Research and impact | By Amy Ripley

City research: Gratitude and acts of kindness in online communities

City academics have developed a model of gratitude for online communities: The gratitude cycle. It is set to transform the design of online community platforms by encouraging acknowledgement of kind acts and expression of gratitude.

Led by Dr Stephann Makri and co-authored by Sophie Turner, the study examines the way users experience gratitude in online communities. How gratitude is expressed and acknowledged, how it can break down and be re-enforced.


The academics conducted interviews with users from various online community platforms (Facebook and Trip Advisor), discussion and support groups, social Q&A sites and review sites (Quora and Mumsnet). The participants were asked for memorable examples of when other users had performed kind acts or felt grateful for the kind acts of others.


The gratitude cycle was developed as a result of these findings. Described as ‘a process model of gratitude’, it provides a detailed description of online gratitude expression and acknowledgement, which can be used to inform the design of online community platforms, such as digital forums and social media groups.


The model identifies a ‘benefactor’ and a ‘beneficiary’ in the cycle. The benefactor is an individual who feels motivated to act kindly, acts kindly and feels good for doing so. The, beneficiary is whom the kind act is directed to, notices the kind act, recognises the good in it and feels grateful. However, the cycle can be broken by users or technology (or both) at all stages, especially when a person feels gratitude but does not express it, or when gratitude is expressed and received but not acknowledged.

Meaningful gratitude expression and acknowledgement

Feeling, expressing and/or acknowledging gratitude is expected to positively re-enforce the future behaviour of the benefactor, beneficiary or other community members. This creates a cascading cycle of kind acts and resultant gratitude.


“A richer understanding of gratitude in online communities can inform the design of online platforms to extend beyond existing functionalities, such as ‘like’ or ‘thanks’ buttons and reward points. This has the potential to motivate participation,” the authors explain.


By supporting the overall gratitude process through encouraging re-enforcement and preventing breakdowns in the cycle, users can feel motivated to engage and continue the cycle.


The authors conclude that online community platforms “must move beyond existing lightweight and overly-reward-driven design approaches to support simple, yet meaningful gratitude expression and acknowledgement.”