This blog is about the evolution of virtual communities. One major problem with studying (virtual) communities is that by nature their examination requires a longitudinal approach. A community cannot be "declared", but needs to grow slowly over time. This means that collecting empirical data to detect meaningful patterns is very difficult to do, requiring a time horizon which is far too long for average research projects and decision making processes. As a result, much research is anecdotal, or focuses on single aspects instead of the full system.
Many people cannot visualize the exponential, non-linear effects of interventions in complex systems like virtual communities. Much real-world behaviour is very complex because of dependencies between variables and feedback loops in which the output of a system component has an effect as an input in the future. Delays and accumulations add further complexity. As a result, people make incorrect decisions with a short-term focus. The long time horizon associated with communities and the lack of experimentation results in wrong decisions about which interventions are most likely to benefit a community. Should, for instance, budget be spent on installing an advanced community memory system or in appointing a number of human facilitators?
System dynamics is a methodology particularly suited to analyze such complex, large-scale, non-linear, partially quantitative dynamic systems (Sterman, 2000). System dynamics models can be used to generate and analyze simulations of very complex, realistic behaviour. However, they consist of combinations of only a few very simple conceptual building blocks, notably stocks, flows, feedback loops, and delays.
I am fascinated by system dynamics as a much-needed research instrument for community research. There are many ways in which it can be applied. One way in which it might be made relevant to our field I described in (De Moor, 2005). I will definitely get back to you on this in future posts, since I believe system dynamics will help us to better think through, validate and link theory and practice.
- A. de Moor (2005). Towards a Design Theory for Community Information
Systems. In Proc. of the 11th International Conference on
Human-Computer Interaction (HCII 2005), Las Vegas, July 2005, Lawrence Erlbaum
Ass., Mahwah, NY.
-J.D. Sterman (2000), Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World, Irwin McGraw-Hill, London.