Impact of Leadership on Continued Participation in Online Groups

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Online groups formed by volunteer members are increasingly recognized as sources of innovative ideas, as producers of information goods, and as a critical component for successful product marketing. Compared to formal organizations, online groups appear as anarchic collections of individuals largely devoid of formal authority. Yet online groups develop strong group norms, successfully generate information goods, and satisfy member needs--outcomes that seem impossible without some form of leadership by influential members. Research on open-membership voluntary online groups has consistently found that contribution to online groups is dominated by a small percentage of participants. The goal of this research is to better understand the role of leadership in online groups and to evaluate the impact of leadership in maintaining online groups by supporting continued participation intentions of existing members.

I explored three related questions regarding leadership in online groups. First, does member interaction with group leaders contribute to continued participation intentions over and above a model based on past participation? Second, do shared context and direct communication with leaders impact continued participation intentions? And third, do group characteristics--group psychological safety, group size, and perceived number of leaders--moderate the relationship between group members and group leaders? I collected 535 survey responses from members of thirty-three different online groups (average of sixteen members per group) and also analyzed group communication history (a total of 135,477 messages). This cross-level analysis furthers our understanding of the relationship between interaction with group leadership, psychological safety, participation role intentions, and turnover intentions.

I found that leadership in online groups is a determinant of online group outcomes. Online group leaders shape the group context, including psychological safety, which encourages or discourages participation. This study shows that leadership processes, group context, and differentiation among dimensions of participation intentions are all important considerations for further understanding of online groups.