Online communities are virtual spaces for users to share interests, support others, and to exchange knowledge and information. Understanding user behavior is valuable to organizations and has applications from marketing to security, for instance, identifying leaders within a community or predicting future behavior. In the present research, we seek to understand the various roles that users adopt in online communities–for instance, who leads the conversation? Who are the supporters? We examine user role changes over time and the pathways that users follow. This allows us to explore the differences between users who progress to leadership positions and users who fail to develop influence. We also reflect on how user role proportions impact the overall health of the community. Here, we examine two online ideological communities, RevLeft and Islamic Awakening (N = 1631; N = 849), and provide a novel approach to identify various types of users. Finally, we study user role trajectories over time and identify community “leaders” from meta-data alone. Study One examined both communities using K-MEANS cluster analysis of behavioral meta-data, which revealed seven user roles. We then mapped these roles against Preece and Schneiderman’s (2009) Reader-to-Leader Framework (RtLF). Both communities aligned with the RtLF, where most users were “contributors”, many were “collaborators”, and few were “leaders”. Study Two looked at one community over a two-year period and found that, despite a high churn rate of users, roles were stable over time. We built a model of user role transitions over the two years. This can be used to predict user role changes in the future, which will have implications for community managers and security focused contexts (e.g., analyzing behavioral meta-data from forums and websites known to be associated with illicit activity).

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0216932
Pages (from-to)1-25
Number of pages25
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 22 May 2019


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