Reducing the geek bias in virtual communities: suggestions from a case study

Miranda Mowbray


The demographics of Internet access have recently been undergoing dramatic changes. Although the ideal of equal access is far from being realised, demographic trends are away from the traditional Internet user, (a US male between the ages of 18 and 40, with Internet access from University or computer-related employment) and towards use of the Internet by a much broader cross-section of society. The non-traditional users now accessing the Internet include more women, more users connecting from home, more non-US users, more over-50s, and users with more varied educational and cultural backgrounds.

However the ability to access the Internet does not imply an ability to make use of it on an equal footing with traditional Internet users. Internet products and services are largely designed and built by traditional Internet users. The content and structure of Internet services as a whole are biased (often unconsciously) towards a narrow demographic section of those with Internet access. This is clear in the case, for example, of the dominance of the English language on the Internet, but there are other more subtle biases, some instances of which are identified in this paper. The paper concentrates on two (overlapping) non-traditional user groups, female users, and European users who connect to the Internet from home.

Market forces may work to reduce some of the biases against non-traditional user groups. But market forces cannot be relied upon to reduce bias against groups without large purchasing power, or to reduce bias in non-commercial Internet applications.

There is moreover a danger of self-perpetuating biases, in which the “Internet Market” is identified largely with traditional users, so that the Internet continues to be designed mainly for the use of traditional users, alienating non-traditional users. An alienation of a non-traditional user group from recreational or commercial Internet use may lead to wider disadvantages for that group. As an analogy, there is some evidence that a self-perpetuating sex bias in the computer games market has contributed to the sex bias in employment in the UK and US computing industry.

Given the growing trend for the use of virtual communities on Internet as a means of delivering public services targeted at non-traditional as well as traditional users, it is crucial for the future of the Information Society that there should be an attempt to minimize biases against non-traditional user groups in such virtual communities.

To do this, it is necessary to identify in what ways the needs and preferences of these user groups differ from those of traditional users. This paper reports a case study of the behaviour of the users of the largest italian-language virtual community, Little Italy MOO, over the period of a month.

There were statistically significant differences in the use of the virtual community between male and female users. Some aspects of the virtual community, such as object creation, were used creatively and frequently by female users, and were used significantly less by male users; and other aspects, such as a game in which players use a “blaster” to silence an annoying robot, were significantly more attractive to male than to female users.

There were also differences between the use by work/university users and home users. Once again the traditional user groups (in this case, work/university users) did not use object creation significantly more than the non-traditional user group did, and did use the blaster game significantly more. There were other similarities in the preferences of the non-traditional user groups in comparison to those of the traditional users.

In addition, the non-traditional users were on average present in the virtual community for a significantly shorter amount of time per week than traditional users, which suggests that this community itself has a “geek bias” that deters non-traditional users from making full use of the virtual community once they have accessed it.

As a result of the findings from this case study and from other data reported in the literature, this paper makes a number of suggestions for possible ways to reduce the geek bias in virtual communities.