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Speaking more as long time user of many different forums than purely as
a research a few additional points to consider.

Different forums organize and present their information in a number of
different ways - some, such as this mailing list present primarily via
email (though there can be a web equivalent - see most Yahoo! Groups for
a simple example).

The implied behavior of the group can be set, in part, by the defaults -
SOCNET for example defaults to "reply to sender" instead of "reply to

However there are many online forums and discussions which adopt a very
different format than an email metaphor. That is, while there may be
notifications involved using email, the discussion forum is primarily a
web based phenomenon. My personal favorite online discussion groups are
based on PHPBB (see for a great example around
the topic of food). For these types of forums, the default is to reply
to the thread - and discussions are organized by broad topics, further
organized by specific threads. The software can (and often does) track
which messages have been read, how many times, and how many people have
replied to that thread - with software like PHPBB the display then
usually shows the active threads first but importantly also customizes
this experience on a per-user basis (i.e. you can see what is new to

In mapping the social dynamics of a large scale discussion forum - take
the example of lthforum which I know well, you are looking at a group of
over 1000 registered users (and in many cases a larger number of
unregistered readers). The first set of connections might be the
difference between unregistered and registered - with registration
implying a known connection to the larger group. Then you might use a
set of metrics like "posted to this area" or "replied to messages in
this area" or "replied to the same messages" as three ways of grouping
the members.

Where it gets more complex is that most such systems also do allow for
private messages technically, and in the case of a group like LTHForum
also are used to organize face-to-face meetings. Clearly these two
aspects imply a very different level of connection than merely
participating in the same general topic or specific thread.

I would also strongly suggest that you try to identify the context
within which people participate in the forum(s) in question. In the case
of a corporate environment, how do the discussions forums map from other
forms of communications available within the organization (corporate
email, regular face-to-face meetings, projects and organizational
structure, other electronic collaboration tools). In a case as simple as
lthforum (admittedly not a corporate example) it should be looked at in
context of a larger online community (Chowhounds) and a prior online
mailing list as well as a core offline network based around face-to-face
meetings. There is a strong mapping from those prior groups to the
organizers/moderators of the forum.

Which brings up another point to consider in your analysis - most online
forums offer a variety of administrative capabilities - such as
moderating messages, deleting messages, editing messages, or moving
messages within the system. If you are trying to map out how people use
the system and from that how they are connected, it would be important
to look at the policies being enforced and how they are enforced (even
something as simple as when/if messages are deleted due to age might
mean that you have to keep certain limits to your knowledge in mind as
you analyze. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that the posts to an online forum do
not represent the full impact of the forum on the group - as important,
perhaps more so, are the majority of forum users who read but do not (or
only rarely) reply to posts or initiate new discussions. Within a
corporation or a group this reading of the messages on a given topic is
generally the source of value for the organization for the group - that
is, by reading and being up-to-date duplication of effort and questions
can often be avoided. 

There are some online forums that track who has read what posts - though
clearly this raises a number of privacy concerns (and technically
requires that people be logged in). In some cases there are ways for
readers to give input without posting or replying themselves - for
example many forums offer simple polling capabilities and others offer
ways of rating a given poster (or specific post). 

Hope this helps add to the discourse - definitely mapping out the
network dynamics can be challenging but I look forward to seeing what
people come up with.


-----Original Message-----
From: Social Networks Discussion Forum [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On
Behalf Of James Howison
Sent: Tuesday, January 10, 2006 8:55 AM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: how to map forums

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A timely question, for me :)

On Jan 10, 2006, at 9:48 AM, Antonella Cascio wrote:

> *****  To join INSNA, visit  *****
> Dear All,
> We are two students at Politecnico di Milano (Italy), working on  
> our master
> thesis. We want to map conversation threads (specifically from forums
> residing in the intranet of the company we're studying) in order to
> visualize communication flows and run analysis on them. We know it's
> something that has been done many times before but we can't find a  
> way to
> operationalize the very first steps in this process: how to create a
> communication matrix from the forum istself. For instance: how to  
> code the
> message that starts a thread? As a communication of the one-to-all  
> type?
> and
> what about a reply to a message? is this considered a message from the
> poster to the thread initiator, from the poster to all other  
> posters in the
> same thread or from the poster to everybody?

I think that it matters what you wish to analyze because Forums are  
quite different from the social networks that were the archetypical  
data for the development of most of the measurements.  For example  
consider just betweenness centrality, it is a flow concept that makes  
sense in situations where the dyad is a private communication,  
however I don't think it makes sense in a forum situation where the  
dyad of 'replied-to' is quite different.  We can't, for example,  
interpret dyads-in-public as a route for information flow.

In our work[1,2] we analyze bug-tracking forums and were interested  
primarily in measurements of contribution, rather than information  
flow (they are, of course, related but remain distinguishable).  We  
decided to analyze the dyads as contributions, where outdegree  
centralization becomes a measure of the inequality of contribution;  
we have tried to stay away from measures whose interpretation relies  
on flow (such as betweenness centrality).

We therefore were able to avoid coding one-to-all semantics, sticking  
with reply-to-sender.  Thus the first message (only one half of a  
dyad) is coded as the direction of the second message, or not coded  
at all if there were no replies.  The second dyad is between the  
sender of the 3rd message and the sender of the 2nd message.  Yes, it  
is simple but suits the research question (we hope!).

We have considered weighting the replies on the basis that senders to  
bug forms are often added to a 'group reply' so that all posters  
earlier in the list get all the replies.  However while this is true,  
it is also arbitrary because some bug tracking forums post all  
message to, say, the developer-list, so that everyone sees them.  The  
'lived experience', if you will, of each forum is different.  For  
example, if one were analyzing MySpace blogs, it would be tempting to  
measure a post as a communication to all friends; but one has no data  
on whether the post was actually read by each friend[3].  One could  
reformulate one's research question to deal with this (create a node  
labeled "Jane's Friends"?) or perhaps a question can work with dyads  
with the semantic of "attempted communication" or "potential  

In short I think there cannot be an over-arching answer, it is going  
to depend on the semantics of the dyads, your research questions and  
the specific practices of the forum you are examining.  So, what are  
your research questions? Of course I am equally sure that there is  
more to be said and look forward to hearing from others ;)

James Howison, PhD Candidate
School of Information Studies
Syracuse University

[1]  Kevin Crowston and James Howison (2005) "The social structure of  
Free and Open Source software development" in First Monday, volume  
10, number 2 (February 2005). 

[2] Crowston, K. & Howison, J. (In press). "Hierarchy and  
centralization in Free and Open Source Software team communications".  
Knowledge, Technology & Policy (in press). 

[3]  Certainly one can infer that the post was read if the friend  
posts a replay, but what of those that don't post a reply, did they  
read it?  Perhaps one's research questions can cope with a dyad that  
has the semantics "B was moved to reply by A's post" but how could  
one know that a non-link didn't mean "B was too annoyed to reply to  
A's post" rather than "B did not read A's post" or "B was  
uninterested in A's post" or, in a Knowledge Management context, "B  
already knew what A was suggesting".

One could continue with this, for example when analyzing IRC messages  
it is common for clients to be set to alert (say Bounce in the dock,  
or pop-up notification) when a user's nym or word of interest is  
mentioned.  Should one then assume that they read every message with  
their nym in it? What about immediately surrounding messages?  Or is  
the act of attempted communication enough?

It's almost enough to make one turn to survey research ;)

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