Online participation consists of various modes of communication and interaction by people over the Internet. This activity is facilitated by web-based software and often organized into virtual communities. Functionally, online participation substitutes a virtual connection for physical proximity. People who are located at great distances from one another can interact in real time with a greater number of expressive choices than with other modes of communication, such as the telephone or letter-writing. The exponential growth in the number of people connected to the Internet and participating in online activities has had a significant impact on many business and economic sectors worldwide, including marketing, entertainment, news, and retail sales.
Web-based software that enable online interaction includes browsers, forums, blogs, mailing lists, content management systems, chat rooms, wikis, video conferencing, file sharing, and cloud collaboration. Through these products and systems, participation takes many forms. For example, retail websites allow customers to participate in the sales process by leaving reviews of products and services. Marketing researchers use surveys and online focus groups to gather feedback. Media outlets enable people to participate in the creation of news by using the Internet to upload in-person observations of important events.
One of the most comprehensive examples of online participation is in social networking. Social networks use an array of web-based functionality to encourage engagement and interaction in a virtual community. People set up profiles, select avatars, create an entire persona that may or may not represent a real personality, create and upload information, and effectively live an electronic life. Through the burgeoning use of always-connected smart devices such as tablets and smartphones, online participation can almost crowd out real life as people constantly text, microblog, email, and update their online profiles in real time.
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Part of the attraction of online participation is a sense of belonging outside of the constraints of physicality or personality. A person can recreate themselves online, build a reputation, and gain recognition in a controlled fashion. Only the information that he wants to share is made available to the community. A person who may have had difficulty making friends or who was not popular in school can live any life he imagines, as long as he can maintain a consistent profile.
Participation online has also significantly impacted business systems. Workers can more effectively collaborate from a distance by using the Internet as an intermediary. Companies enjoy more direct access to consumers through websites and forums. More importantly, perhaps, online participation has provided consumers with more power to sway companies. A single customer can have an exponential impact on a company's bottom line through the proliferation of one negative opinion that can spread like a virus through interconnected social networks.