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Abstract

Although there has been a significant increase in networked communication and a growing interest in virtual organizing, to date researchers have yet to establish consistent terminology and have paid little attention to how specific characteristics of the electronic network influence social dynamics such as knowledge contribution. To address this gap, we develop a theoretical model and a set of propositions that explain knowledge contribution in voluntary, computer-mediated, very large and open networks focused on knowledge exchange around a specific practice. We base our model on theories of social networks and collective action to explain how a social network of volunteers sustains productive exchanges between individuals, such as the exchange of knowledge. We utilize the concept of a network of practice to illustrate how the macrostructural properties of the communication media, network size, access to the network, and mode of participation affect network dynamics and knowledge contribution. We then develop a model and a set of propositions to suggest that knowledge contribution within an electronic network of practice is dependent upon 1) the macrostructural properties of the network, 2) the structure of ties that create the network, 3) the relational quality of ties that develop between individuals and the network as a whole, 4) the use of social controls, and 5) the distribution of individual motivations and resources in the network. We further predict that knowledge contribution influences the distribution of individual motivations and resources, as well as serves to create and recreate network structure over time. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of our theory for current and future research.

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