Social exchange theory is a psychological theory that suggests individuals evaluate their relationships with others based on the perceived benefits and costs. Benefits may include emotional support, financial assistance, and companionship, while costs may include time and effort invested, emotional stress, and physical distance. According to social exchange theory, individuals are more likely to maintain relationships that provide a greater balance of benefits over costs. Moreover, people may be willing to endure negative aspects of a relationship if they believe the benefits outweigh the costs.
In the context of an online community, social exchange theory can help us understand how members make decisions about their participation and engagement. For example, a member may continue to participate in a forum if they feel they are receiving helpful information, support, or entertainment in exchange for their time and effort. Conversely, if a member perceives that the costs of participation (e.g. time spent reading posts, responding to comments) outweigh the benefits, they may disengage from the community. Additionally, moderators and administrators can use social exchange theory to design and implement features that increase the benefits of membership, such as rewards for active participation or exclusive content for long-time members.