CommunityI thought I knew. Others thought they knew. Someone must be right, but that implies others are wrong. So, what exactly is an online community, and how does it differ from an online network? I’ll start off with some thoughts but invite you to join in the discussion through comments below or on Google+ here.

First, I need to start with my motivation, which was writing the discussion post for #chat2lrn (see it here). I’m also very much a believer in using online communities for developing and improving workplace learning solutions, and frequently engage  in two communities. One is very small and private, on Skype, with maybe 30 people, half of whom are usually online during the day. The other is the ASTD Instructional Design Community on Yammer. I engage in each of these in very different ways, but they both offer something unique and special that my personal learning network doesn’t. What I’m having a harder time with is eloquently describing what that is.

I threw out a spontaneous question during the hour-long #chat2lrn Twitter chat asking whether participants thought our chat was a community, a group, a network, or something else. Laura Payette (@ljwp) and Sarah (@sarah_korbel) say it depends. Fiona Quigley (@FionaQuigs) and Meg Bertapelle (@megbertapelle) said for them it was a network. Zephyr Learning (@ZephyrLRN) feels it’s a community. Julian Stodd (@julianstodd) said he sees this #chat2lrn as, “an example of a spontaneously forming emergent community. It will create a narrative and move on.” Four different responses from six people.

The lack of consensus may stem from our use of classical metaphors to describe modern online constructs. According to Wikipedia, “Community usually refers to a social unit larger than a small village that shares common values. The term can also refer to the national community or international community.” The Oxford Dictionaries writes that a community is “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common,” as well as, “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”

So now I’ll put out my sense of a few of things that characterize an online community, based on the above and some of what was shared in the #chat2lrn (transcript is here):

  • Shared interest (attitudes, interests, goals)
  • Conversations that take place within the community that any member can add to
  • A shared desire to build the community through sharing information, knowledge, and wisdom
  • A willingness to support one another (fellowship)
  • Residency (living in the same place) – and like a physical community, you likely don’t know all of the other residents but have a respect for their unique contributions

Of all of these, I see residency as a key aspect that distinguishes online communities from networks. I must reside within my community to participate in it. While my personal learning network has many aspects of community (because I built it that way), I don’t reside within it except on occasions like during Twitter chats in the manner Julian described in his tweet.

So that’s my take, but let’s not let that end the conversation. Comment below, or jump over to my Google+ post to discuss further.

Thanks for reading!


The accompanying image courtesy flikr user Nooku


What is an Online Community? — 2 Comments

  1. Hi Tom, interesting write up. I think your second last paragraph on ‘residency’ is interesting, specifically relating to #chat2lrn. For 1 hour every two weeks a group of people come together share ideas, thoughts, opinions, questions and answer (I am sure we do a lot more than that too). But what happens outside of that hour – people are still tweeting with the # tag of chat2lrn – but have our attitudes changes, do we response, retweet, react, follow all of the #chat2lrn tweets outside of that hour? I have sent many tweets using the #chat2lrn outside of our 1 hour every second Thursday and have never received a reaction!! Is this where the idea of #chat2lrn being a community breaks down?

    Anyway, good read and good interacting with you.

    • I do think that’s part of what’s going on. Twitter chats form (as Julian Stodd said) emergent communities that collaborate on a product for the hour and then disband. That’s not to say they’re no longer interested, but we go back to our lives and jobs, shut down the tools we were using to follow the hashtag for that brief moment in history. We’re no longer “resident” in the community, so we’re not commonly following posts any more. Twitter used to allow unlimited tweet searches, so in “the good old days” we would return the following week and tweets sent since the last chat would all be there for us to enjoy. That search is now limited to 48 hours (I believe), so that no longer happens.

      Many of us in those chats are also connected through our networks on Twitter, and many of us are first-hand connections. We continue to engage as always, but the nature and manner of that engagement is different. If you want to interact, use networking strategies (@ individuals, develop followers) and not community conversation strategies.

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