Examining the exploitive nature of Companies within Virtual Communities

This paper explores how companies employ social networking sites and online platforms to engage with existing online communities to develop exploitative relationships with potential consumers.

Examining the exploitive nature of Companies within Virtual Communities.

Angela Lougheed

Student Curtin University

Author Note

Angela Lougheed – Student NETS2004 NET204 Social Media, Communities and Networks

To read offline download PDF: Net204_Final Conference_Lougheed Angela for web


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.




The conference paper has been written for presentation in the social networks section of the conference conducted as part of Curtin Universities, NET 204, Social Media, Communities and Network unit in Study Period 1/18.

This paper will explore how companies employ social networking sites and online platforms to engage with existing online communities to develop exploitative relationships with potential consumers. Using a range of academic resources, the paper examines who and what, constitutes a virtual community, and how companies engage with social media to achieve business goals. During the discussion, it is revealed that several important considerations are overlooked in research such as negative feedback, return for investment, enhancement of financial return through behavioural management and the pros and cons of personal data collection. The paper concludes that companies primarily engage in online social networks and exploit online communities for financial gain.

Keywords: communities, online social networking, online platforms, virtual communities, consumers, marketing


Examining the exploitive nature of Companies within Virtual Communities

The conference paper discusses how companies engage with social networking platforms to develop exploitative relationships with potential consumers. The paper will examine what a virtual community is and who creates it, how companies engage with the community. Plus, when they engage and where. Then it will be determined why companies engage and what benefits they gain from the online community. Finally, a discussion will determine if companies use social media to develop relationships to exploit consumers.

There are many academic texts like Ciprian (2015) paper “The Growing Importance of Social Media in Business Marketing” focused on the engagement of social media by companies for marketing purposes. Equally, there are many business marketing books like Korhan (2013) called “Essential social marketing practices for every small business to promote the use of social media for marketing”. The company’s use of social media networks and how they exploit the individual engaged in virtual communities to gain economic benefit is promoted as a positive benefit of company engagement is a thought-provoking perspective.

The academic papers selected to evaluate the process that companies use to engage with virtual communities are examined to explore the reasons why, how, and what they do to interact with individuals and their communities. Not how to maximise or create a performance-based process. During the research process it became evident of the difference in the way material is presented in academic papers in comparison to business development literature, for example, a book written by Young (2013), states for micro-mavens that “ it’s less about the money and more about building an interested and interesting hyperconnected community, a sustainable  business and a respectful brand on and off line” (Chapter 2, para 2 ) then spends the rest of the book examining how each micro-maven used social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook to create an income from the virtual community. Korhan (2013) supports Young (2013) by stating, “the new social business model is neither purely capitalist nor social. Rather it’s a hybrid that balances a community’s needs.” (Chapter 4, The social business model) by recognising that social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are social communities. Just like Young (2013), Korhan (2013) then  advises how to best harness the platforms to create positive financial outcomes. This observed difference in the presentation of information by academia and business on company’s engagement in social media communities created the selection of the topic for this conference paper.

Literature Review

People make a virtual community

The acceptance by people in conjunction with the swift development of  social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter created an equal growth in virtual communities (Yao, Tsai, & Fang, 2015).  The virtual world created by the internet is seen by many as a different dimension. In many respects this assumption is correct as it is not created by physical identities in a physical location where we communicate face-to-face. A virtual community is classified as an imagined community as it is larger than a small village that allows for face to face communication (Anderson, 1983, p. 7). An imagined community is not created by the internets’ perceived dimension. It is the same category given to the real community where communicating between the village and the city is not face-to-face making the city location an imagined community. Averweg & Leaning (2012, pp. 5-6) and Jordan (2009, p. 181) concur that social networks grant the ability to merge reality and virtual boundaries of time, space and location to develop imagined communities online called virtual communities. boyd & Ellison (2013, p. 2) and John (2013, p. 167) agree that virtual communities became more interactive with the introduction of sharing platforms commonly referred to as social media.

Social media imagined communities need individuals or community members to form them. The individuals attracted to social media communities have common interests and connections. Meaning the creation of imagined communities in the virtual world  are by people that share similar or same interests  (Porter, 2015, p. 163).  Interests, for example, could be anything from sport to art or politics. People like to share their interests with their friends creating a growing and self-perpetuating community. Fuchs (2010) describes social media relationships with individuals as “cognitions, communication and cooperation community” (p. 769). The combination of cognitions and communication encourages the development of user profiles, user contributions and attraction of followers or friends on the platforms (Fuchs, 2010, p. 768). Making the collaborative, shared interest of the virtual community the individual belongs to self-generating. The self-generation of connections of people in the virtual imagined community is one of the areas targeted by companies to exploit.

The nature of consumer engagement

Companies engage with virtual communities using social media properties of shared interest, connections of the individual, plus friends and collaboration. A number of researchers  (Averweg & Leaning, 2012, p. 2; Killian, 2015, p. 541; Papacharissi, 2011, p. 305; Porter, 2015, p. 263) theorise that social media forms communities by attracting people with a shared interest in relationships, news, creative pursuits and entertainment. The shared interest engages people with the platform and the community while everyone has their profile or identity to engage in conversation. boyd & Ellison (2007, p. 211) and Papacharissi (2011, p. 304) agree that the relationship of individuals with social network sites allow people to display a profile within the structure of the platform enabling conversations and a sharing of connections with others. Thus creating a participatory culture that Langlois (2013, p. 704) and Tiago & Veríssimo (2014) agree is targeted for engagement by the company organisations. Companies exploit the participatory culture of social media.

Companies use your profiles on social media platforms

Companies engage with virtual communities when they have developed a targeted plan using information gathered from profiles and social media platforms. To do this companies design information to suit the target audience and different social media platforms to create a plan tailored to engage with the community (Killian, 2015, p. 544). Part of the design process is to collect information from profiles to create a target audience. This data collection enables direct engagement with tailored information to a profile and  their connections on social media (boyd & Ellison, 2007, p. 220). The collection of individuals’ information enables companies to develop marketing information to attract engagement in their designed virtual community on Facebook or Twitter. Companies exploit individuals’ profiles and their connections.

Smartphones grant companies a direct connection

Companies engage with the community connecting to different social media platforms with different engagement techniques. Dijkmans, Kerkhof, & Beukeboom (2015, p. 59); Killian (2015, p. 545) and Tiago & Veríssimo (2014, p. 704) concur that the use of the smartphone has made engagement possible everywhere granting access for companies to engage at will. Internet connection is more available than personal computers, with connections to household appliances and smartphones.  Companies engage across all available social media platforms including the lesser known or considered platforms like gaming  (Killian, 2015, p. 543). Many of the games (like clearly identified social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter) enable engagement for companies with followers or friends of the users profile (Dijkmans et al., 2015, p. 64). The smartphone enables companies to  have constant engagement across all social media platforms thus enabling brand identity promotion (Killian, 2015, p. 544).  Companies create engagement by using preferences revealed by prospective consumers on social media through conversation, liking different pages, sharing of information or using hashtags amongst their community (Paniagua & Sapena, 2014, p. 721). Internet connections enhance the social media reach to consumers enabling companies to actively engage. The tools, such as hashtags, on offer by social media platforms like Twitter enable companies to carry out content discovery to enchance engagement. Smartphones grant companies constant access to consumers via social media like Twitter or Facebook.

Low cost investment attracts companies to social media

The participatory and convergence culture of social media grants the ability for companies to create brand awareness at low cost. This generates income which is why companies are so invested in social networking online. Important researchers in the area (Fuchs, 2010, p. 769; Langlois, 2013, p. 101; Tiago & Veríssimo, 2014, p. 704) agree that the ability of social media to manage cultural perceptions within a virtual community and leverage the collaborative environment to market goods and services without the normal costs of marketing is very attractive to companies. While  Dijkmans et al. (2015, p. 58) and Paniagua & Sapena (2014, p. 721) acknowledge, normal advertising is having less effect on “the consumer” and the collaborative environment of social media means instead companies are subtly engaging in marketing.  Both  Dijkmans et al. (2015, p. 705) and Tiago & Veríssimo (2014) recognise the differences in marketing and how cost is determining the way companies are targeting brand awareness to attract new consumers. Increasing brand awareness and attracting new consumers directly affects business growth. Paniagua & Sapena (2014) state that “Social media affects business performance through four channels: social capital, revealed preferences, social marketing, and social corporate networking” (p. 720). Directly connecting why companies engage with social media’s participatory and convergence culture. Decreased cost in attracting new consumers encourages the companies to exploit social media generated communities.

What companies gain from the interaction

Companies gain brand trust which in turn promotes the product or services they sell thus creating an economic benefit. Companies’ social media platforms develop a positive brand trust or online company reputation to supply the information on goods or services they provide (Dijkmans et al., 2015, p. 59). Both Dijkmans et al. (2015, p. 59) and Tiago & Veríssimo (2014, p. 705) agree the social media managed cultural perception or trust converts into increased sales and increased revenue for the same product or service over other company’s offerings. Confirming that economic benefit is directly connected to positive brand trust.

boyd & Ellison (2013, p. 8) and Tiago & Veríssimo (2014, p. 704) share the view that information gained from individuals generates an economic gain for companies both directly and indirectly. For companies to engage in targeted advertising, information is gathered from users. Individuals information collected from social media platforms like Facebook is shared with third party investors who sell or reuse information for multi-channel attribution (boyd & Ellison, 2013, p. 8), confirming economic gain for companies of freely provided individual information.

Consumer engagement on social media is paramount to a company’s income due to the numbers of individuals that connect with the collaborative nature. Engaging consumers is considered easy on social media with over 50% of the world’s population involved (Ciprian, 2015, p. 96). Marketing is aimed at increasing the number of people to interact with a company so the more located in a single community the easier it is. Ciprian (2015) states “Social media marketing plays an important role in generating leads thus increasing sales to the business” (p. 96). With such large numbers of people involved in social media communities enabling communication between various individuals, it is common for a discussion between people about a product or service to happen. Companies are interested in this aspect of social media as  Jarvinen & Taiminen (2016, p. 164) indicate that 60% of consumers investigate products and services online before committing to purchase. Making brand avocates inadvertent marketing tools because people often seek advice within their communities on products or services (Tiago & Veríssimo, 2014, p. 704). Making the preceptory nature and naturally occurring convergence of social media important to companies and their economic growth.


Companies use individuals, their connections, and virtual communities generated out of shared interest to benefit economically. This confirms that the collaborative nature of social media is attractive to companies (boyd & Ellison, 2007, p. 219). This is further supported by Paniagua & Sapena (2014) statement that “the social marketing resources (e.g., conversations, sharing, presence) are transformed into financial performance capabilities (e.g., sales).”  (p. 721). The exploitation of the social media relationship with the consumer is purely for economic benefit.

Individual profile information taken from social media is converted into an economic benefit by companies. It is done by the collection of user-generated information, unknown to the user, harvested by commercial organisations, a process that creates an inequitable balance of power (Langlois, 2013, pp. 93-94). The driver to collect information is purely for economic benefit to the company (boyd & Ellison, 2013, p. 8; Tiago & Veríssimo, 2014, p. 704). This imbalance of power was exposed in the media in a story about Cambridge Analytica, using an external company to create a social game enabled access to individual users preferences and connections to on-sell to companies for commercial gain (Riley, Frier, & Baker, 2018). The economic benefit is derived from a collection of individuals’ information exploiting the consumer relationship.

Virtual communities developed by social networks are used to exploit relationships with consumers to gain economic benefit for companies because of the large membership. The convergence in social media creates large numbers of different communities to grow from a single connection of one user with a lot of interests (Papacharissi, 2011, p. 305). This coupled with continuing membership numbers growing from 50% of the world already at the companies disposal (Ciprian, 2015, p. 96). Means by using effective participatory culture management to develop cultural perceptions as an inexpensive method of marketing, saves company money (Fuchs, 2010, p. 769; Langlois, 2013, p. 101; Tiago & Veríssimo, 2014, p. 704). Confirming that companies engage with social networking sites to develop exploitative relationships with potential customers.

Limitations of the research

No negative online feedback statistics. The studies do not review the results of poor interaction or feedback and crisis management processes. Even though Dijkmans et al. (2015, pp. 59,64) and Killian (2015, p. 546) make mention of the two-way interaction and the ability for a consumer to create a negative report, no investigation is conducted on the long-term effect.

No statistics supporting financial outcomes. Dijkmans et al. (2015, p. 60) discuss limited studies done to determine the actual impact on the generation of income and trust building and suggests that more studies be conducted in this area. Paniagua & Sapena (2014, p. 721) agree that there is little data to compare what return social media has for business.

Development of behavioural data. Jarvinen & Taiminen (2016, p. 174) suggest more investigation on how behavioural data from social media marketing can be better harnessed for profitability.

Shortage of studies on private data collection. Currently, few studies examine the result of relentless information gathering of personal and community data to grow commercial income. The need for in-depth studies on data collection was demonstrated in the media by the recent Cambridge Analytica event (Riley et al., 2018).

Conclusions and Future Study

This paper examines how companies employ social networking sites and online platforms to engage with existing online communities to develop exploitative relationships with potential consumers. Companies do this by using the participatory culture of online communities and convergence capabilities of social media to promote branding, and goods and services without the normal associated costs of marketing. The paper exposed that there are many more studies to be conducted to determine the effects of negative feedback, evaluate if social media marketing is increasing income, how behavioural data can increase profitability, and the result of personal data collection.


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10 thoughts on “Examining the exploitive nature of Companies within Virtual Communities

  1. Hi Angela,
    Having worked in corporate communications for a very long time, I can offer some other insights into companies using social media. There are many reasons why companies use social media – and there are many options on offer, so selecting the right social media tool is really important.

    I’m sure there are many companies collecting and using data – but do you have stats on how common this is, and what size companies? I’d love to see the stats. I’ve actually never worked for an organisation who is collecting data. The Cambridge Analytica Facebook data scandal has brought this issue to the fore again. Robert Ackland (2018) says that it’s like the wild frontier currently, with a race for the spoils: “The world of big data analysis is like the Wild West. If we don’t collect and analyse these data, then our competitors will (and they will get the grants, or the big contracts)” (para. 20).

    While many small businesses may promote their products across social media, for many companies, connecting through social networks is not always for economic reasons. I work for an advocacy organisation. Our purpose for connecting is to promote the value of our membership (the members). Not to the members, but to the community and politicians. For other companies, it’s a way to have a voice and to be in direct contact with customers.

    Here’s a story I like from a few years ago. A doctor was driving through Ipswich and saw a Woolworths billboard showing a big picture of a donut, running the tagline The Fresh Food People. He was outraged that in an area with high levels of obesity (his statement) Woolworths would choose that image for its billboard, calling it ‘fresh food’. He posted this story on FB: it started getting traction, and I shared it to the Woolworths page to let them know how the community was feeling (FYI I wasn’t working for them). They had a great administrator who contacted me within two hours and said they were replacing the sign the following week, and that it had been an error of judgement – the intention had been freshly baked goods but they could see how it was interpreted. The immediacy of social media allows companies to react and respond quickly to the benefit of the broader community.

    Auckland, R. (2018). We need to talk about the data we give freely of ourselves online and why it’s useful. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/we-need-to-talk-about-the-data-we-give-freely-of-ourselves-online-and-why-its-useful-93734

    1. Hi Sarah,

      I agree that the selection of the right tool or social media platform is important to reach the target market. I also agreed there are many reasons that companies use social media but they all come down to the financial bottom line otherwise they would not engage. Even not for profit or community organisations use social media to grow engagement as increased engagement ensure increased funding or revenue from sponsors.

      The collection of data and what happens seems to be an area that is not fully explored as noted in my recommendations. Even so I consider that every company big or small would use the analytics supplied by the platforms such as Facebook to determine interaction. Those analytics are gathered by Facebook’s API and then provided to the user of the service, so in a round about way, this has in fact been happening for a long time. Then of course we have SEO that make the magic happen when we use a search engine and then go onto social media to find adds about what you were just looking at. Naturally, social media plays a big role in creating backlinks to static sites to increase sales opptunities. https://analytics.facebook.com/ The exposure of the API that collected data from individuals who entered into something that looked like a bit of fun without having an understanding of what it was on Facebook (Auckland, 2018). Clearly surpised people generally and exposed the lengths that data collection could go to. As for collecting data, who is doing it and how often for commercial use is another area that studies should be conducted in.

      Political / Advocacy engagement is to gain social currency and whilst may not be considered to be a financial gain to the organisation it does increase following and membership and therefore increases financial viability. This is done via grants that are issued to those advocacy groups that are in a position to create social change by membership numbers, individual membership and donations and finally, organisations increase revenue through the provision of goods and services (Sandberg, 2016). “Get Up” is a great example of a not for profit, advocacy and political organisation with a strong online presence that uses membership and social outcomes to gain financial support to continue https://www.getup.org.au/

      Your advocacy on the Woolworths signage ensured the company reviewed its image as it was not the intention of message. One hopes! This single example is part of a much larger collection of positive reviews that can assist an organisation to attract financial support. Though, you did this as an individual so were not seeking anything but a change in seriously bad messaging. In theory if you continued with this type of work, you could become an influencer and eventually attract financial support for your committed time.

      Auckland, R. (2018). We need to talk about the data we give freely of ourselves online and why it’s useful. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/we-need-to-talk-about-the-data-we-give-freely-of-ourselves-online-and-why-its-useful-93734

      Sandberg, B. (2016). Against the Cult(ure) of the Entrepreneur for the Nonprofit Sector, Administrative Theory & Praxis, 38:1, 52-67, DOI: 10.1080/10841806.2015.1130524

  2. Hi Angela, you’re very right about the use of analytics. Every company I have worked in the past five years has checked their Google analytics, and perhaps their social media reach. In the case of my current advocacy group, we mostly check website analytics to see which pages people are viewing and which documents they download. This ensures the money we receive is being spent wisely: we can drop a program, or add resources to a service responsibly when we see the data. We’re not analysing the data of the people, merely how many times our content is accessed. I don’t see our use of data or social media as ‘exploitative’, nor other for-profit companies I have worked with.

    However. the recent Four Corners episode, Democracy, Data and Dirty Tricks showed a truly ugly side of influencing election outcomes by appealing to the fears of groups of people using demographics data, and this is truly ‘expolitative’.

    It’s a great time to be talking about this stuff. Thank you.


    1. Hi Sarah,

      I think the Cambridge Analytica story you indicated above is an excellent example of personal data mining to create an economically viable return on investment.

      The other very interesting point they brought up during the conversation was how the data was used to create targeted marketing using behavioural design to make the content information personal. In Jarvinen & Taiminen, 2016, paper they discuss this phenomenon in their conclusion by stating “Future research must also make a better use of online behavioral data. Combining online behavioral data with other customer-specific information such as purchasing histories may generate new knowledge on long-term customer relationships and on customer profitability. Studies could also examine how various marketing stimuli and content formats affect the online behaviors of customer profiles.” (p. 174)

      This theory has developed to allow the application in the political arena. Quite scary really.

      How do your not for profits raise funds to pay for the services you provide? Government granting has been $$ for $$ matching now for at least four years, which has forced many organisations into securing funding from other sources to gain access to the grant money.


      Jarvinen, J., & Taiminen, H. (2016). Harnessing marketing automation for B2B content marketing. Industrial Marketing Management, 54, 164-175. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.indmarman.2015.07.002

  3. Fantastic write up. Like the definition about virtual communities (Anderson, 1983, p. 7). Also a fantastic conclusion about consumers being exploited on these social media sites & communities as a result of membership numbers. I wonder if Australia will also start changing laws they said they wouldn’t (from a news story I remember a while back) originally after the wake of the Cambridge Analytica (Riley, Frier, & Baker, 2018)?

  4. It was good viewing wasn’t it! There are definitely organisations operating in a way which lacks integrity, and borders on criminal. Last night Gruen focused on Zuckerberg and how many times he’s apologised since the start of FB… No-one’s buying it.

  5. Hi Anglea,

    I read this paper a week or so ago and decided to come back to it after a few other readings. I’ll start by saying I love the definition of virtual communities you have found by Anderson (1983, p.7): “A virtual community is classified as an imagined community as it is larger than a small village that allows for face to face communication.” I’ve decided to read more of his work in preparation for our final essay regarding networks and communities. Additionally, I found Korhan’s (2018) description of the the new social business model as a hybrid of capitalism and social to sum up my own findings, for my paper, succinctly.

    This may be a matter of semantics, but you mention exploitation of consumers throughout the paper and repeatedly assert that such exploitation is “purely for economic benefit”. While I think it is true that economic benefit would be the most common reason I do not believe it is the only one. Like Sarah, I believe that there are many reasons for exploiting social media users. As Sarah mentioned, advocacy groups motivations are more often than not, not economically based. While I understand your rebuttal regarding securing funding to further advocate for a cause as an ‘economic benefit’ I still do not believe this to always be case. As your own paper states, social media provides an “inexpensive method of marketing”. To me, this is a vast understatement. Student advocacy groups (of which I used to be a member) frequently run at zero cost with no desire for financial viability. Social media enabled us to connect with large virtual communities to recruit members to increase our social clout. This gave us, somewhat limited, power to influence the universities by threatening their reputation as caring educators. These issues usually related to campus security, parking, etc. with no direct economic benefit to ourselves and our members.

    I really enjoyed your discussion regarding the sale of private information. As you stated in your limitations section of your paper, there are so few studies giving concrete data on the result of such practices, so the area of study is very open to interpretation. You’ve done an excellent job analysing how and why private data collection is achieved, and I completely agree with your conclusion. I love Langlois’ (2013, pp. 93-94) description of data collection as “a process that creates an inequitable balance of power”. Do you believe there is a way to correct this balance or do you think it’s an inevitable by-product of social media and other online networks?

    I really enjoyed reading this paper, it gave me a lot to think about. Well done!

    Kind Regards,

    Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

    Korhan, J. (2013). Built in social: Essential social marketing practices for every small business. Kindle Book: John Wiley & Sones. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com

    Langlois, G. (2013). Participatory Culture and the New Governance of Communication. Television & New Media, 14(2), 91-105. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1527476411433519

    1. I agree Adrian and Angela, the Langlois quote is absolutely perfect and true. I like the title of her/his paper too so I think I might read it.

  6. Hi Adrian & Sarah,

    Thank you both for engaging in my paper. The Anderson (1983) reference was provided by the Units introduction and it really helped me to understand the unit content.

    The Korhan (2013) statement is representative of how the collaborative nature of online social networks interact. Activism for a community to achieve an outcome can be completed at no cost. Ongoing activism for a long period or covering different causes requires continued funding. Getup.com was the example that I offered. The reason I selected Getup was that it started with a single cause and no cost and has developed with funding from various sources, some not so independent, as well requesting donations and selling products. Getup is a great representation of a hybrid social system formed due to online social networks.

    I too have participated in activism using social media and other tools to successfully gain 14 million dollars worth of outcome for a community. The not for profit organisation did not secure funds for administration as all work was completed voluntarily. Social media generated the supporter numbers which in turn generated the cash to pay for the projects. A hybrid combination of socialism and capitalism.

    Changes in security and parking may not directly create an obvious financial benefit to the students. More parking or closer parking to the facility changes the amount of time taken to get to class freeing up time to earn more. Increased security provides better protection of personal items saving the cost of replacement. These are both just examples of benefits that could be considered.

    Guess its in the interpretation of the outcome and how it is achieved.


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