The rise of online communities has set in motion an unprecedented power shift from goods and services vendors to customers. Vendors who understand this power transfer and choose to capitalise on it are richly rewarded with both peerless customer loyalty and impressive economic returns they argue In contemporary business discourse, online community is no longer seen as an impediment to online commerce, nor is it considered just a useful website add-on or a synonym for interactive marketing strategies.

Rather, online communities are frequently central to the commercial development of the Internet, and to the imagined future of narrowcasting and mass customization in the wider world of marketing and advertising. Online communities offer vendors an unparalleled opportunity to really get to know their customers and to offer customized goods and services in a cost executive way and it is this recognition of an individual’s needs that creates lasting customer loyalty. Needs are not the only cognitive element that affects an actor’s behavior, then vendors that want to use online communities to reach their customers will benefit from taking account of the knowledge, skills and social networks of their customers as well.

It is possible to effectively create an online community at a click of a button as tools such as Yahoo! Groups, Facebook and Google+ allow the casual Internet user to create a space on the Net for people to talk about a specific topic or Interest. Online communities can be defined according to the forms they take. These forms range from special interest discussion websites to instant messaging groups. A social definition could include the requirement that an information system’s users go through the Membership Lifecycle identified by Amy Jo Kim.

Kim’s lifecycle proposed that individual online community members would enter each community as visitors, or “Lurkers.” After breaking through a barrier they would become “Novices,” and settle in to community life. If they regularly post content, they become “Regulars.” Next, they become “Leaders,” and if they serve in the community for a considerable amount of time, they become “Elders.”

Primary online community genres based on this definition are easily identified by the technology platforms on which they are based. Using this definition, it is possible to see the personal homepage as an online community since users must go through the membership lifecycle in order to post messages to a ‘guestbook’ or join a ‘Circle of Friends’.

The Circle of Friends method of networking, developed as part of the VECC Project has been embedded in social networking sites, some of which meet the above definition of an online community. One of the most popular genres of online community is the bulletin board, also known as a message board. A message board is one of the most familiar genres of online gathering place, which is asynchronous, meaning people do not have to be in the same place at the same time to have a conversation.

An alternative to the message board is the email list, which is the easiest kind of online gathering place to create, maintain and in which to participate. Another genre of online community that facilitates discussion is the Chat Group, where people can chat synchronously, communicating in the same place at the same time.

Two relatively new types of online community are the Weblog and the Wiki. Weblogs, or blogs. These are websites that comprise hyperlinks to articles, news releases, discussions and comments that vary in length and are presented in chronological order. The community element of this technology commences when the owner, referred to as a ‘blogger’, invites others to comment on what he/she has written. A Wiki, which is so named through taking the first letters from the axiom, ‘what I know is;’ is a collaborative page-editing tool with which users may add or edit content directly through their web browser.

Despite their newness, Wikis could be augmented with older models of hypertext system. A genre of online community that has existed for a long time, but is also becoming increasingly popular is the Virtual World, which may be a Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORG) or some other 3D virtual environment, such as World of Warcraft.

Genre Advantages/Disadvantages
Personal Homepage Advantages: Regularly updated, allows
people to re-connect by leaving messages and joining circle of friends

Disadvantage: Members often need to
re-register for each site and cannot usually take their ‘Circle of Friends’
with them.

Message Boards Advantages: Posts can be accessed at any time. Easy
to ignore undesirable content.

Disadvantages: Threads can be very long and reading
them time consuming

Email Lists and Newsletters Advantages: Allows a user to receive a message as
soon as it is sent

Disadvantages: Message archives not always
accessible.

Chat Groups Advantages: Synchronous. Users can communicate in
real-time.

Disadvantages: Posts can be sent simultaneously and
the user can become lost in the conversation.

Virtual Worlds and Simulations Advantages: 3D metaphors enable heightened community
involvement

Disadvantages: Requires certain hardware and
software that not all users have

Weblogs and Directories Advantages: Easily updated, regular content

Disadvantages: Members can’t start topics, only
respond to them

Wikis and Hypertext Fiction Advantages: Can allow for collaborative work on
literary projects

Disadvantages: Can bring out the worst in people,
e.g. their destructive natures