A Case Study of How a Reduction in Explicit Leadership Changed an Online Game Community
Leadership is considered critical to virtual community success. Leaders engage in important community activities such as encouraging members and building social structure. These potential benefits, however, have rarely been empirically tested. We were presented with an opportunity to explore this issue while studying an online board-and-card-game community. During our study, the community experienced a major change in leadership when the founder – and formal leader – decided to substantially reduce his involvement in the site. This provided us with the rare opportunity to carry out a case study of leadership reduction in a real-world community. To look at the effects of leadership on community behaviour, we analysed 16 months of activity logs, supported by interviews, to compare the community before, during, and after the founder’s withdrawal. We observed strong variability in the effects of a leadership reduction – some results were in line with the “leadership hypothesis,” but others were unexpected. In some cases, we found evidence that reducing formal leadership can have negative effects on the success of the community; but in other cases, we found surprising sources of resilience to the reduction in leadership activities. Our study is the first to look at the details of how leadership (and a reduction in this role) affects several types of sub-community within a board-and-card game site, and the first to consider some of the factors that lead to differences in the effects of leadership reduction. Overall, we found that negative effects on sub-communities were closely tied to the specific activities that the leader provided, and the degree to which he was the only person able to provide those roles. The broad strokes of this finding agree with the leadership hypothesis, but there are several unexpected elements within the main story: the negative effects were less drastic than we anticipated, and all of the sub-communities (even the most dependent) survived the transition. The strong resilience of some of the sub-communities seems to be connected to their ability to “fall back” to a foundation of shared activity (i.e., game play) – an idea that has been introduced in earlier work but never studied empirically. This research helps designers to understand the complexities of leadership in online communities, providing an important foundation for developing and supporting online groups.