Ecology of Online Communities/Community rules study

From CommunityData


Why and how do online communities adopt specific (and often very similar) rules, norms, or code(s) of conduct? In particular, why do communities with different goals, members, and leaders often have such similar or even identical rules? Communities with overlapping membership seem to specialize and differentiate themselves in terms of topical focus. Similarly, in platform environments with many communities, individual participants might choose to join a particular group based on some aspect of the rules or norms that distinguishes it from the others. At the same time, communities may face pressures to imitate successful, well-known peers or adopt widespread, familiar standards in order to lend themselves credibility and legitimacy. Whatever the case, the specific reasons, mechanisms, or processes by which communities select and adopt rules remains outside the scope of prior online communities and social computing research.

In this project, our research team will try to understand the processes and purposes of rule adoption through a comparative study of multiple online communities in multiple settings, including subreddits, Fandom wikis, Fediverse servers, and free and open technology projects. Within each setting, we will identify communities with similar rules and conduct interviews with community leaders, administrators, and moderators to learn how and why they adopted their rules.

Participant Information[edit]

Study Information Sheet[edit]

Understanding rules and norms in online communities

You are invited to participate in a research study seeking to understand the reasons and processes by which online communities on different platforms adopt rules. Specifically, we seek to understand why communities often (but not always) post similar rules, how such rules shape the practices and experiences of online community leaders and participants, and how these processes are similar or different across several different platforms.

Eligibility to Participate

Participants must be adults (i.e., at least 18 years old if they are from the United States and/or above the age of majority in their locale if they are not), be able to conduct an interview in English, be familiar with online communities on at least one of the platforms we are studying, and be willing to participate in a 45-90 minute interview recorded over audio or video communication.

Procedures for the Study

If you agree to be in the study, you will first complete a short questionnaire asking about your familiarity and engagement with online communities. You will then participate in an interview conducted remotely by voice or video either using Zoom or a platform of your choice. This interview will include questions about your experience with [Reddit, Mastodon, Fandom, Open Source] communities.

You will be asked about your knowledge of these communities including about their topics, content, written and unwritten rules, the kinds of people who are active in them and about how they relate to one another. We expect that most interviews will last between 45 and 90 minutes. These interviews will be recorded and then transcribed so that our research team can have a record of what you have said. We will delete the recordings themselves once the interviews are fully transcribed. We will edit out any identifiers from these transcripts so that all retained records are anonymous.

Voluntary Participation and Withdrawal

Taking part in this study is voluntary. You may choose not to take part or may leave the study at any time. For example, you may decline to complete the survey, cancel the interview before it begins or choose to end the interview at any point. Leaving the study will not result in any penalty or loss of benefits to which you are entitled. Your decision of whether or not to participate in the study will not affect your current or future relations with Northwestern University.

Payment for Participation

You may be compensated with a $20 Amazon gift card. Amazon gift cards can only be used in the country where they were purchased and they can only be purchased on’s USA website or one of Amazon’s international sites (Australia, Brazil, Canada, People’s Republic of China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom). If you want to receive the gift card, we must collect your name, email address, and the country where you intend to use the gift card, in order to comply with financial requirements via this Google Form [link to form].


We will endeavor to keep your personal information confidential. However, we cannot guarantee absolute confidentiality. Your personal information may be disclosed if required by law. Your identifying information including your email address, our records of which communities we asked you about, and audio/video recording of our conversion will be held in confidence until the reports resulting from the study are published, after which they will be deleted. Your username will be deleted after we successfully connect using email. The identities of communities you participate in will be removed from the transcripts.

Our university requires that if you opt to receive any payment gift card, we will need to collect your name and email address and retain this information for a period of 5-6 years. We will store this information in an encrypted file separate from the rest of the information we collect and will not share this information except in the case of a financial audit. If you do not wish to receive compensation, we will not collect your name or maintain any identifiers (like your email or username) after the study is concluded.

Questions or Problems

If you have questions, concerns, or complaints about the study or this information sheet contact the researcher Aaron Shaw at

If you have questions about your rights as a research subject or if you think the research has hurt you, you may contact the Northwestern University Institutional Review Board Office at (312) 503-9338 or

Researcher Information[edit]

Spring 2022 research practicum[edit]

During Spring quarter, 2022, this project will take the form of a research practicum coordinated jointly by project team members at Northwestern University and the University of Washington. We will try to use this page to coordinate and document some of that group's work, though we'll likely do most of the day-to-day stuff via chat, email, and other tools.

Team / research site assignments[edit]

  • Fandom/Wikia: Nate, Paz, Davida
  • Fediverse: Carl, Eric, Grace
  • Free/Open source software: Molly, Amy, Marlene, Dylan
  • Reddit: Charlie, Sohyeon, Emily, Carolyn, Noah

Assignment ahead of next (April 8) meeting[edit]

Upon receiving your team/site assignment, please complete the following things:

  1. Spend time (at least an hour or so?) exploring example communities and/or their rules from for your research site (and note that you may need to coordinate with your team/site leader(s) to identify example communities and/or rules). What strikes you as interesting or surprising about the rules in this site? Are there any rules you might expect to find that are missing?
  2. Read over the IRB protocol. What do you find confusing or surprising about the IRB protocol?
  3. Read over the general interview protocol. Which interview questions strike you as most interesting? Why?
  4. Is there anything in particular about interviewing you feel especially confident about? Anything you feel nervous about?
  5. What are some biases you think you might bring into your interviews? (See the section on "Constructivist Grounded Theory" in the Charmaz.)

Please write your responses to these questions and submit them to your team leader(s) (either in an email or as an attachment) ahead of Friday's meeting.

Meeting agendas and notes[edit]

Meeting notes etherpad