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Project 30
Mapping Online Social Economy Enterprises

Academic Partners
Sherida Ryan, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. (Project Lead)

For further information about this project, contact Sherida Ryan:


Despite reports that associational activity is in decline (Putnam, 2000); people, in increasing numbers, are turning to the Internet to connect with others who share their interests. Online communities or groups are the fastest growing form of social organization. In 2001, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that one in five Internet users, approximately 20 million people, belonged to at least one online community, visiting this group several times per week. Many of these online communities appear to share characteristics that are normally ascribed to place-based nonprofit organizations. Yet these online enterprises are rarely included in any mapping of the nonprofit and voluntary sector, rendering them invisible in any study of the social economy.

There are a number of challenges to including online nonprofit enterprises within the study of the social economy. The first challenge is to accurately identify them. Although criteria for place-based social economy organizations have been developed, it is uncertain whether these conditions can be generalized or transferred to an internet-mediated environment. Online communities are characterized by fluid boundaries, widely fluctuating membership, the majority of which remain invisible and only partially committed, and informal, malleable, organizational structures. These are just some of the features that contribute to the offline-online community debate and that may also have an impact on the conceptualization of the phenomena of online non-profits or social economy enterprises. Concepts that have been operationalized for place-based phenomena have not always transferred well to the online milieu. Generalizing from a traditional definition of place-based social economy enterprises may not be the optimal means for coming to grips with these boundary spanning organizations.

The purpose of this proposal is to suggest a study to examine the features of a number of online nonprofit communities in Ontario and to explore the extent to which they meet the broad criteria applied to social economy enterprises. The study will employ key informants, as well as, search engines to find online enterprises in Ontario that describe themselves as nonprofits. These online groups will be assessed in terms of how they compare with place-based social economy organizations. In addition, core group members will be recruited for interviews to explore how they might characterize online social economy enterprises. These interviewees may also be helpful in finding other groups for the study. The study will help to operationalize the concept of online social enterprises and will begin the mapping process of these organizations in Ontario.


Plans for communicating research results within the academic community

Conference presentations and journal article.

Plans for communicating research results outside the academic community

Report and radio interview.

Project outputs

Ryan, Sherida (2007). Canadian online social economy organizations. Presented at the first international CIRIEC conference, Victoria, BC, October 22-25. [pdf]


Radio interview with Sherida Ryan by Benedicta S. Madawo. CKLN 88.1 FM, July 19, 2007. [mp3]