Organizer Participation in an Computer Mediated Conference
by Scott Crawford
More and more we are finding that people are gathering to share ideas. They are collecting their thoughts and documenting them in collaborative efforts never before seen. These meetings of the minds are taking place all around the world, in boardrooms, schools and private homes, and frequently have one common element to their format. These discussions have a foundation in "Cyberspace". Internet-based conferencing has become a widespread way of collecting minds without the need for physical presence.
Internet Providers and other organizations are introducing the capabilities of using web-based software to allow worldwide users to tune in to virtual conferences. Services provided by web based conference organizers vary from the "rental" of the space to actual hands on conference organizing. One such example of this format of online conferencing can be found at Civic-Net. This conference was advertised as a collaboration "on civic and community networking strategies for the future." It attracted hundreds of participants from all around the world to participate at a minimal cost for a five week period of time. The conference was organized and hosted primarily by the Meta Network. The Meta Network is an organization that primarily organizes and hosts online conferences.
Hosting online conferences can appear to be a fairly simple task requiring minimal time and energies and a very small budget. While budgetary issues can fluctuate depending on resources at hand, there is little doubt that the reality of organizing an online conference is much more time consuming that it appears. Many argue that online conferences have a life of their own and an unstoppable force will drive their progress and allow them to develop into "virtual communities." From my personal observations in participating in online conferences and an attempt at organizing an online conference of my own, I have come to believe that the actual time needed to produce a successful conference is overwhelming.
I would hypothesize that there is a relationship between the number of messages posted to an online conference by the organizers of such a conference and the number of posts made by the participants. Organizers must continue to actively participate in their conference in order to insure that participants will also actively participate.
To examine this basic relationship of conference organizer influence on the success of an online conference, I have chosen to look at data collected during the Civic-Net conference, as hosted by the Meta Network. I obtained, from Meta Network, a data set containing the virtual demographic information regarding the post. The data showed who authored each post and what topic the post was made about. The data was provided to me from the staff at the Meta Network.
In the entire Civic-Net conference, there were 132 topics of discussion. These topics were also put into several broader categories, however for this analysis the topic level category was used. The mean number of posts by conference organizers in each topic was 4.705. The mean number of posts contributed by participants of the conference was 15.924. The total number of posts per topic ranged from one to 202.
To test my hypothesis I used two variables from the Civic-Net data set. My dependent variable, participants, was a count variable of the number of posts made by participants in the conference for each topic. My independent variable, organizers, was also a continuous count variable describing the number of posts made by organizers to each conference topic.
Plotting the variables and overlaying the line of best fit for this interaction, we find that there does appear to be a relationship.
A simple linear regression of these variables indicates that there is a statistically significant (to the .0000 level) correlation between the number of posts from organizers and the number of posts authored by the participants in this online conference. Further look at this analysis indicates that the relationship is positive with a 2.15 expected increase in the number of posts from conference participants for every added single post from conference organizers.
While these results do support my hypothesis, it is too easy to stop there and conclude that conference hosting simply means that you have to stay active. An indication of how many posts is required can be seen by looking at some descriptive statistics. There were a total of 2102 posts made by 177 participants and a total of 621 posts completed by eight conference organizers. This means that every organizer averaged seventy-eight posts in the five week conference while each participant only averaged 12 posts in the same timespan.
When a conference has high numbers of participants, and there are few conference organizers, the task of keeping the conference active can become very cumbersome. We can say that the conference host must stay six and a half times more active in the conference, with a result of only a little over two additional posts created by participants for every organizer post.
If we can assume for the moment that there is a fifteen minute time commitment to each post created by any participant or organizer, we will find that the cost of conference activity can be very high. For every fifteen minutes spent by a conference organizer, it can be expected that just under five minutes of time will be spent by the conference participant.
FIFTEEN Minutes of Organizer Time = FIVE Minutes of Participant Time
For a conference the size of Civic-Net, this translates into 193 hours per organizer during the length of the conference, with a return of one hour per participant over the conference duration. It is important to keep in mind that this analysis was done using the number of participants who actually participated at least once during the conference. Participants who signed up but did not participate were not included.
The limitations on this analysis are obvious. I only looked at one online conference that included a very special type of person (those interested in online communities). There is a great range of conferencing formats and software available. Some may better promote activity in the online conference arena. The results should be taken as a description of what was found in this specific case. Careful consideration to the similarities of this design and others should be taken prior to making any predictions.
While I have found that there is good evidence to show that there is a strong time commitment needed on the part of the conference organizer to keep an online conference moving, and there is a positive relationship between the number of posts that an organizer completes and the number of posts authored by the participants, I cannot explain what it is about a conference organizer post that initiates others to respond. Further analysis of the Civic-Net data may allow us to see patterns in the timing of posts or the content of the posts. Theoretical groundwork must be laid first to examine the interaction that takes place in these online forums. This frame could then be tested.
While online conferencing is being used more and more commonly by organizations who want to increase their communications about topics, it is clear that this technology cannot be used flagrantly without regard to the time and costs of organization. From the results of this data, I would strongly recommend those who desire to use this technology to look closely at the real need for such a conference to be online. If physical and time boundaries do not exist, then a face-to-face conference may be the better way to go. However, if needed, this forum has been found to work, at a cost.
Scott Crawford (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an employee at the University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research. He is also the Webmaster for the Society for Applied Sociology. His interests focus on the use of Information Technologies to improve the educational, business, and social arenas.
Copyright © 1998 by Scott Crawford. All Rights Reserved.