of information
Web communities can be an easy and useful tool to access information. However, the information contained as well as the users' credentials cannot always be trusted, with the internet giving a relatively anonymous medium for some to fraudulently claim anything from their qualifications or where they live to, in rare cases, pretending to be a specific person. Malicious fake accounts created with the aim of defrauding victims out of money has become more high-profile with four men sentenced to between 8 years and 46 weeks for defrauding 12 women out of £250,000 using fake accounts on a dating website. In relation to accuracy one survey based on Wikipedia that evaluated 50 articles found that 24% contained inaccuracies, while in most cases the consequence might just be the spread of misinformation in areas such as health the consequences can be far more damaging leading to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration providing help on evaluating health information on the web.
Internet privacy relates to the transmission and storage of a persons data and their right to anonymity whilst online with the UN in 2013 adopting online privacy as a human right by a unanimous vote. Many websites allow users to sign up with a username which needn't be their actual name which allows a level of anonymity, in some cases such as the infamous imageboard 4chan users of the site do not need an account to engage with discussions. However, in these cases depending on the detail of information about a person posted it can still be possible to work out a users identity.
Even when a person takes measures to protect their anonymity and privacy revelations by Edward Snowden a former contractor at the Central Intelligence Agency about mass surveillance programs conducted by the US intelligence services involving the mass collection of data on both domestic and international users of popular websites including Facebook and YouTube as well as the collection of information straight from fiber cables without consent appear to show individuals privacy is not always respected. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg publicly stated that the company had not been informed of any such programs and only handed over individual users data when required by law implying that if the allegations are true that the data harvested had been done so without the company's consent.
The growing popularity of social networks where a user using their real name is the norm also brings a new challenge with one survey of 2,303 managers finding 37% investigated candidates social media activity during the hiring process with a study showing 1 in 10 job application rejections for those aged 16 to 34 could be due to social media checks.
Cyber bullying, the "use of long-term aggressive, intentional, repetitive acts by one or more individuals, using electronic means, against an almost powerless victim" which has increased in frequency alongside the continued growth of web communities with an Open University study finding 38% of young people had experienced or witnessed cyber bullying. It has received significant media attention due to high-profile incidents such as the death of Amanda Todd who before her death detailed her ordeal on YouTube.
A key feature of such bullying is that it allows victims to be harassed at all times, something not possible typically with physical bullying. This has forced Governments and other organisations to change their typical approach to bullying with the UK Department for Education now issuing advice to schools on how to deal with cyber bullying cases.
The 1% rule states that within an online community as a rule of thumb only 1% of users actively contribute to creating content. Other variations also exist such as the 1-9-90 rule when taking editing into account. This raises problems for online communities with most users only interested in the information such a community might contain rather than having an interest in actively contributing which can lead to staleness in information and community decline. This has led such communities which rely on user editing of content to promote users into becoming active contributors as well as retention of such existing members through projects such as the Wikimedia Account Creation Improvement Project.
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