A Sociological Study of Grinnell Plans

Introduction

Survey Question: "How would you describe plans (in however many words you would like) to someone who has no experience with it and knowledge of it?"

"A community." (Root-Wiley)

On Tuesday, April 21, 2006, my Grinnell Plans survey was posted both in my plan and on the Plans homepage. Within 24 hours, 11% of active Plans users those who logged in within the past six months — had already taken my survey. (Grinnell Plans will be referred to as Plans from here forth. A further distinction should be noted: "Plans" with a capital "P" refers to the community, Plans, while "plan(s)" with a lower-case "p" denotes the specific page maintained by the individual user.) Out of those 281 users, 132, or 47% were students. A little less than 10% of campus had been reached in a day through an online community not affiliated with Grinnell College.

When asked to provide an explanation of Plans for someone with no prior knowledge of it, respondents listed many different qualities and comparisons. A large number of people noted the exclusivity of Plans, seeing that it is a "place where students, faculty and alumni of Grinnell College have a page on which to express their frustrations, concerns, interesting links, contact info, discussions, etc. in a semi-public setting." Other descriptions elaborated even further.

It is a very bare-bones blog with no capability of a direct, threaded response system. People use it to post personal stories, to rant, to engage in a "Plans conversation/debate," or to just goof off. For current students, I think it allows for a place to put thoughts that are sometimes difficult to express elsewhere. . .

Some users noted a less useful aspects of Plans: a tool for procrastination. One person simply described Plans as a "time suck." However, the unique features and nuances of Plans also came forth. "In many ways, it is simultaneously more and less complex than other blogs. It's sort of in a category by itself. You need to experience it to really understand what it is."

Plans, formerly a primitive social network built using the colleges internal network, proves to be a unique type of online community. Many listed Facebook, Livejournal, or MySpace as parallel but "higher-tech" versions of Plans, but, of those, many went on to say that they were, in reality, not quite comparable. Plans uses a simple, text-only interface, but this ensures that the focus is specifically on communication. As one respondent simply put, "It's a simple interface, but that's sort of the point."

While Plans would not exist without Grinnell College, it adds to and builds upon the Grinnell community while also forming its own subculture. It is a "sub-community," just like a subculture, or, as Amitai and Oren Etzioni term it, a "hybrid" or "mixed communication system." One user, when asked to describe Plans, said, "it's like blogging in a gated community." Just like the simile illustrated, Plans is a community that combines features of both real-world communities and virtual communities, and, in doing so, gets the best of both worlds (Etzioni 94-5).

Plans, while it fulfills all requirements of communities — both "real" and virtual — as given by the Etzioni brothers in at least some respects, would not exist without Grinnell College, so treating it as an autonomous community would be short-sighted. Features such as the auto read list and plan love function both online and in real life leading to Plans' unique role as a community within the wider Grinnell College community.