I mused before about online communities and how they’re different from online social networks. In that post, I concluded that residency–investing time productively and caring for the community as a whole–is a key characteristic of a community, whether it’s physical or online.

Since then, I’ve expanded my thinking somewhat. At the same time, I’ve heard again and again inconsistent use of the terms, which I have to conclude is the result of using metaphors (communities, networks) to describe online social things. What follows is far short of an authoritative definition of terms and more of a rambling discussion of the parallels between the physical entities and their online equivalents.

Social media and platforms

Socially enabled media and platforms, including Facebook, WordPress, LinkedIn, Twitter, Yammer, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest, and many others, are in and of themselves not networks, although a great many people seem to think they are. They enable sharing of content of one or more forms (text, photos, audio, video) and surround that content with social tools that allow people to interact with one another. Without that interaction, however, there’s no community and no network.

For a physical construct, it reminds me somewhat of building an urban housing complex, a large grouping of places for people to reside, work, interact, relax, and recreate. But until people move in and start to do those things, there’s no intrinsic community or networking taking place.

Social networks

Social networks are things we wire ourselves, person by person, in the environment of our choosing. In the physical world, this seems obvious when we talk of business networking where we meet to discuss business, find partnerships, and develop relationships. We network at work, and in our personal lives. Networks are never things we can simply join and expect to inherit those relationships. The same is true of our personal networks and even our workplace networks. Hierarchical relationships may exist, but these are significantly different from networks, which are more about developing influence than authority.

Online networks are no different; they’re relationships we develop one by one, wired person by person. On Facebook and LinkedIn, networks are symmetrical in that each connection allows two-way communication by default (“friends”). On Twitter, Google+, and others, the networks are asymmetric (“follow”). If there’s any difference at all between offline and online networks, it’s the ability to develop and sustain relationships over time with people who may or may not have ever met.

Online communities

What are the characteristics of our physical communities? People reside in them, whether it’s the local community, the workplace community, or our business communities. We’re all residents of the global community. But there are other key characteristics that need to be considered. WIthin any community, people fill roles and have responsibilities. People fall into their niche within the community. They join groups and meet others, all within the larger community.

These characteristics of a physical community also have parallels online. But there are many other parallels as well, including these:

  • They are bounded. Communities consist of all the people who are resident within them. They are not infinite, even in the case of the global community.
  • They are in flux. People come and people go.
  • There may be tourists, those who periodically visit the community but average little time there.
  • Work shared publicly within the community draws public commentary from others (read your local paper).
  • Many people contribute to the greater good in the community, but not all do.
  • You don’t usually know all other members of your community.

The list could really go on and on, but this thinking finally helped me understand why so many aspects of personal or knowledge networks are in common with knowledge-based communities and communities of practice – because networks develop within communities. When we’re engaged in our network, we’re engaged in the larger community as well. Our connections have connections, ultimately to every other person in the larger community.

But we don’t really think of Facebook or Twitter as homes to communities, because the platforms were designed to promote networking – you may be able to post publicly, but it’s unlikely anyone outside your network would see it. But other platforms (such as Yammer and others) are designed differently to support development of community – content is meant to be shared with all members. Networks will develop, but it’s not required for cooperative or collaborative work to happen.

What do you think? Do you engage in communities in fundamentally different ways than your networks? What are your favorite communities? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

@tomspiglanin


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